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Nutrition for the Cat

There are six major nutrients and each has a function within the cat’s body: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, and the most important one, water.

Three of the six major nutrients can be used by the body to produce the chemical energy needed to power life processes and heat. The heat released when these nutrients are burned by the body is measured in calories. Carbohydrates and proteins release approximately 4 kcals or calories per gram of weight. Fats contain more than twice as many calories at 9 kcals per gram weight.

Carbohydrates come from plant sources: grains, seeds, vegetables, and grasses. Carbohydrates can be simple in their chemical structure like sugar, or complex like cellulose. Cellulose and other similar complex carbohydrates cannot be digested by animals, and are then labeled as dietary fiber. Although it is not digested, fiber plays an important role in normal intestinal function in the cat.

Proteins are not one substance, but many substances made up of smaller subunits called amino acids that are linked together. Proteins 

make up all the tissues and fluids of animals; they serve a structural role. Proteins also function as hormones and chemical transmitters within nerves.

Proteins are not derived solely from animal tissue; they are also available from plants. Once consumed by an animal, digestion breaks protein down into its constituent amino acids, then they are absorbed into circulation and recombined into structural proteins needed by the animal. Animals can make amino acids on their own, but not all of them. Although there are 23 amino acids, cats require that 11 of them be provided by the diet. Twelve other can be synthesized in the body.

No single protein contains all 23 amino acids. That means that a cat must eat several different sources of protein in order to obtain all 11 of the essential ones. The proteins from meat contain a greater variety of amino acids than do proteins from plants.

Protein, in fact, is a very questionable and controversial energy source, and in most healthy animals should be avoided in excess. The cat is unique among animals, however, because the cat is one species that actually requires some of its energy to come from protein. This is one reason why cats require more protein in their diet than dogs. The reason for this species difference is not known, but is why they are recognized as true obligate carnivores. This is a very important point. Cats should not be fed dog food or a vegetarian diet!

Fats serve several functions within the body. First, they are a highly efficient source of energy. Fats are also necessary for the absorption of some vitamins: vitamins A, D, E, and K. They are also important in the formation of certain hormones. Fats are similar to proteins in that they are made up of subunits called fatty acids. Two of the essential fatty acids for the cat are required in their diet: linoleic and arachidonic.

Just as there are different qualities of proteins, some fats are better than others in providing essential fatty acids. Fats can be found in both vegetable matter and animal tissue. Liquid fats like safflower and corn oils consist of 50-70 percent linoleic acid. Arachidonic acid is found only in animal fats. A cat’s requirement for arachidonic acid in the diet is another factor that make it a truly carnivorous animal. Poultry fat is an excellent source of arachidonic acid.

Vitamins are used in the energy-producing reactions of the body. They are important in wound healing, tissue repair, maintaining healthy skin, haircoat and bones, and in blood clotting. Many animals, including dogs and people, can synthesis some vitamins, such as vitamin A and niacin. This is not true for cats. Cats require both vitamin A and niacin in their diet. These vitamins are found in animal tissues and again, their requirement makes the cat a truly carnivorous animal.

Vitamin deficiencies are rarely a problem in healthy cats eating a wholesome diet.

Vitamin excesses are potentially a problem when cats are being fed home-cooked diets. It is very difficult to balance these diets with the proper nutrient levels, because the batches are small and the vitamin sources are quite concentrated in comparison.

Minerals serve as an important structural component in the body. Minerals are needed in trace amounts in the diet. They are provided by both plant and animal sources. Most of the minerals in cat food comes from bone and meat meals used in formulation the diets.

Ash in cat food refers to the mineral that is left when a diet is burned to completion. A small percentage of cats are prone to a disease which causes crystals to form in the urine. This disease goes by many names, including feline bladder disease, lower urinary tract disease, or feline urologic syndrome (FUS). It is thought that diet, particularly the levels of magnesium (a component of the ash content in the diet), may contribute to the formation of these urinary crystals. This has led to the recommendation that cats be fed diets which contain less ash and magnesium. Not all cats need to be on a low-ash/low magnesium diet, but only those cats found to be prone to this disease.

Water is the most important of the six basic nutrients. Most animals cannot live more than a short time without it, or more than a few days without becoming dehydrated and ill. Water comprises from about 95 percent of the new-born kitten to about 75 percent of the adult cat. Water is the body’s primary solvent for chemical reactions and life processes, and maintains cell shape.

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Date Last Updated January, 2006