December 14, 2020

What Can Cats Eat?

Complete Guide to Cat Diet

Fact checked by Dr. Ivana Crnec, DVM
Published by Emma Hughes

Vet Approved

If you're about to become a new pet parent, or even if you already share your home with a feline companion, you might be wondering about the cat diet.

What can cats eat, and how much? Which foods are safe, and which ones are a definite no-no?

Feeding your cat with an appropriate and well-balanced diet is essential for him to maintain good overall health, stay happy, and thrive. Your job as a responsible pet owner is to understand what cats need in their diet and how you can provide it to them.

The basis of health is good nutrition.
- Dr. Ivana Crnec, DVM

Our feline friends have complex and specific dietary requirements, but we're here to help you learn everything you need to know about what cats can eat.

What Do Cats Eat and Drink?

Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they eat meat. They need animal protein to have a strong heart, a healthy reproductive system, and good vision.

Understanding the nutritional requirements of cats begins with understanding their natural habitat and biological evolution.

Cats are true carnivores, which means they mainly eat meat. They may occasionally consume other foods too, but as cats lack the metabolism they would require to process plant matter efficiently, they cannot survive without animal protein.

Unlike people and dogs, cats have evolved to use protein as their primary source for the energy they need every day. The specific types of protein they need, called essential amino acids, are not found in plants, which is why cats simply cannot live on a vegetarian diet.

Since cats are obligate carnivores, they absolutely need their diet to consist mostly of meat and animal protein. They need a high-protein diet that offers enough essential nutrients like

  • Taurine
  • Arginine
  • Calcium
  • Niacin (vitamin B3)
  • Pyridoxine (vitamin B6)
  • Thiamine (vitamin B1)

Because some of these nutrients are only found in animal protein, vegetarian diets are not suitable for cats and will make them very ill.

What can cats drink?

In addition to a balanced protein-heavy diet, cats need unlimited water that is clean and fresh.

Because cats have adapted to living in the desert, they have evolved to conserve water efficiently. Although you should always have fresh water available for your cat, felines are not big drinkers of water.

Your cat may get most of the water it needs from the canned wet food, and you may rarely see him drinking water.

Although you may intuitively picture your kitty lapping milk, cats are actually lactose intolerant, and milk will cause stomach upsets for them. Clean water is the healthiest option for our feline companions.

commercial cat food in bowl

Foods Cats Can Eat

Your cat's diet should consist mostly of a nutritionally balanced commercial cat food.

  • Commercial cat food should make up about 85-90% of his calorie intake.
  • Treats can also be offered as long as they don't make up more than 10-15% of your kitty's daily diet.

Cat food is the basis of healthy nutrition since it has been carefully formulated to meet the nutritional requirements of pet cats. It contains everything your pet needs nutrition-wise and should, therefore, make up the majority of what your pet eats.

Related reading: Best Cat Food in 2021 - Vet-recommended Choices

Is wet or dry food better for cats?

Usually cat foods are divided into dry food (kibble) and wet food (canned foods). Both types have their pros and cons, which is why many pet owners decide to feed both.

Dry cat food, also known as kibble, usually has more carbohydrates and sugar with less protein. Cats process protein into energy more efficiently than carbohydrates, and if you feed a diet that is too high in carbs, it may lead to obesity and diabetes – just like with humans. Dry food is also, well… dry.

When feeding dry cat food, it's important to ensure your pet has access to fresh water at all times.

On the other hand, dry food offers a balanced and complete diet, is readily available and convenient, and promotes dental health.

Although dry food has many benefits, canned foods are high in protein and contain moisture that is essential for cats to prevent urinary tract problems. It is also often the tastiest option and accepted by even the pickiest eaters.

Combining the two types of food is ideal as you can get the benefits of both. Dry food can be free-fed throughout the day, added with a small serving of wet food daily.

Understanding the very basics of cat nutrition helps cat parents feed their fur babies in a way that will meet their nutritional requirements and improve their quality of life and prevent dietary-induced health issues.
- Dr. Ivana Crnec, DVM

To learn more about feeding commercial cat food and our top vet-approved choices, check out this article about the best cat foods you can offer your kitty.

While feeding your cat mainly with commercial cat food that offers a balanced and complete diet, you can also treat your pet to cooked meats, vegetables, and fruits.

Here are guidelines for feeding other foods than specially formulated cat food:

Can cats eat meat, fish, and eggs?

In the wild, cats would feed on small rodents and birds. Unlike humans and dogs, who are omnivores, cats need protein as the main source of their energy. There are many kinds of meats you can give your cat. Cooked chicken, beef, turkey, and fish are all great options.

Some of the best meats for cats are

  • Chicken
  • Beef
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Pheasant
  • Salmon
  • Trout
  • Tuna
  • Turkey
  • Whitefish

It's always better to feed cooked meats, as raw meats could make your cat sick because they may contain bacteria like toxoplasmosis, E. coli, and salmonella.

Bacteria like these may cause vomiting, diarrhea, and lethargy in cats and even result in death. The same goes with eggs, as raw eggs contain a protein called avidin, which prevents your cat from absorbing biotin leading to a deficiency.

Eggs are another good source of animal protein for your kitty. But just like meats and fish, make sure to feed only hard-boiled or scrambled eggs to avoid harmful bacteria.

Cooked fish is a favorite of many felines. Because it contains omega-3 fatty acids, it will promote eye health and help with kidney disease, arthritis, and heart problems. Canned or cooked fish is fine but avoid raw fish as it could make your cat sick. Also, fish should not be fed daily because of the high levels of fatty acids, which could lead to Vitamin E deficiency and other related health problems.

A good rule of thumb is that if you wouldn't eat it, neither should your cat.

cat eating food from bowl

Bones for cats?

Although cooked bones are a definite no-no to cats because they may splinter and cause damage to the intestinal tract, raw, meaty bones are a good addition to an otherwise healthy and balanced diet.

Bones help keep your cat's teeth and gums in good condition and offer him stimulation and variety. Overfeeding bones may still lead to constipation, so provide only 1-2 per week with a few days in between. Never feed bones that are small enough for the cat to fit in their mouth or swallow.

Suitable bones include raw chicken (necks, wings, or drumsticks) and lamb shank. Large marrow and knuckle bones should be avoided.

Should cats eat grains?

Although there is a lot of controversy around whether cats should be fed a grain-free diet, grains are not in any way harmful to your cat when fed in moderation. Many grains have a lot of protein, and although your cat still needs the majority of its protein from animal sources, a grain-free diet is not necessary.

Oats, corn, polenta, brown rice, barley, millet, and couscous are examples of smaller grains your kitty may enjoy. Cooking the grains will make them easier for him to digest.

What vegetables can cats eat?

Many cats don't like vegetables, but they may be curious to have a taste of whatever their human is eating. Most veggies are not harmful to your cat when they are mainly eating high-quality cat food.

Actually, since veggies are packed with water and fiber, they may even help with digestion. Also, veggies contain many useful vitamins and nutrients, so supplementing your cat's diet with veggies can be beneficial.

Veggies that are safe for cats include:

  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli (steamed)
  • Carrots (steamed)
  • Cucumber
  • Green beans
  • Peas
  • Pumpkin
  • Winter squash
  • Zucchini

Avoid garlic, leek, and onions as they may damage red blood cells and lead to anemia.

What fruits can cats eat?

Generally speaking, cats don't enjoy fruits. That's because they can't taste sweet flavors.

Still, most fruits are not toxic to cats, and if your cat is interested, they can be offered as an occasional treat.

Although many fruits are safe for cats, some are toxic or pose a choking hazard or other health problems. Always check before feeding any fruit to your cat if it's safe or not.

Some of the best fruits you can use as treats are:

  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Blueberries
  • Cantaloupe
  • Mango
  • Strawberries
  • Watermelon (seedless)

Avoid citrus fruits, cherries, grapes, raisins, and green tomatoes, because they will make your cat sick.

Be sure to wash fruits thoroughly before serving because many are heavily sprayed with pesticides, and consuming those chemicals may be harmful to your kit. Also, check whether the peel, seeds, or pit are safe before feeding.

Cats and dairy

In cartoons, cats are often seen drinking milk from a bowl. In reality, cats are lactose intolerant, which means they are not able to digest the lactose in milk and many dairy products. Giving milk to your cat may lead to stomach upsets, vomiting, and diarrhea.

However, as cheese usually contains less lactose, it is a high protein treat you can give your cat every now and then. Although cats are lactose intolerant, most cats can handle some cheese. Still, it should only be given sparingly as a treat. Gouda, cheddar, parmesan, and Swiss cheese are more cat-friendly since they contain lower lactose levels.

Can cats eat grass?

Cats sometimes eat grass, which can be a good source of vitamins and nutrients. You can let your cat eat it as long as it is not treated with chemicals, nor does it grow with plants that are toxic to felines. Home-grown wheatgrass is a good choice.

Some types of grass contain a lot of Vitamin D, and overeating grass may lead to unhealthy levels of the vitamin. Symptoms include vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss, weakness, increased drinking and urination, seizures, and abdominal pain.

What Can Cats Not Eat?

Cats are curious creatures, and often they are interested in having a taste of whatever it is you are eating. But you know how the saying goes about curiosity and cats.

Not all foods are healthy, but some are even toxic and should be avoided completely to keep your feline friend safe.

Here are some of the foods your cats shouldn't eat:

Alcohol (may cause vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, tremors, coma, and even death)

Bread dough (may cause severe digestive issues as it rises in the stomach)

Chocolate (contains theobromine, which is toxic to cats)

Citrus fruits (citric acid is toxic to cats)

Coffee or caffeinated products (contain methylxanthines which are toxic to cats)

Corncobs (may cause an intestinal blockage)

Cooked bones (may splinter and damage the intestinal tract)

milk, dark and white chocolate

Fruit seeds and stones (may contain amygdalin, which is metabolized into cyanide)

Grapes and raisins (may cause digestive issues and even kidney failure)

Onions, leeks, and garlic (damage red blood cells leading to anemia)

Macadamia nuts (may cause weakness, depression, vomiting, tremors, and hyperthermia)

Mushrooms (wild mushrooms can be poisonous)

Green tomatoes (contain solanine, which is a toxin)

Xylitol (is toxic and may lead to liver failure)

Table scraps (as tempting they may look and smell) can upset your cat’s stomach and disrupt the nutritional balance in your cat’s digestive system). Therefore, you should resist the temptation to share your food with your kitty.

Also, cats are carnivores, and they should not be put on a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Although raw bones are good for your cat's teeth and dental health, cooked bones may splinter and cause damage to the intestinal tract.

What Are Good Treats for Cats?

Most pet owners want to treat their pets to some tasty treats and snacks. There is nothing harmful about treats as long as you feed foods that are safe to your cat and stick to moderation with how much and how often you feed them.

  • An occasional treat is ok if your cat is eating an otherwise healthy, complete, and balanced diet.
  • The rule of thumb is that no more than 10-15% of the total daily calorie intake comes from treats.
  • There are many commercial cat treats available, or you can use veggies, fruits, and cooked meats.

Summing up – What can you feed cats?

Cats are true carnivores, which means they need most of their energy from animal proteins. Meats, fish, organs, and meat byproducts contain essential amino acids that cannot be found in veggies, grain, or fruits.

  •  About 85-90% of your cat's daily food intake should comprise commercial cat food that offers a complete diet. You can combine dry and canned food to ensure your cat enjoys the benefits of both types.
  • Besides being fed with high-quality cat food that ensures all the nutrients your kitty needs, you can offer commercial cat treats, veggies, fruits, and other foods as treats.
  •  Treats should make up no more than 10-15% of your pet's diet.
  •  Always check if a particular food is safe for cats before feeding.
  • Keep fresh water available at all times.

Vet's Comment

The basis of health is good nutrition.

Understanding the very basics of cat nutrition helps cat parents feed their fur babies in a way that will meet their nutritional requirements and improve their quality of life and prevent dietary-induced health issues.

However, there is no universal, one-type-fits-all kind of cat food. Every cat has its own needs and taste preferences, and all cat parents their lifestyle habits. The perfect cat food is a compromise between those factors.

Choosing the ideal food for your cat often requires consulting with your trusted vet or a professional feline nutritionist.

- Dr. Ivana Crnec, DVM

Ivana Crnec doctor of veterinary medicine

Vet-Approved by
Dr. Ivana Crnec

DVM

Ivana Crnec is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine specialized in domestic carnivores. She graduated from the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia. Ivana is a certified canine nutritionist and also certified in HAACP food safety system implementation. She currently works as a veterinarian while completing her postgraduate studies. Her research has been published in international journals.

NOTE: Advice provided within this article by FeedingMyPet.com is not a substitute for veterinary advice. Please discuss your cat's specific dietary needs (based on his breed, weight, age, and health status) with a veterinarian.

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