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Home > Cats > Are Cats Obligate Carnivores? Our Vet Answers & Explains

Are Cats Obligate Carnivores? Our Vet Answers & Explains

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Dr. Luqman Javed

Veterinarian, DVM

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Even though there’s been a big trend toward feeding a vegan diet to pets, all cats are obligate carnivores, which means they require nutrients which are only found in other animals (in their flesh, fat, and other body parts). If cats do not get enough animal meat in their diet, due to their biology, they can get sick.

If you are interested in learning what it means to be an obligate carnivore, read on. We explain why cats are obligate carnivores and what this means for you as a cat owner.


Are All Cats Carnivores?

All cats are carnivores—specifically, obligate carnivores. What this means is that all cats, whether wild or domesticated, absolutely require meat for their biological health and well-being and cannot be transitioned to a plant-only diet.

What Is an Obligate Carnivore?

An obligate carnivore is an animal that requires nutrients only found in animals. The reason for this is that obligate carnivores cannot digest plants properly or get enough nutrients from them. As a result, obligate carnivores need to consume other animals to survive.

This distinguishes obligate carnivores from facultative carnivores (such as dogs), which are animals that have the ability to derive nutrition from non-animal sources as well. However, facultative carnivores usually only resort to eating vegetation in times when animal food is scarce and seem to prefer hunting whenever the opportunity arises. This sets them apart from omnivores; however, the distinction isn’t clearly defined in terms of the ratio of plant and animal foods consumed by such species.

Image By: Vova-Shevchuk, Shutterstock

Can Cats Be Vegan?

Since cats are obligate carnivores, they cannot be vegan. Even house cats that do a bad job at hunting require meat to survive. It is for this reason that you should never feed your cat a vegan or even vegetarian diet. They need meat to survive.

Biological Features of Your Cat That Make Them an Obligate Carnivore

Cats are considered obligate carnivores because there are certain nutrients they require which can only be found in other animals. Chief among these are the following:

Nutrients Cat Require From Other Animals
  • Taurine
  • Retinol (a form of Vitamin A not found in plants)
  • Arachidonic acid (a form of fat not found in plants)

These are not the only ingredients cats require from animals but are examples of some of the nutrients they can only derive from animals and not a plant-based diet.

In addition, cats, like many other mammalian predators, have a relatively short digestive tract, which renders them unable to properly digest the tough cellulose found in plants. They also lack many of the enzymes that herbivores and omnivores possess for the digestion of plant-based matter.

Like all other mammalian predators, cats have forward facing eyes, with a very widely overlapping visual field between the two eyes. This gives them binocular vision, which helps them with depth perception and makes hunting possible for them as a species. This further reinforces their role as carnivores within ecosystems.

cat in hunting position
Image Credit: Karsten Paulick, Pixabay

The nutritional requirements of cats mandates that nearly all of your cat’s calories need to come from meat-based protein and some fat.

It is important to note that there is a misconception which states that cats don’t require carbohydrates. In reality, anything your cat eats will eventually be broken down into glucose, the simplest of all carbohydrates, before it is utilized by their bodies.

However, cats can derive carbohydrates from non-carbohydrate foods effectively through several methods. Cats are very efficient at de-novo synthesis of glucose from proteins, or the formation of glucose from the protein they consume. Furthermore, the fats that they consume contain glycerides, which is also broken down into glucose.

Therefore, to say cats do not require carbohydrates in their diet is incorrect. However, it doesn’t mean they need to eat starchy foods to obtain these carbohydrates.


Can I Feed My Cat Meat Instead of Cat Food?

Though commercial cat foods remain the most popular and convenient way of feeding pet cats, many owners are drawn towards the allure of meat-based diets. These include fresh cooked diets and raw, meat-based diets.

Potential Benefits of a Fresh or Raw Diet For Cats

Most of the benefits of a raw or fresh diet are considered anecdotal. In other words, many of these are benefits that many owners have claimed to see in their cats, however, they haven’t been definitely proven in experimental circumstances. Therefore, it is incorrect to assume that switching your cat to a raw or fresh diet will offer them these benefits. Nonetheless, some aspects of a raw or fresh diet have been tested on an experimental basis.

The benefits (both anecdotal and those that have been researched) include the following:

Potential Benefits of a Raw or Fresh Diet
  • Feels natural – Many owners claim that feeding their cat such foods feels more natural, as it is more in line with what their wild counterparts would eat.
  • Enhancing pet/human bond – Because nutrition is such an important part of a pet’s life, many owners feel like going above and beyond for their pet’s meals enhances their bond with them, whereas simply purchasing a commercial diet is “lazy.”
  • Improved health – Anecdotal claims of improved fur, dental health, activity levels, and better weight management.
  • Lower litter box use – As raw or natural diets are often lower in fiber, cats on such a diet tend to defecate less frequently. This translates to less cleanup requirement and in the long run might lead to less litter use as well.
  • Different immunity profile – In experimental studies, cats fed a raw or fresh diet had a different immunological profile than those fed a commercial diet. Please note that this doesn’t mean that one group was better or worse than the other, but rather that the nutrition had impacted the immunological profile of the cats.
Burmese cat eating homemade vet approved cat food beef and carrot
Image by Nicole Cosgrove | Hepper

Potential Risk of a Fresh or Raw Diet for Cats

The potential risks of a fresh or raw diet for cats has been better studied than the potential benefits of such a diet. This is because of the implications that such a diet might have for humans that are in close proximity to their pets all the time.


If your cat is registered as an emotional support animal, or is in close proximity with children, the elderly, or those with compromised immune systems, it might be against the law to feed them raw foods or diets. Consult your veterinarian about the laws in your area if you’re not sure about the legislation in your area.

Please note that if you have a service dog, they cannot be fed a raw diet and, therefore, should be fed separately from your cat (if your cat is on such a diet).

The potential risks of a raw or fresh diet include the following:

Potential Risks of a Raw or Fresh Diet
  • Nutrition Imbalance – Studies on some such diets have found that they may lack some of the nutrients, or not have them in the amounts required by cats. It is, however, worth noting that many companies that offer such diets do have nutritional compliance certificates as well.
  • Public Health Risks – Perhaps the most well studied reason, many studies have shown an increased risk of Salmonella infection in humans that were in close proximity to animals that were on a raw diet. However, this risk is substantially lower if animals are fed a fresh (not raw) diet, and many companies that offer raw foods also offer pasteurized meats.
  • Cost Efficiency – A raw or fresh diet might cost more than a commercially available diet. However, many owners claim that the anecdotal health benefits their pet receives makes this trade off worthwhile for them.
  • Lack of Studies – Studies on raw or fresh foods are limited, making many owners hesitant to make the switch. Studies are particularly low for kittens, pregnant cats, nursing cats, or cats with a diagnosis of a medical condition that requires a dietary change.
  • Commitment – A raw or fresh diet usually involves a great deal of time, and some people feel as if they don’t have the ability to make such a commitment.

What Should I Feed My Cat?

Ultimately, what you feed your cat will come down to your preference, your budget, and a myriad of other factors involving your cat, such as their breed, age, nutritional status, pregnancy status, and many more. It is therefore best to consult your veterinarian about a diet that best suits you and your cat.

As long as you’re feeding your cat something that is appropriate for their needs as an obligate carnivore, there isn’t a right or wrong answer when it comes to your cat’s diet or their treats.


Final Thoughts

Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they require nutrients only found in animal flesh and organs.

The biological status of being an obligate carnivore has given rise to the popularity of fresh and raw diets for cats. These diets do show potential but aren’t entirely without their risks either.

Ultimately, the decision to modify your cat’s diet is one you should discuss with your veterinarian, as your cat will have varying needs depending on several factors. Therefore, this is a decision that’s best discussed with a professional.

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Featured Image Credit: DarkBird, Shutterstock

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