Cat Food and Diet: Researching the Cat Munchies

By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley October 21, 2018

One of the most common questions cat parents have is about what diet is best for their cat. In recent years, there has been a lot of information being shared about what diets are most appropriate for cats, particularly from pet stores and pet food companies. As cat parents, it can be hard to sort through all the information to find the best diet for your cat. This article will attempt to shed light on this topic by covering the natural diet of wild cats, the nutritional requirements of domesticated cats and information on the different options you have for feeding your cat, along with how to maintain your cat’s weight and provide them other variety and nutrients in their diet.

How Did Cats Get Domesticated?

Domestic cats are members of the phylogenetic family Felidae. They are distantly related to big cat species such as cougars, lynxes, tigers, and lions, which are also members of this family. Domestic cats are specifically in the genus Felis, which includes the sand cat, the black-footed cat, and different species of the wildcat. These are all types of smaller cats that look similar in size and shape to our modern domestic cats. Recent genetic analyses have suggested that pet cats were domesticated from the North African/Near Eastern wildcat about 9,000 years ago (Serpell, 2013; Ottoni et al., 2017).

Cats began living around human populations when humans began to farm crops. The storage of different grains would attract large populations of rodents to live around human settlements, and the cats eventually followed. Once humans saw that cats could help control rodent populations, we realized the benefit of having them around, and the rest is history (Plantinga et al., 2011; Ottoni et al., 2017).

What Is The Feral Cat Diet Like?

Despite thousands of years of domestication, our modern cats remain relatively unchanged from their wild ancestors. This includes their dietary requirements (Plantinga et al., 2011). Domestic cats, like the wildcat, are obligate carnivores. This means that they need to eat animal tissue in order to survive. Wildcats and feral domestic cats primarily consume small animals, with approximately 78% of their diet being made up of small mammals, particularly rats. Contrary to popular belief, cats rarely consume fish and only about 16% of their diet is made up of birds. Cats will also eat rabbits, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, or meat from dead carcasses of large mammals, depending on what is abundant in their location (Plantinga et al., 2011).

The diet of feral cats is typically comprised of about 52% protein, 46% fat, and 2% from carbohydrates and starches. Domestic cats given a dietary choice will consume a similar ratio of nutrients as a feral cat; however, the commercial diet typically fed to domestic cats tends to be vastly different (Plantinga et al., 2011). As obligate carnivores, there are certain nutrients your cat needs to have in its diet to allow their digestion and metabolism to function properly. The amino acids arginine and taurine are both essential in a cat's diet as felines cannot synthesize them naturally. These amino acids can be lacking in a plant-based diet (NRC, 2006).

What Kinds Of Cat Foods Are Available?

There are a variety of commercial cat foods on the market that can be separated into three main categories: dry food, semi-moist food, and wet food (NRC, 2006; PFMA). When we talk about dry food, we are typically referring to bags of kibble, but treats can also be included in this category. As the name suggests, dry foods offer the least amount of moisture to your cat and are typically higher in carbohydrates. Wet food has the highest moisture content and typically comes in cans or tins. Wet food can also include frozen or refrigerated foods. Semi-moist food falls in between the two (CFHC, 2017).

A current trend in pet food is feeding raw diets, and these can come in a variety of forms. Alternatively, some cat owners opt to make a homemade raw or cooked diet for their cats (PFMA). Many veterinarians recommend against feeding raw or homemade diets of any kind. As of 2016, none of the raw pet foods available commercially had been tested for nutrient content, meaning they may not be sufficient in providing a balanced diet. The same concerns arise for homemade diets made from recipes found online. These recipes have often not been tested, and therefore they might not provide the proper nutrients. There are additional concerns with raw diets regarding food safety and risk of spreading food-borne diseases (BSAVA, 2016). If you are making a homemade diet for your cat, it is crucial that you consult a veterinary nutritionist to ensure you are providing a balanced diet. Failing to provide a balanced diet can lead to severe health issues (CFHC, 2017).

What Food Choices Are Best For My Cat?

The biology of cats suggests that meat-based, high-moisture diets will provide the most appropriate nutrition. Some veterinarians say that any wet food is better than any dry food as it is more species appropriate. Cats are obligate carnivores, and they do not have a high thirst drive like dogs, meaning they have to obtain their water content primarily through their diet (Pierson, 2013). Canned cat foods tend to contain much higher moisture content, are made from more animal proteins, and have fewer carbohydrates (NRC, 2006).

There is some anecdotal evidence from veterinarians that feeding only dry food increases a cat’s risk of developing diabetes, obesity, and urinary tract and intestinal issues (Pierson, 2013). If you do feed your feline friend dry food, it is important to store the food properly. It is common for cat owners to buy large bags of dry food and store the unused portions for a long time, but if the dry food is not stored properly, this increases the chance of the food becoming stale, contaminated, losing nutrients, or expiring. The recommended way to store dry cat food is to seal it in the bag that is provided, and store the bag in an airtight container in a cool, dry spot.

With any food you buy, check the list of ingredients. A specified animal protein should be one of the first few ingredients listed. Ingredients on pet food labels are listed in order of highest quantity to lowest quantity, so seeing meat as a first ingredient can indicate that there are sufficient nutrients for your cat’s biological needs (CFHC, 2017).

What Factors Should I Consider When Buying Cat Food?

A lot of factors should go into your decision on what to feed your cat, including age and reproductive status, as well as your cat’s preferences. Cats are notoriously picky, and sometimes it does not matter how high the quality of food is or how much money or research you put into your choice, your cat may simply not be into it (CFHC, 2017). Any food you feed your cat should meet AAFCO regulations for cats, and be specifically designed for the age and reproductive status of your cat.

If you have a healthy, neutered house cat most commercially available diets regulated by AAFCO will provide adequate nutrition. Special considerations need to be made for kittens, pregnant or lactating female cats, and senior cats, as these animals need diets specially formulated for their needs. Some commercially available foods are meant to be a supplement and may not be a complete diet. For this reason, it’s important to check the labels of any food you buy (NRC, 2006; CFHC, 2017).

What Treats Can I Give To My Cat?

Treats are a fun addition to your cat’s diet, but they should be given in moderation. Obesity in cats is a huge problem, and treats can cause that as well as other health complications. When it comes to treats, the most important factor to consider is your cat’s preference. Treats should be used to enhance your cat’s life or when you're training your cat to do different behaviors (Yes, cats can be trained!), and just like when humans treat themselves with tasty goodies, we are not always concerned with the nutritional content of our snacks. Some cat owners like to supplement their cat’s diet with human food. Like treats, human food should only be fed to cats sparingly, and cats should be monitored closely for adverse reactions to certain foods. Human foods that are safe for cats include (Case et al., 2011):

  • Cooked, boneless, skinless meats and fish
  • Liver
  • Dairy products light in lactose such as cheeses, yogurt, and buttermilk
  • Fish oil
  • Cooked eggs

What Treats Should I Not Give To My Cat?

Human foods that are toxic to cats include (list from ASPCA Animal Poison Control)

  • Garlic, onions, or chives
  • Coconut
  • Avocado
  • Alcohol
  • Citrus
  • Grapes or raisins
  • Nuts
  • Raw meats
  • Yeast dough
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Bones
  • Milk
  • Candy
  • Anything containing the sweetener xylitol

What Are The Pros And Cons Of Cat Grass?

Another way to add variety and enrichment into your cat’s diet is by providing cat grass. While cats are carnivores, wild and feral cats are known to nibble on grasses. Many indoor house cats enjoy having cat grass in the house, and there are a number of health benefits to providing some. Grass introduces a source of fiber, which can aid in digestion and help with hairballs. Cat grass also provides some natural vitamins and minerals (Bergstrom, 2010). Providing cat grass is also a form of enrichment, as it is adding something new and different into the diet and providing different tastes, smells, and textures. Cat grass is readily available at most pet food stores. If your cat is really into cat grass, you can buy seeds or grass-growing kits and grow it yourself. Be mindful of your cat’s grass intake. Some cats really enjoy grass and may eat so much of it in one sitting that it makes them vomit. If this is your cat’s response, it may be best to keep the grass out of reach and only provide small amounts daily to munch on. If you do provide your cat access to grass, be mindful of the other plants in your house. A lot of household plants are toxic to cats, and your cat may start thinking they can snack on all the plants (Bergstrom, 2010).

How Often Should I Feed My Cat?

The optimal frequency and schedule of feeding your cat is primarily based on what works best for both of you. Each cat is unique, and therefore, feeding may need to be based on your personal schedule, along with your cat’s preferences.

It is generally recommended that kittens up to 6 months old may be fed 3 times a day. Kittens may need to be fed smaller meals more frequently because this helps them eat enough food to obtain all the nutrients they need. Kittens have small stomachs and require a lot of energy to grow properly, meaning they need more opportunities to fill up on high-energy kitten food (CFHC).

Cats with specific health issues may also need to follow a specific feeding schedule, but for healthy adult cats, feeding once or twice daily is suitable. Some will naturally eat the amount of food appropriate for them, while others will continue to eat food throughout the day, leading to significant weight gain. Cats that cannot self-regulate feed intake should be fed measured meals. Feeding measured meals is helpful for monitoring your cat’s health, as it will help alert you to any changes in feeding behavior right away.

In multi-cat households, cats can be trained to sit in specific locations for their meals, whether this is on individual mats in the kitchen or in different locations of the house. This can be especially useful if you have a cat that is a grazer and prefers calm and quiet while eating and a cat that is food crazy and will try to steal the other cats’ food (CFHC).

Many cat owners end up over-feeding their cats because their cats have learned how to train them. Some owners think that when their cat meows at them their cat is telling them that they are hungry, so they feed them. This only trains your cat to meow at you more, even if they really don’t need more food. Talk to your veterinarian about the appropriate amount of food your cat should be eating daily and stick to that amount no matter how much your cat begs! Obesity is a serious problem for cat health and welfare, and it should be avoided. If your cat becomes overweight, consult with your veterinarian about a diet plan to help your cat gradually lose weight.


In this article, we provided information about the natural history of cats, particularly in regards to their nutritional requirements. We also talked about the different types of foods available to cats, and some recommended feeding practices. Your cat’s diet is one of the most effective forms of preventative medicine you can provide. We have all heard the old saying that “you are what you eat.” This idea rings true in the world of pet nutrition as well. Finding an appropriate diet for your cat can help ensure it’s overall health and well being, and ensure that your cat lives a long, healthy life with you. A veterinarian is always the best source for information on how to keep your cat healthy, so always consult with your vet before making any changes to your cat’s diet.

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Works Cited

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Bergstrom, L. 2010. How does your cat grass grow? Plant a feline-friendly indoor garden. All Animals Magazine. Retrieved October 18, 2018.

BSAVA Congress. 2016. Raw food diets for dogs and cats: do we know enough. Veterinary Record 178:549-550.

Case, L.P., Daristotle, L., Hayek, M.G., Raasch, M.F. 2011. Common Nutrition Myths and Feeding Practices. In Canine and Feline Nutrition (p. 277-294). Maryland Heights, Missouri: Mosby Elsevier.

Cornell Feline Health Center (CFHC). 2017. Feeding Your Cat. Retrieved October 18, 2018.

Cornell Feline Health Center (CFHC). How Often Should You Feed Your Cat? Retrieved October 18, 2018.

National Research Council (NRC). 2006. Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs: A Science-Based Guide for Pet Owners. Retrieved from: October 13, 2018.

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Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA). Cats – Cat food. Retrieved October 13, 2018.           

Pierson, L.A. 2013. Feeding your cat: Know the Basics of Feline Nutrition. Retrieved October 18, 2018.

Plantinga, E.A., Bosch, G., and W.H. Hendriks. 2011. Estimation of the dietary nutrient profile of free-roaming feral cats: possible implications for nutrition of domestic cats. The British Journal of Nutrition 106(S1):S35-48.

Serpell, J. A. 2013. Domestication and history of the cat. In D. Turner and P. Bateson (Eds), The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour (p. 83-100). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.