Most of us know that cats are carnivores, which means that they must eat meat in order to survive, and fulfill their energy and nutrient requirements. What some of us might not know is that cats are specifically obligate carnivores. What is an obligate carnivore? These animals eat meat out of necessity and not out of preference. Meat is their primary source of nutrients and energy, and their bodies find it very difficult to process foods that aren’t meat or meat-based.
Because they are obligate carnivores, cats’ dietary needs are different from dogs. In terms of evolution, they have lost the ability to manufacture some of the nutrients and amino acids that are essential for good health. While cats need taurine, arginine, tryptophan, vitamin A, and other essential nutrients in order to stay healthy, they can only get these beneficial substances pre-formed in meat. They can’t produce them inside their bodies like other animals do.
Centuries of eating almost nothing else but meat have also caused cats to evolve very short digestive tracts. Animal tissue is easier and faster to digest than plant matter, and that leaves us with modern-day cats who shouldn’t be eating a lot of fruits or vegetables or plants. However, every once in a while you might hear a story about cats that eat grass. If their digestive systems simply aren’t cut out to break down plant matter, why do they eat it in the first place? Experts think that a little grass is good for a cat’s digestion, since it acts as roughage; it helps to clean out the cat’s gut and chase out any hairballs that might be sitting around.
Grass also causes cats to vomit, and that’s not always a cause for worry. If a cat willingly eats grass then throws up afterwards, it might have eaten something else that was irritating its digestive system. The grass serves as an emetic, which causes it to get rid of that irritant or potential harmful food item. So there’s no need to be worried if you see your cat eating the occasional mouthful of grass. But don’t encourage him or her to make a habit out of it. You will still have to offer him or her the type of food that s/he can readily digest and make use of—which in this case is meat.
On the other hand, there are still some important vitamins and minerals that cats need for good health, and which can’t easily be produced in a protein-based diet. If your cat is willing to try other types of food, such as fruits and vegetables, then you could do worse than to offer him or her a few fruit and vegetable treats.
Broccoli: Like grass, this vegetable is a great source of fiber, which helps keep a cat’s digestive system in good working order. However, your cat will find it easier to digest a small amount of broccoli if it’s been cooked beforehand. Steam it without any added salt or seasonings first.
Peas: These vegetables are already included in some brands of commercially available cat food. In small amounts, they are a great source of iron—which prevents cats from developing anemia—and magnesium, which promotes proper bone growth. Make sure to feed your cat small amounts of peas, as large quantities can cause indigestion.
Blueberries: This fruit is a great source of vitamin C, which strengthens your cat’s immune system. It can also help to fight off the bad effects of health problems such as feline asthma, heart disease, or cancer. Too many, however, may cause an upset stomach or even diarrhea.
Melons: Experts think that cats may be interested in eating specific types of melons, such as cantaloupes, because of their amino acid content. These amino acids may make the melon smell appetizing to cats. However, while melons may smell good to cats, they may also cause stomach problems if eaten in large quantities. A human being who goes on a particular diet may do so for health reasons, or because of his or her beliefs, and should be respected for making that choice; likewise, a cat must eat meat, and shouldn’t be forced to eat anything else.
This article appeared in Animal Scene’s March 2017 issue.