Home > Blog > Everything Dog > What Makes A Carnivore?

Before we venture down the vole hole, we need to be in total agreement that cats are obligate or true carnivores. In short, they absolutely need, cannot live without meat and organs in their diet.

We’re on the same page, this is going great! (If you’re scratching your head, stop now. Read this.)

As obligate carnivores, cats also have unique dietary requirements. This just means they get certain vitamins and fatty acids from their diet because they don’t have the ability to make certain amino acids and vitamins in their own bodies the way that omnivores and herbivores do.

So, we know they need more protein in their diets as well as certain amino acids. We can also be sure that their physiology and anatomy only offers more ironclad proof that, as a species, cats are designed to eat prey:

A sketched tooth: carnivores have differently structured teeth and mouths
a sketched intestine: carnivores have a shorter gastrointestinal tract
sketched saliva: carnivores lack an enzyme called salivary amylase, making them incapable of breaking down nutrients from plants as easily as omnivores

Sharp, pointed teeth for ripping and tearing

Short and simple g.i. tract to process raw meat in hours rather than days

Highly acidic stomach to handle the bacterial load found in fresh prey

A sketched tooth: carnivores have differently structured teeth and mouths

Sharp, pointed teeth for ripping and tearing

a sketched intestine: carnivores have a shorter gastrointestinal tract

Short and simple g.i. tract to process raw meat in hours rather than days

sketched saliva: carnivores lack an enzyme called salivary amylase, making them incapable of breaking down nutrients from plants as easily as omnivores

Highly acidic stomach to handle the bacterial load found in fresh prey

And, as if we needed further evidence, we need only look to the feral or wild cat diet to understand what a domestic cat’s diet should consist of.

A recent study from the School of Veterinary Medicine, UC-Davis observed that wild or feral cats hunt and eat a combination of wild rodents and small birds.

The dietary analysis showed 67% water content, 62% crude protein, 11%, crude fat, 14.8% ash, and 2% carbohydrates. [i]

Given the choice, what would your cat eat?

Additional research has actually provided rather substantial evidence that given the option, domestic cats would also pick a diet that was biologically appropriate for them (i.e. what they’d eat if in the wild). [ii]

Holistic veterinarian, Dr. Karen Becker, graciously translated the study to people speak so we’re able to better digest the most significant findings. [iii]

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#2

Every cat in the study chose the high-protein food over the high-carb food when given the option, even if there was less of the high-protein food available.

When offered three foods, the cats mixed them to meet a daily percentage of 52% protein, 36% fat, and 12% carbs.

#1 

Every cat in the study chose the high-protein food over the high-carb food when given the option, even if there was less of the high-protein food available.

#2

When offered three foods, the cats mixed them to meet a daily percentage of 52% protein, 36% fat, and 12% carbs.

Why do these numbers matter?

These numbers tell us that if cats had it their way, they wouldn’t be eating kibble which is notoriously high in carbohydrates, 40% on average. (Carbs are needed to form and hold the kibble together during the extrusion process, not to mention it’s cheaper than meat). Instead, cats would opt for a high-protein food with moderate amounts of fat, and low carbohydrates.

What’s the takeaway then?

We need to provide our kitties with food that comes as close to the wild or feral cat diet as possible and the best cat foods would do that by meeting the three fundamental dietary requirements of cats.

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#2

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A Diet High in Moisture

Dietary Animal Proteins

A Diet Low in Carbohydrates

Cats Need A Diet High in Moisture

Cats tend to be solitary hunters, hunting throughout the day usually catching and eating from 6 to 10 small rodents or birds per day. A cat would get incremental amounts of moisture from their prey then, several times throughout the day, to nourish their body.

The wild cat’s normal eating behavior may actually play a role in why they are less sensitive to the sensation of dehydration than other species and have a very weak thirst drive. This also explains why today’s kibble-fed kitties are at such risk for chronic dehydration. Especially because when cats are dehydrated it takes longer to restore their water balance by drinking alone.

Knowing that feral cats get moisture through their prey and that their thirst drive isn’t doing them any favors, it just makes sense that domestic cats, too, need moisture in their food. Whether it’s a raw diet, wet food, or a freeze-dried food that rehydrates, moisture needs to be a key component to their daily meals.

Cats Need Protein (lots of it & from animals)

A small bit of biology in 4. 3. 2. 1. There are types of protein and protein quality is dependent not only on source (i.e. whether it’s from an animal or plant) but also who’s doing the eating.

Animal proteins are considered “complete” proteins for cats (and dogs) because they offer all the amino acids (in the right amounts) that a cat and dog need for growth, maintenance, & overall health.

“Incomplete” plant proteins like corn gluten or soybean meal on the other hand, either don’t have the amino acids that cats (or dogs) need and/or they aren’t available in the correct amounts. That includes taurine and arginine– crucial amino acids that cats need.

So, offering cats the right kind of protein is just as important as offering them a high-protein diet and the best cat food brands will always be sure to do that.

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Cats Need A Diet Low in Carbohydrates

To explain why a diet low in carbs matter you have to understand that how a cat uses energy depends on the food they eat. Here’s a somewhat simplified explanation of how cats use (species-appropriate!) food.

CAT EATS MOUSE

MOUSE = COMPLETE PROTEIN

Remember, ALL the amino acids (AA) in the right amounts, that cats need to thrive.

PROTEINS ARE BROKEN DOWN INTO AMINO ACIDS (AA)

These protein chains need to be broken down so they can enter the bloodstream.  (Remember those important amino acids like taurine + arginine?) . 

Fun fact, this is where digestive enzymes like protease come in and break chains down

FIRST – AA’S BUILD + RESTORE THE BODY

They get put back together and sent anywhere proteins are needed like muscles and tissue, etc.

LEFTOVER AA’S ARE CONVERTED INTO INACTIVE GLUCOSE

This process is called gluconeogenesis.

THEN IT’S CONVERTED TO ACTIVE GLUCOSE (THE KIND CELLS CAN ACTUALLY USE)

Liver enzymes (fancy name, Hexokinase) slowly convert inactive glucose to active glucose that cells can use for steady levels of energy throughout the day.

PANCREAS RELEASES INSULIN

The pancreas is the watchman for glucose sending insulin to move active glucose into the cells.

INSULIN + ACTIVE GLUCOSE CAN MOVE INTO THE CELLS

Insulin is like a VIP pass into the cell via insulin receptor.

ACTIVE GLUCOSE IN CELLS = ENERGY

WHICH MEANS ZOOMIES!

CAT EATS MOUSE

MOUSE = COMPLETE PROTEIN

Remember, ALL the amino acids (AA) in the right amounts, that cats need to thrive.

PROTEINS ARE BROKEN DOWN INTO AMINO ACIDS (AA)

These protein chains need to be broken down so they can enter the bloodstream.  (Remember those important amino acids like taurine + arginine?) . 

Fun fact, this is where digestive enzymes like protease come in and break chains down

FIRST – AA’S BUILD + RESTORE THE BODY

They get put back together and sent anywhere proteins are needed like muscles and tissue, etc.

LEFTOVER AA’S ARE CONVERTED INTO INACTIVE GLUCOSE

This process is called gluconeogenesis.

THEN IT’S CONVERTED TO ACTIVE GLUCOSE (THE KIND CELLS CAN ACTUALLY USE)

Liver enzymes (fancy name, Hexokinase) slowly convert inactive glucose to active glucose that cells can use for steady levels of energy throughout the day.

PANCREAS RELEASES INSULIN

The pancreas is the watchman for glucose sending insulin to move active glucose into the cells.

INSULIN + ACTIVE GLUCOSE CAN MOVE INTO THE CELLS

Insulin is like a VIP pass into the cell via insulin receptor.

ACTIVE GLUCOSE IN CELLS = ENERGY

WHICH MEANS ZOOMIES!

As obligate carnivores, cats are very practiced at using leftover amino acids gotten from their meat-based diet (as shown above) for energy. They don’t need carbs for energy and frankly, they aren’t able use them as effectively as you or I would.  

When Cats Eat a High-Carbohydrate Diet like Kibble

When you or I eat say, two donuts, there’s a big jolt of sugary energy (often paired with a tinge of regret) and then the body is able to cope. Your liver enzymes can kick into gear to regulate these spikes of glucose in your blood stream, relatively quickly mind you, and turn it into energy.

Cats will try to use carbs for energy but aren’t as successful as you or me because they don’t have enough of the liver enzyme (glucokinase) that kicks into high gear for heavy loads of glucose. Remember, they only have the slow and steady hexokinase enzyme. So, when they eat dry, carbohydrate-laden kibble, it leads to high glucose levels in the blood for lengthy periods of time. Eventually, these chronic high glucose levels in the bloodstream lead to addiction, obesity, diabetes, etc. (This is a big, big concept that we’ll break down in the next post).

How Indoor Carnivores Thrive

Kibble isn’t just the biggest carb offender. Overall, the majority of kibble fails to meet the three dietary requirements for cats which should really disqualify it as a viable option for any kitty.

Your cat is going to flourish on a diet high in moisture, high in animal protein, and low in carbohydrates. These aren’t suggestions or some New Age fad but rather requirements that need to be at the top of every pet parent’s list when considering which foods to feed their carnivore.

Stay in the Meow. Learn more about which foods are a must in a kitty’s diet.

[i] Kremen NA, Calvert CC, Larsen JA, Baldwin RA, Hahn TP, Fascetti AJ. Body composition and amino acid concentrations of select birds and mammals consumed by cats in northern and central California. J Anim Sci. 2013;91(3):1270–1276.

[ii] Hewson-Hughes, A. K., Hewson-Hughes, V. L., Miller, A. T., Hall, S. R., Simpson, S. J., & Raubenheimer, D. (2011). Geometric analysis of macronutrient selection in the adult domestic cat, Felis catus. Journal of Experimental Biology, 214(6), 1039-1051. doi:10.1242/jeb.049429

[iii] Becker, K. (2016, September 13). How Cats Choose the Food They Eat. Retrieved from https://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2016/09/13/cats-choose-food-they-eat.aspx

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Brain Behind the Science

Chris Bessent, DVM, MSOM, Dipl. OM, L.Ac. has over thirty years of experience in veterinary medicine including certificates in veterinary acupuncture, veterinary chiropractic and veterinary Chinese herbology. Imbued with Eastern philosophy and the knowledge that food is the foundation of health, Dr. Bessent also received her degree in veterinary nutrition and began to formulate recipes fit for a carnivore from nothing but whole foods. Currently, she divides her time between the Simple Food Project and Herbsmith, both of which are owned and operated out of her facilities in southeastern Wisconsin.

Correspondent to the Brain​

Kayla is the Content Writer for The Simple Food Project. She has a cat named Professor Cat-Faced Meowmers, who goes by Kitty, and a goof of a dog, named Duck. She stays busy biking trails, losing at board games, and searching for the next best craft beer.

800-451-5267

info@simplefoodproject.com

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Oconomowoc, WI 53066

The Simple Food Project
1823 Executive Drive
Oconomowoc, WI 53066

800-451-5267