Welcome to this month's blog, Human. Lucky you...you're an omnivore meaning that you can digest and use many foods, both plant and animal. We can live well on a large variety of different foods and diets. Not every animal is as fortunate as we humans.
Cats need to eat meat in order to survive. Their diet should be high in animal protein, high in moisture, moderate in fat, and low in carbohydrates. How do we know? Let's take a look at your cat's digestive system.
To Survive or to Thrive...That is the Question
There's a big difference between surviving and thriving. Human and cat bodies can tolerate terrible things and still survive. Surviving is just the body staying alive. The body can become injured or diseased and still survive. Thriving is all together different. Thriving is when the body works optimally and no disease is present. A cat can survive when fed a diet that is high in plant matter, but they can’t thrive on it.
Just imagine a new, crazy diet fad; we'll call it the Wild & Wooly Diet. A diet consisting almost exclusively of wool. Technically, you can eat it. Your body would continue to work; it might even find a bit of nutrition in the shale. However, you would soon notice digestive issues that would eventually progress to more serious health concerns.
Just like humans can’t digest wool well, cats can’t digest plant matter very well. Different species, different rules. Sure, cats may get some benefit from plant matter, but the risk for chronic disease goes up.
Cats are Carnivores. We Know This Because...
#1: Food in the Wild
When cats are left to choose, they choose other small animals. Their prey tends to be rodents, small birds, and insects. These smaller animals are eaten whole, that means fur, bones, organs, etc. Occasionally cats will be seen nibbling on plant life, but this makes up a very small portion of their diet.
#2: Meat Eater’s Teeth
Fluffy's teeth are thin and pointed for a reason. They are used for ripping and tearing meat – not chewing. Often, cats will chew their food as little as possible before swallowing. A cat’s jaws move only up and down (not side to side) and they have powerful muscles in their necks for swallowing meat. Eating vegetation requires serious chewing. Animals that naturally eat plants have large, flat molars; think about a horse and his carrots. Not only are the teeth flat, the jaw moves side to side to help grind the plant matter.
#3: Short Digestive Tract
Evolution has resulted in a shortened digestive tract in meat-eating animals. Since cats eat their prey whole (including bacteria and other iffy items), it makes sense that they would need to digest food quickly. The longer the food is in the digestive tract, the more time for bacteria to build up and potentially cause illness. On average, the entire journey of the food from the mouth to the anus in a cat (20 hours) is less than half the time of a human (53 hours).
#4: Lack of Correct Enzymes
Digesting vegetation requires certain enzymes to break down the cell walls of the plant. Animals that naturally eat plants produce an enzyme called cellulase in their saliva that helps begin to break down the plant matter.
Cats do not produce cellulase. Instead, a cat’s pancreas must produce a different enzyme called amylase to help digest plants. The cat’s pancreas is only designed to create a small amount of amylase as there is little plant matter in a wild cat’s diet. When a cat’s diet is high in plant matter, the cat’s pancreas becomes stressed from having to produce enough amylase to digest that plant matter.
#5: Inability to create certain amino acids and fatty acids
Amino acids are found in every food whether plant or animal based. These are the building blocks of proteins and fats that are needed to sustain life. Sometimes an animal’s body can create necessary amino acids and other times they must be found in the food the animal eats. When an animal cannot create a certain amino acid it needs, that amino acid is considered an essential amino acid for that animal. There are also essential fatty acids (fatty acids that an animal’s body cannot produce).
Cats have essential amino acids and essential fatty acids that can only be found in meat. Cats also cannot create vitamin D using their skin. They need to get vitamin D3 from animal sources (not D2 from plant sources). Other vitamins and minerals cats must get from meat are vitamin B, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and vitamin A.
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