Cat Food 101: What You Need to Know About Feeding Your Cat

We answer frequently asked questions from cat owners about cat food and feeding.

By Annie Stuart
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed by Mark J. Stickney, DVM

You want to keep your feline healthy and frisky and you know that good nutrition is essential. But what makes a healthy cat food? What type of cat food is best for your pet? And do you need to know anything special about storing it? Here's an introduction to cat food, where we answer frequently asked questions from cat owners about cat food and feeding.

What is cat food made of?

In general, cat food consists of water, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. But how close your cat's diet comes to that of its feral cousins depends on what formula the cat food manufacturer uses.

Proteins are the basic building blocks for cells, tissues, and organs. They can be either animal-based or plant-based, and either type may show up in cat food. Soy, vegetables, and cereals are examples of plant-based proteins. Chicken, lamb, turkey, and fish are examples of animal-based proteins. In addition, cat food often contains byproducts of animals or plants, the parts that people don't normally eat.

Cats are meat eaters. That means they require two to three times the protein that omnivores, such as dogs or humans, do. As strict carnivores, they rely mainly on nutrients found in animals -- high protein, moderate fat, and minimal carbohydrates -- to meet their nutritional needs. For one thing, cats' bodies are adapted for metabolizing animal protein and fats. In addition, animal-based proteins also contain complete amino acids, such as taurine, arginine, cysteine, and methionine. These are essential for cats whose bodies don't synthesize them in adequate amounts.

Although carbohydrates provide energy, cats use them less efficiently as an energy source. Their bodies are designed for a steady release of glucose from protein. The most concentrated form of energy, fats in cat food help with absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and provide essential fatty acids that a cat also can't synthesize well. These include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. For good nutrition, cats also need vitamins, such as A, B, D, E, and K, as well as minerals, such as calcium and phosphorus.