What Does It Mean to Be an Obligate Carnivore?

cat caught a mouse

Your cat, like all cats, is an obligate carnivore, or true carnivore. What exactly does that mean? In this article, we will examine what carnivores are, what obligate carnivores, why cats are obligate carnivores, and what all of this means for your cat’s health, well-being, and diet.

What is a Carnivore?

There are three types of eaters within the animal kingdom: carnivores, herbivores and omnivores. Carnivores eat meat-based diets, while herbivores thrive on plant-based diets, and omnivores can eat both meat and plants. A carnivore thrives on a diet of meat.

What is an Obligate Carnivore?

The word “obligate” means “by necessity.” Cats are obligate carnivores, which simply means that they must eat meat in order to survive. Eating meat is a biological necessity for them. Cats cannot survive on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Obligate carnivores may also be referred to as “hypercarnivores.”

Why is a Cat an Obligate Carnivore?

To answer the question of why cats are obligate carnivores, you must understand that all felines are obligate carnivores – from domestic house cats to wild mountain lions. Throughout all of their evolutionary history, cats have needed meat to survive.

Obligate carnivores cannot make amino acids and certain vitamins in their own bodies, the way omnivores and herbivores can do. Over time, they have lost this ability, as the animals they ate had already done that for them.

In short, obligate carnivores, like cats, lack the enzyme that is necessary to split carotene, which is derived from plants, into vitamin A. They can only get vitamin A in their diets from eating the liver of their prey. Obligate carnivores also cannot synthesize essential long-chain unsaturated fatty acids that other animals can synthesize from plants. They also cannot form niacin from tryptophan, and have a high necessity for taurine and arginine, both of which are found in the flesh of animals.

Cats and other obligate carnivores meet their blood sugar requirements by breaking down protein, rather than carbohydrates, in their diet. If they don’t get enough protein in their diets (i.e., from meat), they will start to break down their own body organs and muscles to get the necessary protein.

As a side note, cats have the shortest digestive tract compared to their body size of just about any mammal. Their digestive system has adapted to eating raw meat, and their metabolisms have changed as they don’t need to be efficient at breaking down carbohydrates (since they don’t eat many of them).

What Other Animals are Obligate Carnivores?

In addition to all members of the Felidae family, other animals that must eat meat in order to survive include dolphins, mink, seals, tarsiers, walruses, sea lions, snakes, raptors, crocodiles, sharks, spiders, pinnipeds, and axoloti.

Cat watching a mouse

How Have Cats’ Bodies Adapted to Make Them Effective Obligate Carnivores?

Cats have some unique physical characteristics that make being an obligate carnivore even easier for them:

  • Shorter digestive tract (mentioned above) makes it easier to digest raw flesh
  • Sharp pointed teeth that do not line up with each other to rip meat effectively
  • Sharp claws to attack prey
  • Strong jaws that open wide to rip meat from prey
  • No amylase in their saliva (an enzyme that helps herbivores and omnivores break down plant cells while chewing)
  • Forward-facing ears made up of 20 muscles helps them detect prey
  • Eyes on the front of the head with many rod cells in the retina, making it easier to see prey in low light
  • Receive energy from fat and proteins, not carbohydrates

What Is the Best Diet to Feed My Cat?

Cats need meat-based diets that are high in moisture, have few to no carbohydrates, and contain quality sources of muscle meat. Raw diets can do this (see below). Traditional kibble-based cat food diets are low in moisture and may be high in meat meals, grain and starches to hold the kibble together. They are not necessarily the best diet for your cat.

What If I Want to Feed My Cat a Vegan Diet?

The ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) does not recommend feeding your cat a vegan diet. They need meat in order to survive and thrive. Cats cannot get their necessary nutrients from plants or fungi.

Should I Feed My Cat a Raw Diet?

Raw diets have become popular among pet owners in recent years. They can provide cats with more efficient amounts of protein than processed diets. However, if you are switching your cat to a raw diet, do so gradually, not suddenly. Bacteria can be carried in raw foods that are not prepared properly and can make your cat (and others in the household) sick.

Talk to your veterinarian if you are interested in starting your cat on a raw diet. There are many choices available on the market, and they can direct you to the best one for your cat.

What Can Feeding My Cat the Wrong Diet Do to Their Health?

If a cat eats the wrong type of diet (one that is not primarily meat-based, and is full of fillers and meals), the following health problems can occur:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Kidney disease
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Dental disease
  • Formation of urinary crystals and blockages

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