What Nutrients Does My Cat Need? What Do They All Do?

a ragdoll cat eating from a glass bowl

As a cat owner, I know that shopping for cat food can be overwhelming. We all want to give our cats the best possible nutrition but don’t necessarily want to spend extra money on things they don’t need. It’s not unusual for pet food labels to be misleading. Manufacturers capitalize on trends like “grain-free” or “added probiotics” to sell their products. But which ones actually contain the nutrition your cat needs to thrive? And what exactly do all these vitamins and minerals do for your cat?

Let’s take a look at the nutrients cats need and why. I’ll show you the crucial nutrients your cat needs and what they all do!

Cats Are Obligate Carnivores

Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they need animal protein in order to survive. In other words, they must eat meat. In fact, cats can’t digest plant protein, and they can’t produce certain vitamins and amino acids without meat in their diet. They need meat to survive.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. They are linked together in chains called polypeptides. Some proteins also contain nitrogen-containing compounds called purines (adenine and guanine). Proteins perform many functions in the body, like building muscle, maintaining body tissues like skin and organs, transporting oxygen through red blood cells, aiding digestion so food can be more easily absorbed, producing antibodies to fight disease, and producing enzymes to regulate chemical reactions in cells throughout the body.

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Cats Need Amino Acids

Your cat needs 20 amino acids that their body can’t produce on their own. These essential amino acids must be obtained from food. The most important ones are taurine, arginine, lysine, and methionine.

The Importance of Taurine

While it’s important to make sure all essential amino acids are contained in your cat’s diet, taurine is particularly important. While taurine is readily available in animal-based proteins, cats can’t store it in their bodies. Because of this, it must be consumed on a regular basis to avoid a deficiency.

Symptoms of taurine deficiency don’t show up right away. They develop over several months. By the time it becomes apparent that a cat is deficient in taurine, the deficiency is already severe. Taurine deficiency leads to impaired vision through the deterioration of the retina. It also causes the muscles of the heart to weaken, leading to dilated cardiomyopathy.

Omega Fatty Acids

Arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, is another vital nutrient for a cat’s health. This fatty acid is used to create prostaglandins and leukotrienes. These compounds are essential for blood clotting and the proper functioning of the immune system. Arachidonic acid also helps cats fight off parasites like fleas.

Arachidonic acid can be found in chicken and eggs but is particularly high in fish oil supplements like salmon oil. If your cat’s food contains omega-6 fatty acids, it’s likely they are getting enough. Overall supplementation shouldn’t exceed 2% of their daily calorie intake.

How Much Protein Does a Cat Need?

Adult cats require a minimum of 6.5 g/100 kcal of protein daily. Pregnant or nursing cats and kittens need 7.5g/100 kcal per day. Most commercial cat foods contain 1.5 to 2 times this amount of protein. If your cat is eating food that meets the AAFCO pet nutrition guidelines, you are safe to assume they are getting enough protein in their diet.

grey cat eating meat
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Fat as an Energy Source

Fat is an essential nutrient for cats. They need about 0.5 to 1.5% fat in their diet, but unlike other animals, cats don’t store fat for later use. This means that they need a constant supply of energy from the food they eat to maintain a healthy weight and energy level throughout the day.

While we tend to think of fat as bad, a fat-free diet will make your cat sick. Because they are small animals, cats need high amounts of energy from a small amount of food. This is called caloric density, and it’s important for your cat to stay healthy. It’s also why you want to choose food that packs as much quality nutrition into every bite as possible.

A healthy kitten requires approximately 60 calories per pound of body weight to maintain its health, while adult cats need between 400 and 500 calories per pound daily. The ideal diet will contain around 5–10% fat on a dry matter basis (after all the water is removed). That means if you feed your cat 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of food, it should contain between 5 and 10 grams of fat (0.18 ounces).

Other Important Nutrients

In addition to protein, amino acids, omega fatty acids, and fat, there are a number of other vitamins and minerals that are important to your cat’s overall health.


Water isn’t a nutrient per se, but it is essential. A cat’s body is 70% water. Water helps a cat’s body distribute nutrients properly, maintain body temperature, eliminate toxins, and metabolize food correctly. Unlike other animals, cats can’t go without water for more than 24 hours without suffering serious health consequences, so it’s very important that they have constant access to clean drinking water.

grey British cat looks at blue water bowl on the floor
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Vitamin A

Vitamin A is important for healthy vision and the maintenance of a strong immune system.

Vitamin D

Known as the “sunshine vitamin,” Vitamin D plays a crucial role in the functioning of nerves, bones, and muscles.

B Vitamins

  • Vitamin B1, also known as Thiamine, is essential for carbohydrate metabolism and nerve impulse transmission.
  • Vitamin B2, or Riboflavin, allows oxygen distribution throughout your cat’s body and improves the breakdown of nutrients. Vitamin B2 deficiency can cause a decrease in the quality of your cat’s skin and coat.
  • Vitamin B3 (Niacin) keeps the gastrointestinal, skin, and nervous systems healthy.
  • Vitamin B6, or Pyridoxine, plays a role in the functioning of the immune system and red blood cells. This vitamin is necessary for proper protein metabolism. B6 deficiency leads to seizures and kidney lesions, but it is extremely rare.


Iron is important for the production of red blood cells and for transporting oxygen throughout the body. Commercial cat foods contain supplemental iron to meet dietary requirements.

tabby cat eating cat food out of bowl inside
Image Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock


Calcium plays a role in a number of different body functions, including:

  • Bone growth
  • Blood coagulation
  • Muscle contraction
  • Nerve impulse transmission


Magnesium allows your cat’s body to absorb other vitamins and minerals. It also enhances bone growth in kittens and assists with digestive enzyme production.


In order for your cat’s body to efficiently remove toxins and waste products and transfer nutrients directly to cells, they need sodium. While too much sodium may temporarily cause increased thirst, extra sodium is excreted through your cat’s urine.


Proper protein digestion requires chloride to maintain proper body pH.


To sum it up, cats need a diet that contains adequate nutrients for their bodies to function properly. In most cases, these nutritional needs can be met by feeding high-quality commercial cat food. I recommend checking AAFCO guidelines, which carefully outline the needs of cats, and foods that meet these standards are checked to make sure they contain enough of each compound. If you are unsure if your food is meeting your cat’s needs, the best resource is your veterinarian. They can recommend the best food for your cat.

Featured Image Credit: Snowice_81, Shutterstock

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