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How much fat do cats actually need in their diet?


Fat is often thought of as a bad thing in terms of food. But that’s not necessarily the case especially when it comes to our domestic cats. Cats are classified as obligate carnivores. This means that they require nutrients that are only naturally found in meat and they cannot survive without it. They evolved eating a diet low in carbohydrates, with high protein and moderate fat levels. And this is what we generally would try to replicate in their domestic diets.

Fat is used as the main energy store for virtually all animals

In fact, it is one of the most concentrated sources of energy in our food. Cats in particular need fat as an energy source as they are relatively poor at using carbohydrates like glucose. Fat is also vital for a number of functions with the body. It forms part of the membrane or outer coating of every cell in the body, it coats nerve cells and helps them transmit electrical signals more efficiently, and it is essential for the formation of hormones. Certain vitamins, A, D, E and K, require fat for their absorption, and sufficient dietary fat is essential for the health of the skin and coat.

In addition, studies have shown that fat improves the palatability of food; which is always useful for our notoriously fussy felines. Fat can also help to make them feel full after eating, making them less likely to overeat. However too much fat can also be problematic and above a certain level food actually becomes less palatable. High fat foods can also contribute to weight gain and obesity, and cause diarrhoea.

Essential Fatty Acids

There are also some specific types of fat that should be considered separately; essential fatty acids including omega 3 fatty acid, and medium chain triglycerides. There is evidence that these particular fats may be useful in the prevention and management of certain diseases. However there are no specific guidelines for how much of these nutrients our cats’ diets should contain. 

Diet recommendations

The European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF) recommends that manufactured cat foods contain a minimum of 9% fat overall. But this is a minimum and most experts agree a cat’s diet should contain somewhere between 20 and 40% fat. This is higher than many other mammals. Certain groups of cats benefit from even higher levels, including young cats, and pregnant and lactating queens which require extra energy for growth. Some elderly cats will also benefit from the high palatability and concentrated energy levels with a higher fat diet; especially when they suffer from a reduced appetite and may be less good at digesting their food.

Cats with specific health requirements

Cats who suffer from certain intestinal diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may also benefit from higher levels of fat in their diet for a number of reasons. Many cats suffering from these conditions lose weight and struggle to regain it as their intestines are less efficient at absorbing the nutrients from their food. In addition, many cats have a reduced appetite due to problems such as nausea. As fat improves the palatability of the food, it encourages them to eat more and due to its high energy density they don’t need to eat as much to get the same amount of calories. Fat is also quite easy for cats to digest. Omega 3 FAs may have additional benefits due to their effect of reducing inflammation which should theoretically help with the underlying disease.

For similar reasons, cats that are suffering from certain forms of cancers may also benefit from increased dietary fat levels. Cancers often produce chemicals that suppress appetite at the same time as using up nutrients to the detriment of the affected pet. In addition, medications used in the treatment of cancer may cause nausea and lethargy that further reduce their desire to eat. Highly palatable, easily digestible and high energy foods can help with the marked loss of weight often seen with tumours and fat is vital for this.

The role of omega 3 fatty acids in a variety of disease processes is an emerging field

Brains in particular require omega 3s for their correct function. There’s evidence that supplementing these nutrients in diseases such as dementia and for pets with behavioural problems may be useful. Omega 3 fatty acids also appear to have an anti-inflammatory effect and there is increasing evidence for their use in diseases including osteoarthritis, kidney disease, heart disease and some cancers. However too much can cause problems such as excessive bleeding or bruising, diarrhoea and poor wound healing. Before starting your cat on any supplements it is important to speak to your veterinary surgeon to ensure it is safe for your pet and won’t interfere with any treatment that they are already on. Your vet can also advise on dosing and high quality sources for supplements. 

Medium chain triglycerides are another group of fats undergoing investigation and may prove useful for certain diseases of the brain but palatability can be a problem, with many cats refusing diets high in this nutrient.

Fat really is essential!

Fat is very much an essential nutrient for our pet cats and optimising fat levels in their diet can help them live long and healthy lives. As our understanding grows, supplementing certain types of fats is likely to become increasingly common to treat and prevent disease in our precious pets.

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