The subject of carbohydrates in a cat’s diet is often controversial. When pet owners look at wild cats and the meat they consume, they understandably assume their cats should also eat a diet high in protein and low in carbs. Yet most commercial cat foods have a protein level of around 30% and a much higher percentage of carbs.
This leads to questions of whether or not cats need and can consume carbs. As you seek to feed your cat a balanced diet, here's what you need to know about carbohydrate content.
Do Cats Need Carbs in Their Diet?
Many cat owners think that their cats don’t require carbohydrate content in their food because they’re obligate carnivores. This term is confusing, but the reality is that carbs are necessary for all mammals, including cats.
In a mammal’s digestion, carbs get broken down into glucose. Glucose supplies energy to the body’s cells in order to do their work. This means that they do need carbs in their diets.
That said, cats don’t need many carbs when compared to other mammals. The required amount of carbs in a cat’s diet is much less than that of dogs. Still, some carbohydrates are necessary, so a completely carb-free diet isn’t going to supply the right amount of energy for your cat.
The source of the carbs is important, too. For example, cats don’t need grains to live healthy, happy lives. They can get carbs from other plant-based sources — as long as they have the right balance of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
How Do Cats Process Carbohydrates?
Cats do not process dietary carbohydrates in the same way other animals do. They lack a liver enzyme called glucokinase. This enzyme converts glucose into the form cells use properly. Thus, too much glucose in the diet from carbohydrates can be dangerous because the cells can’t use it.
Cats do, however, have other carb-digesting enzymes, so they can digest carbs and use them as an energy source. However, cats have much lower levels of these enzymes compared to dogs. Thus, limiting carbs is important, so they don’t end up with too many in their diets.
Cats also use the fiber found in many carbohydrate sources to keep the digestive system running properly. Since protein lacks fiber, eliminating carbs from cat food altogether can create problems with constipation and other digestive complaints.
The Difference Between Wild Cats' and Domesticated Cats' Carb Intake
Domestic and wild cats have similar ancestors, but their eating habits are completely different. Many pet owners looking to give their pets a more natural diet forgo kibble and canned food in favor of fresh foods they feel closely mirror a wild cat’s diet — but this can cause them to overlook the importance of carbs.
While it’s true that you rarely see wild cats eating berries or leaves, they do consume carbohydrates. In the wild, a cat consumes their prey in its entirety. This includes the prey animal's stomach contents and even some of its bones, which can all be a source of carbs.
Cheetahs are wild cats that are the most similar to house cats and tend to eat the prey animal's stomach contents first. This ensures they get some plant matter in their diet because they’re consuming the food their prey ate, which is usually plant-based.
However, domesticated cats usually eat canned or dry food, not fresh prey. Even those that eat fresh food don't consume the entire prey animal; They don’t have access to the stomach contents and bones. As a result, any carbs they consume must be added to their food.
The Importance of a Balanced Diet for Cats
For your cat to live a healthy and happy life, they need a balanced diet. This diet should be what the pet food industry calls “protein forward.” This means that the highest percentage of macronutrients in the food comes from protein.
However, you shouldn’t feed your pet a pure protein diet. Canned fish and meat may be a good treat on occasion, but feeding only this will rob your cat of important vitamins and minerals they need. Without carbs, there’s no calcium or phosphorus in the diet. Similarly, a raw food diet with no fruits or vegetables won’t give your cat a balanced diet either because of the lack of fiber.
Feeding a balanced diet helps keep blood glucose levels stable and promotes optimal weight management. It also ensures your cat has enough carbs for their energy expenditure needs, which are all vital components of a healthy cat.
A Note on Diabetes
Many cat owners are afraid of feeding too many carbs to their cats because of the risk of diabetes. Because cats can’t digest carbs like other mammals do, it makes sense to assume that too many carbs would lead to high blood sugar levels, increasing the risk of diabetes mellitus.
However, research finds that this isn’t the case. Instead, indoor lifestyles, low physical activity levels, and obesity are risk factors for diabetes mellitus rather than carb-heavy diets. A balanced diet combined with regular exercise is what helps protect against diabetes.
What Percentage of a Cat’s Diet Should Be Carbohydrates?
Carbs are essential to a cat’s diet, but you do need to limit them. Our experts recommend a low-carbohydrate diet with between 10% to 15% of the calorie content from carbs is considered the bare minimum — which is about what they'd consume in the wild. Ideally, no more than 30% of the calories should come from carbs.
The Association of American Food Control Officials doesn't require pet food brands to label carb content, nor does it have carb requirements for cat food. However, AAFCO does have requirements for crude protein, which is 26% for adult cats, and crude fat, which is 9%. It also requires a specific set of minerals, vitamins, and crude fiber. These macronutrients and vitamins appear on the pet food label's “guaranteed analysis” section. If a food has these ratios and nutrients, AAFCO allows the manufacturer to call it “complete and balanced,” regardless of its carb content.
Why Is Fiber Important in a Cat’s Diet?
One of the reasons that severely low-carb diets are harmful to cats is due to the lack of fiber. Fiber, which usually comes from carbs, is very important for a cat.
Because of the way they groom themselves, cats often develop hairballs. Fiber helps them break down the hairball, so they don’t need to have surgery to remove it. Similarly, fiber moves stool through the digestive system. When combined with the right moisture content in food, fiber can also protect a cat against constipation. Many cat owners are surprised to learn that indoor-only cats are prone to constipation because of the lack of fiber in many diets.
A Note on Amino Acids for Cats
A discussion about a cat’s diet wouldn’t be complete without a quick note on amino acids. Though they don’t come from carbs, amino acids are essential to a healthy cat. They’re necessary for maintaining muscle and energy levels in the body.
Taurine is one of these amino acids that your cat needs in their diet; however, they cannot produce it on their own, so it needs to be supplemented within the foods they consume. Taurine is found in quality meat sources and is necessary for heart function, digestion, and vision.
Arginine is another amino acid cats need in their diets. Unlike taurine, this one they can produce — but not in sufficient quantities. Arginine works in the urinary system to convert ammonia into urea, and insufficient levels can lead to a build-up of ammonia in the blood, which is fatal.
Feed Your Cat a Balanced Diet With The Honest Kitchen
As you’re looking for a high-protein, low-carb food option that is properly balanced for your cat’s nutritional profile, consider The Honest Kitchen. The Honest Kitchen's complete line of cat food and treats are made from human grade ingredients and are free from fillers and artificial preservatives.
Our popular cat food recipes contain sweet potato and white potato for carbs and fiber, as well as high-quality proteins like free range chicken, cage free turkey, and wild caught fish — plus dozens of other ingredients that cats love! All of our grain free options are properly balanced to meet your cat's unique nutritional needs.
Shop our collection of cat foods and treats today to find a balanced diet for your cat.
*Health Disclaimer: This post is educational in nature and doesn’t constitute health advice. Please consult your pet's veterinarian or other healthcare professional for specific guidance on this topic.