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How Different Nutrients Can Support Your Cat’s Health

by Lauren Samet

All domestic pets require the right balance of nutrients if they are to remain healthy. Cats, in particular, are a specialist case, because they have evolved to eat just meat. Sometimes known as “obligate carnivores”, a cat’s diet requires several nutrients not essential, for example, to dogs. 

But what are these nutrients, and what role do they play in your cat’s body?

The National Research Council (NRC) is renowned for its unique body of work called “The Nutrient Requirements of Dogs & Cats”. Compiling decades of research, this is essentially the manual for cat and dog nutrition. Most UK and European legislation for pet nutrition are based around the research and scientific evidence that fills its pages. The table below, based on the NRC’s work, indicates the nutrients necessary in a cat’s diet, with those entries in bold being particularly important…

Table 1. The essential nutrients needed in a cat’s diet (those nutrients highlighted in bold are particularly important to supply within a feline diet, although lack of any could cause an imbalance and problem).

Let’s investigate the most important of these ingredients in a little more detail, examining the roles that they play and the potential impact of a deficiency…



Protein Amino Acids Arginine, Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lycine, Methionine (spared by Cysteine), Phenylalanine (spared by Tyrosine), Threonine, Tryptophan, Valine, Taurine
Fat Linoleic Acid
Arachidonic Acid
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
Minerals Macrominerals Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Sodium, Potassium, Chloride
  Microminerals Iron, Copper, Zinc, Manganese, Selenium, Iodine
Vitamins Fat-soluble vitamins
Water-soluble vitamins
Vitamins A, D3, E and K
Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, B5, B12, B9, B7 (aka vitamin H), Choline

Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein; a key nutrient responsible for growth and repair of muscles, tissues and organs. 

As carnivores, cats have naturally evolved to thrive on a high protein diet. In a domestic setting, they, therefore, require a diet that offers ample amino acids to prevent deficiencies.

While protein can be made from a range of different amino acids, some are considered to be more important than others as they cannot be synthesized in the cat’s body. These are known as “essential amino acids”.  Here are some of the most important …


Taurine is one of the best-known essential amino acids for cats. Deficiencies can cause blindness, deafness and even heart failure. Other symptoms can include poor immune response, compromised development and reproductive failure. 

Taurine is most commonly and abundantly found in birds, rodents and fish.  Such is the importance of taurine, many complete cat foods contain added taurine to ensure a sufficient supply in the diet. 


Arginine is essential for the removal of ammonia in the body (a waste product from protein breakdown). Without sufficient arginine, ammonia can build up in your cat’s bloodstream to toxic levels. Common signs of arginine deficiency can include diarrhoea, weight loss and food refusal. 

As with some of the other nutrients, excesses of arginine can be just as dangerous, causing problems such as poor development. That said, at present, there is a lack of evidence for a safe upper limit so it is important you follow feeding guidelines for additional supplementation.

Most meat protein sources contain arginine, and it is abundantly found in gelatine, skin, muscle and hair. 


Lysine is another essential amino acid for cats because it plays an important role in protein synthesis. Just like arginine, it is abundant in animal tissues i.e. meat. Milk and soya are also great sources of lysine. 

A deficiency of lysine in the diet can slow the growth in kittens and weaken the immune system. Research has demonstrated that supplementing with lysine can help a cat fight off the feline herpes virus and reduce the clinical impact of an infection.

Did you know? Lysine and methionine together can produce carnitine, a non-essential amino acid that helps turn fat into fuel for the body.

Methionine & Cysteine

These amino acids are often classed together because they are known as the ‘sulphur amino acids’. Methionine & cysteine are necessary for a healthy coat in cats; they play a key role in hair structure by supporting the creation of keratin.

Phenylalanine & Tyrosine

These two amino acids are often classed together because of their similar chemical structures. Phenylalanine is considered to be an essential amino acid as it cannot be made in the body, though tyrosine can be synthesized from phenylalanine if needed.

Their function within a cat’s body is to synthesize  pigments (the colours) found in a cat’s coat and eyes. Tyrosine also supports reproductive health, and the formation of the chemicals dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenalin, which all play key roles in a cat’s brain and behaviour. 

Essential Fats for Cats

As carnivores, cats have the ability to digest and use higher levels of fat than many other mammals. 

Fat is a concentrated source of energy that is also important for the transport of fat-soluble vitamins, cell structures and helpfully assists with the palatability of food.

Sadly, due to the highly concentrated energy levels that fat offers, excessive amounts can lead to weight gain and obesity if not properly managed. 

Arachidonic Acid

Arachidonic acid is an essential fatty acid with deficiencies being linked to circulatory problems and a decline in reproductive health. 

The best dietary source of arachidonic acid for cats is animal fat. 

Fat-Soluble Vitamins

Vitamin A (also referred to as Retinol or Beta carotene)

Cats cannot produce their own vitamin A so it is an essential part of their diet. Vitamin A is important for vision, growth and a healthy immune system. 

A diet deficient in vitamin A can impact all the above areas, leading to problems including reduced eye health, muscle weakness and weight loss, together with reproductive issues. 

It is also important to appreciate that too much vitamin A in the diet can have negative consequences. Excessive vitamin A can lead to a toxic condition known as “hypervitaminosis A”, which can cause skeletal problems in kittens, osteoporosis and other abnormalities. 

Keeping vitamin A levels within the correct intake boundaries is therefore important. For example, feeding too much liver to your cat (which is rich in vitamin A) is one of the more common causes of this condition.

Vitamin D (also known as Calciferol)

Vitamin D is another vitamin that has both a minimum and a maximum recommended feeding amount. Vitamin D has close links to calcium and phosphorus levels in the body, playing an important role in bone health. 

Like vitamin A, excessive levels of Vitamin D can lead to further problems, including lethargy, anorexia and calcium being deposited into the soft tissues.

The two common types of dietary Vitamin D which exist are Vitamin D2 and Vitamin D3. Research suggests Vitamin D3 (animal based) is the better supplemented form of the vitamin to use as it has a more efficient impact on the overall vitamin D status of the body than Vitamin D2 (plant based).

Vitamin E (sometimes referred to as Tocopherol)

Vitamin E plays a supportive role to your cat’s immune system. For this reason you’ll often see slightly higher levels in senior cat foods or those designed to assist poor health. 

Vitamin E can also help control oxidative damage from free radicals, which once again can be beneficial for older animals.

Lastly, vitamin E is a natural preservative, so it can help to prolong the shelf life of cat food.

Vitamin K (scientifically known as Naphthoquinone)

Vitamin K has a role in blood clotting and therefore helps to prevent excessive bleeding if injury occurs.

Some vitamin K can be produced by the gut flora, however, diets that are rich in vitamin E or fish may prevent this process from occurring, consequently it should also be included in the diet.

Water-Soluble Vitamins

Vitamin B3 (also known as Niacin)

Niacin is important for the function of enzymes in your cat’s body; functional proteins that are crucial to many different bodily chemical reactions. Cats cannot make vitamin B3 themselves, and therefore it must be provided in their diet. Deficiency can result in weight loss, a lack of interest in food, and even death.

And finally …WATER

Water is often overlooked when discussing feline nutrition (or any animal’s nutrition),. Water helps to regulate an animal’s body temperature, metabolise fat and aid digestion to name just a few roles. Water transports nutrients around the body, and toxins back out again, as per human health it is important not to let your cat become dehydrated. Providing a constant supply of clean, fresh water in one or more water bowls for your cat/s around the home can encourage them to take a drink more often.

National Research Council (2006) Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs: A Science-Based Guide for Pet Owners. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press
National Research Council (2006) Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.