ALL ABOUT DOGS and CATS Resource Center for Canine & Feline Lovers
The Feline Food Pyramid
By Darcy Lockman
Cat owner Amy Morgan, 32, of Brooklyn, New York, has
gone to great lengths to eat a balanced diet. A vegan,
Morgan had to do her research to make sure she was getting
all the nutrients she needed, and she started with the
government’s Food Guide Pyramid. Despite her human
nutrition savvy, Morgan feels uncertain about what her seven-
year-old calico cats, Mashy and Ruki, need. “I know what
balanced nutrition for people looks like, but not so much for
cats,” she says. “Are they getting everything they could for
While no federal department oversees kitty consumption, veterinary nutritionists specialize in
structuring balanced diets for cats. “The best thing is probably a commercial food with a
nutrition claim certified by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO,” says
veterinary nutritionist Sally Perea, DVM. AAFCO sets standards and enforcement policies for
regulating the manufacture, distribution and sale of animal feeds, including cat food.
Below, with the help of Dr. Perea, we have gone beyond AAFCO statements to construct a
four-group Feline Food Pyramid Guide to complement the popular USDA graphic.
The bottom of the feline food pyramid, the largest part, represents the victuals group your
furry friend needs the most -- animal protein. Felines are “obligate carnivores,” which means
that they must consume meat to get all of the nutrients they need. “At least twenty-five
percent of their calories should come from protein,” emphasizes Dr. Perea, who is also an
assistant clinical professor at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
She notes that this need separates them from dogs and humans. “Without enough protein,
cats break down their own muscle quicker than we would.”
Animal protein also contains preformed Vitamin A, integral to growth as well as maintaining
healthy skin and hair. While people and dogs can synthesize A from the beta-carotene in plant
pigment, cats cannot. They rely completely on animal sources. “Carrots will not meet their
vitamin requirement,” says Dr. Perea.
Finally, in order to avoid heart and eye problems, cats need the amino acid taurine. Cats cannot
synthesize taurine from other amino acid precursors. They have to get it straight from animal
tissue. Taurine helps your feline to form what are called biliary salts, which are necessary for
digestion of fats in your cat’s small intestine. Taurine also supports feline vision, heart function,
the nervous system and reproduction.
While animal protein is the mainstay of the feline food pyramid, your cat also needs animal fat to
thrive. Indeed, fat fills the second-largest slot in the pyramid. “A mouse is almost half fat,”
points out Dr. Perea, referring to a feline’s diet in the wild. Cats specifically need a fatty
substance called arachidonic acid, an Omega-6 fatty acid essential for energy production. This
acid is not found in vegetable oils, only in animal fat. Additionally, fish fat provides Omega-3 fatty
acid, which may prevent a host of inflammatory conditions that could affect everything from
your cat’s arteries to its urinary tract.
Grains Prevent Pains
Grains are second from the top in the feline food pyramid. Cats require less fiber than protein or
fat, but they do need it. Carbohydrates are not only an energy source for cats, but they also
aid digestive functioning. “Fiber can help with the health of the large intestine,” says Dr. Perea,
“It makes for a healthier gastrointestinal tract.”
Fruits and Veggies
While you don’t need to start feeding your cat green salads and fruit cups, you may want to
seek out a cat food that contains them, or at least lists the antioxidant Vitamin E found in
green leafy vegetables as well as apples, berries and mangos, to name a few. Vitamin E plays a
role in the formation and maintenance of cells, and also in the metabolism of fats. Cats benefit
from the nutrients in fruits and vegetables, if only in small amounts.
The USDA may not be offering nutritional advice for cats any time soon, but educated cat
owners can nevertheless ensure that their four-legged friends get all the nutrients they need.
With the right proportions from the right food groups, your pet’s diet will satisfy the feline food
pyramid guidelines while satisfying your feline’s hunger, too.
Darcy Lockman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York
Times and Rolling Stone. She grew up with a feisty tabby cat named Cleopatrick and later
roomed with a couple of calicos.