What Do Cats Eat? – What To Feed a Cat

What do cats eat?

Cats are obligate carnivores which means they must have meat in their diet to survive. Their primary ancestors lived on a diet of small rodents and birds. Cats require a high protein diet with a variety of different nutrients such as taurine, arginine, calcium, niacin (vitamin B3), pyridoxine (vitamin B6) and thiamine (vitamin B1), to name a few. Many of these nutrients are found in animals only, making a vegetarian diet impossible for cats.

Dietary requirements will change during the different life stages.

  • Young kittens require milk for the first three weeks of life, before slowly beginning to eat solid food, around six to ten weeks of age they will begin to wean.
  • Pregnant or lactating females have higher nutritional requirements and your veterinarian may recommend feeding her a kitten diet.
  • Adult cats require a maintenance diet.
  • Senior cats also have unique dietary requirements and should be fed a diet specifically for older cats and/or a special prescription diet to address any underlying medical conditions such as diabetes.

Types of cat food

There are two choices when feeding your cat, a commercially prepared diet, or homemade. These can be further divided into the following:


Home made cat food

  • Raw or cooked muscle, organs and bones

Commercial food:

Commercial cat food

  • Raw
  • Dry
  • Canned
  • Prescription (canned or dry)
  • Non-prescription special diets

A lot of pet owners choose a combination of the above. I personally prefer a combination of commercially prepared food AND some raw food, including uncooked bones to help keep the teeth in good condition. Feline nutrition is such a complex science that I feel I do not understand enough for me to attempt a raw diet with my own cats. But many well-researched people have moved to a raw/homemade diet with much success.

Most pet shops and supermarkets sell raw, dry, canned and special diets. Brands available in the supermarket must meet the nutritional requirements of cats, however, the cheaper products often contain more fillers. These come in the form of carbohydrates, usually corn. Cats will need to eat more food to meet their energy requirements, therefore cheaper brands don’t always save you money.

Special diets are becoming increasingly popular. They cater to the following:

  • Kitten
  • Adult
  • Senior
  • Hairballs
  • Breed-specific
  • Indoor cat

Should a cat eat one kind of cat food?

Manufacturers want to build brand loyalty and encourage pet owners to choose one brand, or type of food and stick with it. However much research goes into the production of cat food, I still prefer to feed a variety of foods for several reasons.

Developing fussy habits: If cats become accustomed to one type of food, problems can occur down the track if the food becomes unavailable, either temporary or permanent, or if the cat needs to switch to a prescription diet to manage a disease. It is common for cats to go on hunger strike if they are not fed the food they have become used to which can be potentially life-threatening as cats who do not eat are at risk of developing hepatic lipidosis.

Meeting their nutritional needs: We still don’t know everything there is to know about feline nutrition. Is it possible that the brand/type of food given really is covering all their nutritional needs? Even if it is low in just one amino acid, vitamin, or micro-nutrient, it can have a huge impact on your cat’s health. In the late 1980s, thousands of cats died due to commercial diets low in taurine.

Pros and cons of different types of cat food: Each type of food has its pros and cons.

  • Dry food is convenient, but it can cause urinary issues due to cats not making up for the reduced moisture by drinking more.
  • Canned food has high water content, but it’s not great for dental health, it has also been linked to hyperthyroidism.
  • Raw is a good choice if the cat owner has a good level of knowledge of feline nutrition and food safety.

My own four cats have a varied diet which consists of dry food to graze on, canned or raw food twice a day, and chicken necks for dental health.

What are prescription diets for cats?

In some cases, your cat may be required to go on a prescription diet, which is only available from your veterinarian. These diets help to manage several medical conditions. Including the following:

  • Urinary health
  • Hypoallergenic
  • Joint care
  • Kidney care
  • Digestive care
  • Weight management
  • Weight reduction
  • Thyroid care (for cats with hyperthyroidism)
  • Diabetes support

When should cats be fed? 

This depends on the age of the cat and underlying medical problems.

Many pet owners prefer to leave dry food out for their cat all day for their cat to graze on. Others prefer to put food down at set times.

Kittens and pregnant/lactating cats require more frequent meals than adults.

For my own adult cats, I put moist food out for my cats at breakfast and dinner time and leave a bowl of dry food for them to graze on.

If you are feeding raw or canned food, remove any uneaten food after 30 minutes, particularly in warmer months. If you are routinely discarding food, it might be worth reducing the amount given.

What not to feed cats

The list of what you should not feed your cat is too long to add to this article, but some big ones include:

Don’t forget to provide your cat with 24/7 access to fresh drinking water.

Can cats drink milk?

Generally speaking no, cats shouldn’t drink milk. Most cats are lactose (which are sugars in milk) intolerant and drinking milk may result in an upset tummy and cause diarrhea. If you want to give your cat milk, there are special cat milk available from your supermarket or pet store.

When deciding what to feed your cat, it is always advisable to speak to your veterinarian who can provide you with information on the best products to meet your cat’s nutritional requirements.

Frequently asked questions

Can you add water to dry food? 

Yes, you can add water to dry food, in fact, it is a great way to increase the amount of water they consume and can also make it more palatable.

Can dry food be left out overnight? 

Dry food can be left out overnight unless the cat is prone to overeating and obesity in which case it is better to feed two set meals a day.

Do cats get tired of eating the same food? 

Every cat is different, some cats can get tired of eating the same food, while others will only eat one type of food.

Does catnip stimulate a cat’s appetite?

No, catnip does not stimulate a cat’s appetite.

What liquids can I give my cat? 

Once weaned, cats should have free access to water, there is no need to introduce any other types of liquid.

Will a cat starve itself if it doesn’t like its food? 

Obviously, if a cat has no access to food, it will eventually starve. As for cats who are not eating, this depends on the cause as to whether they will starve or eventually eat. The biggest risk is that cats are at risk of hepatic lipidosis if they do not eat. Which can be life-threatening if not aggressively treated.


  • Julia Wilson, 'Cat World' Founder

    Julia Wilson is the founder of Cat-World, and has researched and written over 1,000 articles about cats. She is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care. Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs. Full author bio