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Like many things, pet nutrition trends come and go. One year, everyone is talking about fiber; another, carbs. These days, it seems like everyone is focused on protein. Not that this is a bad thing, since protein is a vital component of pet food, particularly for our feline friends. It helps to understand why when you are selecting a cat food product.
There are three sources of energy in a food: carbohydrates, fats and protein. Cats are a little different from other domestic animals in that they are obligate carnivores. Their bodies are designed to be able to get all of their nutritional needs from a meat-based diet, so their bodies are optimized to use protein as a source of fuel in a very efficient manner.
In addition to its role in providing energy, protein is the basic building block of the body. When a cat swallows a piece of meat, the body breaks the protein down into its individual components, amino acids, which can then be reassembled into a huge assortment of vital molecules and tissues. Connective tissue, cell membranes, fur, skin, hormones, enzymes: All of these essential body components rely on protein.
And, of course, we can’t forget muscles. The amino acid components of muscle tissue are constantly being broken down, so adequate protein intake is vital to not only build muscle, but also maintain it. Without adequate protein intake, cats may develop a dry coat, become anemic and eventually lose muscle mass as the body fights its deficiency.
So how does this relate to pet food? For carnivores, as you might imagine, their daily protein requirement is higher than that of other animals. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), an organization that sets nutritional guidelines for the pet food industry, recommends that protein make up a minimum of 26 percent of the dry weight of the food for adult cats, and 30 percent for growing felines.
But it’s not only the amount of protein that matters; the quality of the protein matters too. Protein can be derived from animal sources, from grains or from plant products (e.g., soybean meal and corn gluten meal). Animal-derived protein (e.g., chicken, beef, lamb, fish and even the oft-maligned byproducts) is generally considered the highest-quality source of protein for cats, since this protein is the most easily digested and absorbed by the specialized cat intestinal tract. Cat foods should contain animal-based proteins.
There is a wide assortment of high-quality foods out there that can provide your cat with all the protein it needs to thrive. If you need guidance to select a diet appropriate for your favorite feline, don’t forget to consult with your veterinarian!
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang is a small-animal veterinarian from San Diego. When she's not at work or with her family of two and her four-legged creatures, you can find her blogging about life with pets at PawCurious.com. Dr. Vogelsang's blogs have previously appeared on The Daily Cat.