As a cat owner, you want to keep your pet as healthy as possible, and one of the best ways to do this is through good nutrition. However, a lot of people are unaware of what foods they can and cannot give their cat, aside from conventional cat food. In particular, many owners are unsure about the role that vegetables can play in a cat’s diet.
So can cats eat vegetables? The short answer is ‘yes’, although there are some important caveats. While it is perfectly safe to give your cat some cooked carrots or steamed broccoli, it is essential that you avoid giving your cat certain vegetables, such as onions or garlic, as these are toxic.
It is also important to stress that cats should never be fed an all-vegetable diet and should get the vast majority of their nutrition from meat-based sources. Nevertheless, vegetables can form part of a balanced diet for your cat and can make an excellent alternative to higher calorie treats. As I will cover a little later on, vegetables can also offer some health benefits for cats, as long as they are consumed in appropriate quantities.
Are Cats Able to Eat Vegetables?
The issue of feeding vegetables to cats is surprisingly controversial, and the majority of this controversy is based around one key fact. Cats are categorised as obligate carnivores, rather than being omnivores like us. This means they require animal protein from meat to survive and, unlike us, they do not actually require fruit or vegetables. Indeed, all of the essential nutrition for a cat can be obtained from high-quality meat-based cat food.
For some people, this makes it an open and shut case – cats do not require vegetables, therefore you should not feed them vegetables. However, crucially, cats being obligate carnivores does not actually mean cats cannot eat vegetables. Moreover, while vegetables are not a essential part of a cat’s diet and a cat cannot be sustained on vegetables alone, they can actually provide some interesting nutritional and gastrointestinal benefits.
In general, cats can eat most vegetables and they are perfectly fine as part of a balanced diet. Despite not being essential, many vegetables contain things like magnesium, potassium, fibre, vitamins and antioxidants, and these can be useful for cats’ bodies, helping to boost their immune system and aid digestion.
The flip side of this is that cats lack the enzymes necessary to break down vegetables in large quantities, while vegetables also contain carbohydrates, which cats do not need in anything like the amounts that we do. In fact, overloading cats with carbohydrates is one of the leading causes of the growing epidemic of feline obesity. Therefore, while cats can safely eat vegetables, it is important that they are only given to them sparingly.
One area where vegetables can play a valuable role is when your cat is on a weight loss diet. Here, vegetables can serve as a low-calorie alternative to the treats you would normally give your cat, assisting with the weight loss process. I would personally recommend using vegetables as little more than an occasional treat anyway, regardless of whether weight loss is the goal, as this will help to avoid issues with over-feeding.
At this point, it is also essential to point out that vegetables are an extremely diverse food group and while they can play a role in a feline diet, there are certain vegetables that are not suitable for cats. This is usually because they contain substances that are toxic or otherwise harmful to cats, as I will cover in more detail later on.
If you have any doubts about whether or not a specific vegetable is safe, refrain from feeding it to your cat until you receive clarification. Remember, cats do not require vegetables at all, so they will only ever be a supplementary aspect of your cat’s diet. You should speak to a vet if you are unsure about a vegetable’s suitability.
So, to conclude, cats do not actually require vegetables in their diet, but they are able to safely eat most of them. In small doses, vegetables can be of value to your cat, but they should not form a major part of its diet.
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Which Vegetables Are Good For Cats?
Now that we have established that cats can eat vegetables, your first question is likely: which vegetables can they eat? With the sheer number of different vegetables out there, creating a comprehensive list of acceptable options is almost impossible. Instead, it is more helpful to look at what vegetables can offer your cat and then identify the vegetables that are both safe and beneficial in some way.
For example, broccoli is a solid option, because it is safe to eat, relatively easy to prepare and contains beneficial antioxidants. It can also be easily given as a stand-alone treat, or as part of a meal. Similarly, carrots are a good source of vitamins and minerals. Technically, they can be given to your cat either cooked or raw, but it is preferable to cook them first because harder raw carrots can be classed as a choking hazard.
Many other green vegetables are perfectly safe for your cat to eat and can play a role in a healthy diet, with some obvious examples including peas, green beans, cucumber and lettuce. Out of these, green beans may be the most beneficial of all, because they serve as a source of fibre and can help to regulate your cat’s digestive system.
Spinach is also sometimes recommended for cat owners who wish to feed their cat vegetables. In addition to providing vitamins and minerals, it can have an anti-inflammatory effect in felines. However, it is especially important that spinach is only given in low amounts, as it contains calcium olaxate. In small doses, this is harmless, but in larger quantities, it can contribute to serious urinary tract issues.
Vegetables Cats Need to Avoid
While it is generally considered safe to feed your cat most vegetables – as long as they are properly prepared – some vegetables do need to be avoided entirely, either because they are hazardous to cats, or because cats have difficulty digesting them. Some of the vegetables to stay away from include:
Onions are toxic because they contain thiosulphate, which has the potential to damage or even burst a cat’s red blood cells. The vegetable is toxic in all forms, regardless of whether it is whole or chopped, raw or cooked, and onion powder can actually be even more harmful. Onions can cause an unpleasant reaction, even in small doses, while large enough amounts of onion can actually be deadly to some cats.
Garlic, chives and leeks also produce very similar effects to onions, and garlic has been found to be several times more potent. It is worth pointing out that with all of these vegetables, the onset of symptoms tends to be gradual. There are some early signs to look out for, which might indicate a toxic level within your cat’s body, and these include vomiting, diarrhoea, fatigue and general irritation of the mouth.
*You may be curious about tomatoes, for two main reasons. Firstly, because they are an ingredient in many cat foods, and secondly because there is a lot of contradictory information on the internet about their status. The simple explanation is that ripe tomatoes, on their own, are not dangerous for cats to eat. However, tomato leaves, stems and other parts of the tomato plant are toxic, and a tomato which is not yet ripe can cause gastrointestinal problems.
How to Get the Right Dietary Balance
At this stage, you may also be wondering how to get the right dietary balance for your cat, so that you avoid over-feeding it vegetables and ensure it gets all of the nutrition it needs. The first thing you should do is invest in high-quality cat food, and this should make up the vast majority of your cat’s food intake. The first listed ingredient should be meat, and the food should be made up of no more than five per cent carbohydrates.
Some nutritional experts say that you should aim to provide at least 90 percent of your cat’s recommended daily calorie intake through high-quality cat food, with no more than 10 percent coming from treats, and these treats would include vegetables. This is a good rule of thumb to stick to, because it ensures your cat will receive the essential nutrients from its cat food, while providing you with some scope for experimentation.
It is also worth stressing that you do not need to provide your cat with vegetables every single day, and they are usually most beneficial when they are given a few times a week at most. Even though vegetables are considered extremely healthy for us, exceeding the 10 percent mark of your cat’s daily calorie intake will mean you risk problems associated with carbohydrate overload. For this reason, it is best to adopt a ‘less is more’ approach.
Finally, you should carefully check the ingredients of the primary cat food you are using, as it may actually contain some vegetables. These ingredients should then be factored into the 90 percent / 10 percent calculation.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.