Being a vital nutrient, fiber is present in pet food in different amounts. Some veterinarians and cat owners claim that it’s necessary for feline nutrition, others disagree.
So, do cats need fiber?
There’s no single correct answer – it depends on the case. Let’s find out how the cat’s lifestyle, dietary preferences, and overall health define their nutritional needs.
What is fiber?
Fiber is a carbohydrate that’s usually sourced from vegetables, fruit, seeds, berries, and other plant-based components. In the diet of wildlife felines, fiber is animal-sourced: it comes from bones, feathers, fur, and cartilage. Unlike other types of carbs, fiber does not digest or break down in the intestine easily – it travels through the entire digestive tract.
It is usually present in human food in abundance, but the cat might need it, too. What does fiber in the cat diet do? For both us, fiber plays the same role: it helps to manage weight, controls blood sugar and cholesterol level. According to recent studies, fiber increases life span and reduces the risk of cancer.
Yet, not all types of fiber are equal – there are two major kinds of it:
1. Soluble Fiber
As its name suggests, soluble fiber is diluted in water. Once it contacts water in the stomach or intestine, it dissolves and turns into a gel-like substance that decelerates the digestive process. Such fiber helps to reduce weight since it satisfies hunger well and creates the feeling of a full stomach. It is sourced from nuts, plant skins, and oats.
2. Insoluble Fiber
This fiber is not dissolved in water – instead, it absorbs it and adds bulk in the stool helping to move food through the intestine. Such fiber is found in vegetables, berries (blueberries, grapes, watermelon), seeds, wheat, and bran.
In the human diet, fiber is crucial since it improves gastrointestinal health, sustains proper functioning of the heart, and controls body sugar, which has a positive toll on body weight, too. In order to reap maximum benefits from fiber, we should divide it into 75% insoluble and 25% soluble fiber – this combination is the healthiest.
Is fiber important for cats?
How much fiber does a cat need daily? Until recently, veterinarians believed that cats don’t need fiber at all – only proteins and fat would be enough. However, this is not applicable to each and every cat. There are numerous factors that define the feline’s nutritional needs. To get the full insight into this issue, we should discuss how the cat’s digestive system works.
How does the feline digestive system work?
Cat’s intestine is much shorter than human or dogs’ – it was created to digest animal products only.
The cat’s digestive system begins with the mouth. While we, humans, have different kinds of teeth (incisors for cutting, canines for tearing and holding, and molars for chewing and grinding), cats’ teeth are all the same. They don’t have molars and don’t chew food. Instead, they tear big chunks of food and swallow them.
Interesting to note, cats can only move their jaw in an up-and-down motion, but not side-to-side as humans do. Besides, they don’t have amylase in their saliva. In mammals, this enzyme starts breaking down carbohydrates right in the moment of chewing.
After mouth, food goes in the stomach through the esophagus – tongue forces it through the throat. Cat’s esophagus is usually 12-15 inches long depending on its age and breed. After passing a sphincter (ring of muscles that keeps stomach contents inside), the food goes into the stomach, and the digestion process starts.
The feline stomach has pretty strong acids (they can even dissolve bones). Combined with stomach muscles’ contraction, the acid turns food into a liquid that later goes into the intestine. First, it passes through the duodenum – initial part of the small intestine which is 10 centimeters long.
At this stage, two processes take place:
- The gallbladder releases bile which is produced in the liver. It breaks the large fat molecules into small ones for them to be easier digested on further stages.
- The pancreas releases various enzymes. They neutralize acids in liquid food and improve the digestion of sugars, fats, and proteins.
After that, the food goes further through the small intestine. In cats’ it’s 2-3 times shorter than in dogs being only 80-130 centimeters long. The majority of nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine. It’s lined with villi – it absorbs enzymes, water, proteins, and electrolytes.
The remains of food mass go through the large intestine (colon). At this stage, the last nutrients are extracted, and feces form. The fecal matter goes to the rectum and is released through the anus. The entire process of digestion takes about 12-24 hours.
All in all, cat’s stomachs are shorter and smaller than dog’s. The feline digestive system is suited to eat smaller meals throughout the day. For this reason, they are thought not to require fiber – their diet mostly consists of proteins and fats. And that’s where low-fiber recipes become handy.
What is a cat’s natural diet?
Nature created cats as pure carnivores: their diet mostly consists of meat. According to the study published in 2011, feral cats’ diet consisted of 63% proteins, 23% fats, and 3% carbohydrates.
The latter was obtained from two sources:
- The primary source of fiber is the contents of eaten prey. Feral cats eat birds and small mammals who usually consume a lot of vegetation. Thus, when a cat eats such an animal, it ingests what the prey has eaten. Yet, fur and feathers of those animals are indigestible, so animal-sourced fiber might have an adverse effect on the intestinal system.
- Some cats also eat a few strands of grass regularly. There are several possible explanations for that. First, it might help settle an upset stomach. Secondly, grass may contain folic acid or act as a fiber that improves digestion. Also, it has a natural laxative effect.
Types of cat diets and fiber needs
What do cats need in their diet? To define a cat’s nutritional needs, we can divide them into two groups: indoor and outdoor. Some pet owners are not aware of the fact that these two groups of cats have different nutritional requirements.
1. Outdoor cats
The cats living mostly outdoors do not need fiber supplements. They receive this nutrient from the prey they hunt, i.e. animal-sourced fiber. However, they still should be served high-quality cat food. Make sure it’s appropriate for their age and breed. A small kitten’s food should cover all nutritional needs and provide enough energy. For senior cats, it should be formulated to address special health needs and supply enough protein. Opt for formulas created specifically for outdoor cats. Don’t forget to figure out the optimal portion size.
2. Indoor cats
In this case, cat’s nutritional needs are more complex because they are not as active and do not hunt. Hence, they are prone to being overweight.
High-fiber food is the best way to control the indoor cat’s weight and sugar in the blood. The fiber makes a cat feel a bit fuller after a meal, which reduces the amount of consumed food.
If your indoor cat is overweight, you should serve food formulated to be high in proteins and low in calories, with a small amount of digestible carbohydrates. Also, you can search for high-fiber recipes to help your cat lose weight.
To top it off, high-fiber food can help to get rid of hairballs, a typical problem of indoor cats. Since they spend about 4 hours a day grooming, they can ingest a lot of fur. It’s collected in the stomach the contractions of which make hairs form balls. As a rule, those are not serious but may cause discomfort. By making your cat eat fiber, you let the hairballs move through the digestive system without causing pain.
No matter what the cat’s breed and age is, you should select the appropriate recipes taking into account every factor. Even if you have a senior or neutered cat, serving it fiber is crucial.
What about a raw diet?
Some cat owners prefer serving all-natural products and switch to a DIY or delivered raw diet. It is closer to the natural diet and does not contain artificial and processed ingredients.
If you decided to make your cat eat raw foods, you should balance the nutrition properly – it’s not easy to ensure that all vitamins and minerals are included. Most likely, you will need to serve supplements to your cat (including fiber supplements).
Such a diet should only be served after a consultation with a veterinarian. Take into account that it’s not advisable to feed cats raw diet if you have children or elderly, or people with a compromised immune system at home.
So, how much fiber for cats is recommended? This is a highly individual issue because cats have different lifestyles and nutritional needs. Besides, it depends on their general health. Outdoor cats receive fiber from the prey they hunt while indoor cats only get what they are fed. Thus, they need fiber to maintain a healthy weight and proper digestion.
If you have an indoor cat, you should probably serve it high-fiber food, or consider adding special supplements. Pay attention to your cat’s wellbeing and correct the diet accordingly. This way, your four-legged pal won’t have problems with digestion, high sugar in blood and extra pounds.