Yes and no. Cats need fiber in their diet, but not the kind of fiber that we know. You see, cats are very strict carnivores. This is despite claims that thousands of years of evolutionary development has brought changes to the way cats eat. Their digestive tract remains that of a carnivore. Feeding it plant-based fibers will bring no measurable benefits. But feeding your cat animal-based fibers can lead to better fatty acid profile and a reduction in toxins.
A Carnivore’s Digestive Anatomy
A cat’s digestive tract is short. It is shorter than the digestive tract of a dog or any other omnivore. The entire length of the feline digestive tract can be 2.5 to 3 times its body length. As such, if you have a cat that is 16 inches long, you can expect its digestive tract to be anywhere from 40 inches to 48 inches. By contrast, a dog that is 20 inches long will have a digestive tract that can extend from 60 to 70 inches. When we say the digestive tract, this is from the mouth where digestion begins and terminates in the anus where feces passes through.
This is not everything, though. Since digestion begins in the mouth, cats do not have salivary amylase which can digest carbohydrates. Carbs are the main components of plant foods. This alone is enough reason why carnivores like cats don’t eat plants.
As the food moves into the cat’s stomach, powerful gastric acids break up everything including bones. At the level of the small intestines, further digestion takes place. It is also this section where nutrient absorption occurs.
The colon draws water from the remaining food material. Depending on how fast the food slurry moves through the gut, the feces can be super-hard, soft but firm, or watery.
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The Carnivore’s Diet
When wild cats and other carnivores feed in the wild, they feast on the flesh and bones of prey animals first. The skin of these prey animals also contain fiber in the form of body hair. As carnivores devour the carcass, the last item on their menu is the carcass’ gut. This contains plant fibers.
This is the reason why many folks think that it is okay to give cats plant-based fibers. What they fail to understand is that the plant fibers present in the gut of prey animals are already digested by the animal. Cats and other carnivores no longer need to digest these plant fibers because they are readily available.
Most prey animals are either herbivores or omnivores. Their digestive system is well-built to process plant food including fiber. So, when carnivores eat these prey animals, the plant fibers present in the gut already comes in a processed form.
In most cases, however, the cat will leave the stomach and intestinal contents of the prey animal. It is as if they already know that they don’t need it.
Animal Versus Plant Fibers
Animal-based fibers come in the form of ligaments, cartilage, tendons, bones, and fur of prey animals. These are items that undergo partial or incomplete digestion. Because they do not undergo complete digestion, they act as intestinal fibers. Fastidious cats that groom themselves all the time also tend to lick off loose hair and ingest it. These turn into the hairball that many pat parents are wary of. This can also be an example of an animal fiber.
There is an interesting study in 2012 where captive cheetahs were fed a special diet that consists of whole-prey rabbits and raw beef. These animals were able to produce healthier fatty acid profiles after a month on the special diet. The animals also have lower concentrations of toxic metabolites. The feces are also less odorous and come in smaller sizes.
There is now a debate among pet lovers that is the consequence of the study. People are asking whether or not plant-based fibers can replicate the benefits of animal fibers.
Plant fibers come in different types. There are those that are soluble and very easy to ferment. These plant-based fibers act like a massive gel that attracts water. They add moisture into the cat’s feces to make it move through the gut faster. As such, these types of fiber are good for cats that have constipation. This type of fiber is also good for the production of short-chain fatty acids. Intestinal bacteria ferment the plant-based fibers to produce these fatty acids.
There are also plant-based fibers that are very slow to ferment and are insoluble. What these plant fibers do is that they slow down the movement of stool through the gut. They also increase the bulk of the fecal matter to help in its evacuation. This type of plant-based fibers is good for cats with diarrhea.
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Should You Include Plant Fibers in Your Cat’s Diet?
Because of their role in the management of either diarrhea or constipation in cats, we may think that our cats need plant fibers. This is not always the case.
Cats feeding on exclusive raw, whole-prey diets tend to have smaller yet more-formed stools. The odor of their stool is also not as strong as the stool of cats that consume commercial cat food. This can help minimize attracting other cats into the home. Whole prey cat diets also provide better fatty acid profiles.
Whole prey animals contain about 0.55% plant fibers. This is already in its fully-digested form. By contrast, the average fiber content in dry cat food is about 5 percent. This is almost 10 times higher than what cats need. Wet cat foods, on the other hand, come with an average of 0.5 to 0.6 percent fiber. The reason why dry cat food contains more fiber than wet varieties is pure economics. It is a lot cheaper to use more fibers to increase the bulk of the kibble.
If you cannot give your cat raw, whole-prey animal as its diet, then you should give it wet cat food. This provides the right amount of dietary fiber that your cat may need. As such, if you’re feeding your cat the right food, then there is no need to add fiber in its diet.