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Taurine is often one of those words that rings a bell, but you can’t put your finger on why. Actually taurine should have a special place in the heart of every cat owner, because it’s what keeps your fur-friend’s heart and eyes healthy.
It is taurine (or the cat’s dependence upon it) that makes felines ‘obligate carnivores’. This means it doesn’t matter what the cat’s ethical stance on eating other animals, they must eat meat or become unwell. This is because the cat has evolved in a way which means their body can’t make its own taurine. So, just like oxygen or water, a cat must have taurine or they die . . . albeit slowly over several months and years.
Taurine’s Tasks in the Body
To understand the importance of taurine let’s find out more about this essential amino acid.
Taurine is one of the building blocks of protein, and it has a significant role in several important functions to do with the heart, eyes, and blood. It is one of several nutrients which the cat must eat in her diet because she can’t make them from constituent building blocks. These other nutrients include:
- Arachidonic acid
- Vitamin A
This dependence came about because cats evolved to eat mice and rats that are rich in such ‘ingredients’. In that economical way of cats, their body decided not to waste energy making taurine for itself when it was supplied in every meal, but the flip side is a dependence on meat.
Taurine helps to regulate the movement of electrolytes across cell walls, and in its absence cells become damaged and die. This slow decay of heart muscle and retinal cells takes years before it causes clinical disease, but by the time it does the changes are irreversible.
The Dangers of Deficiency
Plants and cereals are low in taurine, hence why cats can’t be vegetarian. The typical taurine deficient cat is fed dog food, with most of the protein derived from plant or cereal sources.
Raw Food Diet and Deficiency
Interestingly, it should be noted that cats on a raw food meat diet* can also become taurine deficient. Sounds counter intuitive doesn’t it, so how can this be?
The explanation is that frozen raw food is defrosted; the thiamine leaches out into the defrosted juices. If this liquid is thrown away, then the thiamine-rich part goes straight down the drain and the resulting meat is thiamine depleted. Moral of the story? Use the defrost juices to moisten ground up meat or incorporate it in as gravy.
*This is why the raw diet we recommend includes a supplement mix that includes taurine.
So what of the dangers of thiamine deficiency?
The heart is a muscle which contracts in response to shifts of electrolytes across the cell walls. Thiamine deficient cats have a reduced ability to move potassium and calcium, which ultimately leads to flabby muscle cells that lack tone – the equivalent of a coach potato rather than a marathon runner in training.
Over time, this lack of tone means the heart dilates and loses its elastic recoil. This is similar to a party balloon that’s been inflated and let down several times, becoming saggy and baggy as a result. A stretched heart is poor at pushing blood round the body, so the cat steps over into heart failure. The symptoms include:
- Lack of energy and sleeping more
- Rapid shallow breathing
- Decreased appetite
- Fluid build-up in the chest and/or belly
Once clinical signs develop the physical changes in the heart are irreversible (just as no one can make that stretched balloon tight again). However, treatment with medications to shift retained fluid and support the heart can help.
Eyes and Blindness
Blindness as a result of taurine deficiency was first diagnosed in the 1970s, in a group of cats fed on dog food. The lack of taurine damages the delicate cells of the retina, leading to blindness. The signs include:
- Dilated pupils that don’t respond to light
- Bumping into objects
Treating Taurine Deficiency
Fortunately we now recognise the importance of taurine and it is a legal requirement that government approved cat foods contains satisfactory levels of taurine. Thus, feeding a good quality cat food should be all you need to do to stop your cat developing deficiency disease. If you are feeding a raw diet, make sure you follow a recipe that includes taurine supplementation.
For those cats that are deficient, their blood levels can be boosted by giving a supplement (250-500mg of taurine twice a day) for four months, in addition to eating a balanced diet.
The damage to heart or eyes is not reversible. However, cats do quickly adapt to blindness, whilst medications to support heart function can help improve the cat’s quality of life. However, this is a classic case of prevention being better than cure and feeding an appropriate diet from kittenhood is by far the best option for the long term good health of your feline friend.
Is your cat getting an appropriate amount of taurine in its diet? Have you ever known a cat who has been diagnosed by a vet as taurine deficient?
Elizabeth Keene says
I didn’t realize the critical role of taurine in cats’ bodies until I started blogging and had a reason to read up on a few major pet food recalls in the US, including one in which taurine had been omitted from cat food, causing catastrophic (no pun intended) results. SO SCARY! I’m always mindful of it when I feed my cats now.
Bryn Nowell says
Very interesting! Thanks for sharing. You’re right, I wouldn’t have expected to hear that a cat on a raw diet may actually face a deficiency in Taurine.
Thanks for this – Isagold seeks out the right foods to get enough taurine, but Bettyblue is a tuna tuna tuna wetfood girl, so thanks for the info & ideas.
Talent Hounds says
I knew that cats need to eat meat but not why- had not heard about taurine- interesting.
Sweet Purrfections says
This is very informative. I’d heard of taurine before, but never knew too much about it. I’ll definitely look to see if taurine is added to the girls’ food.
Great post. Interesting about the raw food and the juices, I would have never thought of that. Luckily, my cats lick any raw or home cooked juices right up. I also had a vitamin mix too. Thanks!
Beth (@dailydogtag) says
I have never heard of Taurine. I feed my cat a commercial cat food, hopefully he is getting what he needs, but I’ll have to check.
Jana Rade says
This has been mentioned in my dog nutrition course as a note on species appropriate diets. Did you know, that mice have huge amount of taurine? And that a cat would only need to eat 7 mice to get the dose she needs? Both the vet who does the course and myself can’t help wondering why nobody ever thought of making cat food out of what makes the most sense – mice.
Cheryl McGettigan says
I have thought the same. Supply would be easy. The breed mice for reptiles why not cat food!
I learned about Taurine about a year or so ago through research. It is crazy that the knowledge we have about about the importance of Taurine to cats is so new. Most cat food companies here in the US have been doing a good job of adding Taurine to their foods, but it is something I always look for on the can just to make sure the company is adding it.
Cathy Armato says
Thanks for explaining Taurine and why it’s so important to cats. I’ve heard at times of people wanting to make their cats vegetarian, but clearly that is a big mistake!
I’m vegan, my companions are not. I believe humans have evolved and no longer need to eat meet. It is not a case of survival. I appreciate the need of animals is different. Thanks for this information. I didn’t know about Taurine.
The Daily Pip says
Wow, that’s really interesting about the potential for deficiency risk with raw food. I would have assumed just the opposite.
Dash Kitten says
This is a MUST read for every cat owner – to give them an understanding about WHY cats need Taurine! We all love cats but this adds depth to our understanding of how even the smallest feline ‘ticks’.
Mary @ StaleCheerios says
So interesting. I have known for awhile that cats needed meat in their diet because of the taurine. However, I did not know that frozen raw food had less taurine. I would have never guessed that!
Theresa-Marie Wilson says
Very informative. I didn’t know about the importance of taurine.
Tenacious Little Terrier says
We feed raw so I would hear about the importance of taurine for cats! I wasn’t aware of the consequences of not having enough though.
Great article! I had no idea that taurine is so important for kitties. (I’ve also never had a kitty of my own). It’s so interesting that some raw diets don’t provide an appropriate amount – thank you!
Three Chatty Cats says
What a great article on taurine and something all cat owners should know. I do find that very interesting about the raw diet, too!
Wow. Good to know. Idk it was so important! I’ll have to take a look at my boys food tomorrow he just eats dry kibble.
The Swiss Cats says
The more you grind meat, the more you lose taurine : that’s the reason why Claire doesn’t grind all our meals. She doesn’t add supplements to our food daily, but she does it from time to time if she sees that we didn’t eat preys for a while (we hunt and eat our preys). Purrs
It’s so important for humans to be educated about this, and all the aspects of kitty nutrition!