Can Cats Eat Tuna?

June 3, 2022 by The Spot Pack

It’s a classic image — cats and tuna. Popular media and cultural references have created a strong association between the two, and not without realistic founding.

Cat’s love tuna. Overall, our feline friends have very limited taste capabilities. Tuna happens to hit the spot for cats in terms of taste and aroma, making it one of the most palatable foods for them.

Unfortunately, tuna also has downsides. Today, Spot Pet Insurance is here to help you understand whether it’s safe and healthy for cats to eat tuna. We’re talking about the pros and cons of tuna as cat food and some caveats you need to keep in mind.

Is Tuna Dangerous for Cats?

The first question to answer is whether tuna is dangerous for cats. The answer is complicated.

Tuna is not necessarily toxic to cats in small amounts. Depending on the type of tuna and your cat’s overall diet, the amount of tuna that could be appropriate and healthy varies for them.

Tuna does have plenty of health benefits for cats. Still, dangers such as addiction (and subsequent aversion to other, vitally essential foods) and mercury poisoning pose a threat when tuna becomes a regular part of your cat’s diet.

Many veterinary professionals recommend only using tuna as a treat or to enhance the taste of food when your cat desperately needs to eat. Some commercial cat foods incorporate tuna into their formula. In any case, you should consult with a trusted vet who knows your cat before introducing tuna to your cat.

Understanding Cat Nutrition

Cat nutrition is complex. Understanding how their bodies work is not an absolute necessity for pet parents, but it goes a long way towards informing better care for your cat and helping explain why they can and can’t eat certain things.

Cats are obligate carnivores. This means that meat and meat-based foods must make up most of their diet.

Multiple reasons are at play here. Most importantly, cats need certain nutrients only found in meat (which cats can’t synthesize themselves), including taurine. Cats also can’t process many plant foods efficiently in the first place.

Cats typically do best with meat-based diets, but even still, they can’t just eat any meat you throw at them. Professional, certified cat nutrition professionals formulate cat food that provides a balanced range of essential dietary elements to keep your cat healthy and thriving.

This kind of food should generally make up 90% of your cat’s daily caloric intake. Some owners prefer to home-feed their cats rather than using commercial food. Always consult a trusted veterinarian with certification in cat nutrition before doing so.

Now let’s look at where tuna falls in the realm of cat nutrition.

Upsides of Tuna for Cats

Fish has many positive benefits in terms of diet and health for cats, humans, and many other creatures.

Tuna is loaded with beneficial properties. It’s a great source of protein, omega-3 essential fatty acids, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. At the same time, it’s low on carbohydrates. Being a meat-based food, the nutrients present are easily digestible for cats as well.

Protein

One of the core parts of being an obligate carnivore is needing lots and lots of protein, meat-based protein specifically, to stay healthy.

About 26% of a cat’s diet should be protein. Compare this with the needs of domesticated dogs, which sit around 12%, and humans, which sit around 8%.

Not all protein is equal, as some kinds are harder to digest than others, especially for cats. The easiest protein sources for cats to digest are egg whites, meat protein, organ protein, and fish.

Tuna is packed with protein, even more so than many other kinds of fish.

Low Carbs

You might often read that cats can’t efficiently or fully process carbohydrates. This is something of a controversial topic, but recent research helps clarify it.

Not all carbs are the same. The most common carbohydrates are simple carbs (sugar), dietary fiber, and starches. The way carbohydrate foods are prepared can make a significant difference also. Carbs such as starch or sugar are not easily digested by cats and could lead to negative effects, especially on the digestive system.

However, the right kind of carbs can be part of a healthy feline diet. Studies have shown that healthy cats digest and utilize whole grain carbs and properly processed starches without issue.

So cats can process carbs, but that doesn’t mean they need them. Dietary carbohydrates are not necessary for cats. Most creatures fulfill their blood glucose needs by synthesizing glucose from carbs or protein. Cats can and most commonly do use protein, so they don’t need carbs, but recent science suggests that cats can also adapt to using carbs.

Carbs have also been suggested as a potential factor in causing weight problems or diabetes. Research suggests this is not actually the case, although carbs may not be healthy for cats who already have such conditions.

Ultimately, not all carbs are bad, but low carb diets are the closest to the natural diet of cats and have proven to be reliably healthy for them, so it’s generally positive when food for cats is low on carbs.

Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids

Omega-3 has anti-inflammatory qualities that can be exceptionally beneficial to cats. These fatty acids help protect against arthritis, cancer, kidney disease, and heart disease. They also benefit skin and coat quality and help prevent harmful conditions in these areas.

Fish is one of the best sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids. However, most veterinarians also recommend omega-3 medical supplements (aka fish oil) since cats can’t really survive on an entirely-fish diet due to unrelated harmful factors (such as mercury poisoning and lack of essential nutrients).

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that humans can synthesize from direct sunlight contact on their skin. Cats, on the other hand, don’t have this ability, so they need to get this vitamin from their diet.

Numerous benefits accompany vitamin D. It helps manage calcium levels in a cat’s body, nurtures muscles, and keeps the nervous system healthy. Without sufficient vitamin D, cardiac disease and osteomalacia are at increased risk.

While vitamin D is necessary for cats, too much can also result in a dangerous overdose. This is more likely to occur from medical supplementation, but dietary overdose is also possible — another reason why a fish-exclusive diet is not recommended for cats.

Taste

Cats love tuna. The combination of cats and tuna is iconic throughout pop culture, just like cats and milk.

However, like milk, tuna isn’t necessarily the best thing for your cat to be eating. Some caveats must be carefully considered.

Nonetheless, for picky feline eaters, tuna does certainly hit the spot. Unlike humans and other domesticated pets, like dogs, cats have a low number of taste buds. While humans have around 9000 taste buds and dogs closer to 1700, cats only have about 470. They also lack any ability to sense sweetness.

With that in mind, many foods that are palatable for humans or other pets are not attractive to cats. This may explain, at least in part, why so many cats are choosy about what they want to eat.

Few owners have trouble getting a cat to eat tuna. The aroma and taste qualities of tuna are exceptionally attractive to cats, so much so that it can actually become problematic.

Tuna is often used to enhance the flavor of food when cats don’t want to eat. Juice from tuna might be added to water bowls to entice a cat to stay hydrated as well.

Downsides of Tuna for Cats

Unfortunately, the upsides of tuna as a cat snack or diet staple are tainted by a few downsides.

Potential Addiction & Food Aversions

The most common issue with tuna for cats is that our feline friends can become addicted to the taste. Because cats have such a limited sense of taste in the first place, it’s hard to find foods they enjoy.

Cats can develop such strong cravings for tuna that they will ignore other foods. Your cat may not know it, but they need these other foods to survive. Tuna can not provide a full and balanced nutritional diet for a cat.

Mercury Poisoning

Regularly eating lots of fish can result in mercury poisoning. This is true in both humans and cats. Tuna is exceptional amongst fish in terms of how much mercury it carries, making it especially volatile.

Symptoms of mercury poisoning are similar to numerous other conditions, so a professional medical diagnosis is required. Impairment of the nervous system and reduced physical coordination are some of the most common symptoms.

If your cat has been eating tuna consistently or has eaten tuna in a very high quantity, you should bring this to the attention of a trusted veterinarian.

Individual Case Concerns

All cats are unique, and some may respond differently to tuna than others. Some cats may not enjoy the taste of this fishy food, while others will go crazy for it.

There is no way to predict how a cat will react to tuna, so consulting a veterinary professional is the safest way forward. Since food sensitivities and allergies can also be a concern, it’s important to learn and look out for the symptoms of those reactions.

Final Remarks

At Spot Pet Insurance, we are dedicated to helping you keep your pets safe and healthy. Check out our Blogbowl for more helpful resources!

Sources:

Harmful Foods Your Cat Should Never Eat: Tuna, Milk, Raw Fish, and More | WebMD

Focus on Nutrition: Cats and Carbohydrates: Implications for Health and Disease | Vetfolio

What Are the Benefits of Fish Oil for Dogs and Cats? | PetMD

Vitamin D Deficiency in Cats | NASC LIVE

The Dangers of Mercury Poisoning in Cats: How To Safely Feed Fish to Your Feline | Daily Paws

Food Allergies in Cats | VCA Animal Hospital

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