The Great Cat Food Debate. Do Kitties Love Meat or Fish More?


Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they need meat in their diet to survive. Most cats enjoy eating meat and fish. However, cats can have individual preferences when it comes to the type of meat or fish they like best. Some cats prefer poultry such as chicken or turkey. Others seem to favor red meat like beef more. Fish can also be a top choice, with many cats enjoying tuna and salmon. Determining if a cat prefers meat or fish depends on the individual cat’s tastes, texture preferences, and nutritional needs. While meat and fish offer different benefits, cats can thrive on diets containing either or both. Understanding a cat’s particular preferences helps provide a diet optimized for health and enjoyment.

Cats as Obligate Carnivores

Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they depend entirely on animal flesh for their nutritional needs [1]. Unlike omnivores such as humans that can meet nutrient requirements through plant and animal sources, cats lack the physiological ability to digest plant matter and synthesize certain essential nutrients like vitamin A, arginine, and taurine [2]. Cats need these nutrients found abundantly in meat in order to survive.

Both meat and fish can provide important proteins and fats for cats. However, meat, especially red meat, contains more essential amino acids like taurine as well as vitamins like vitamin A that cats cannot synthesize themselves [3]. Fish can complement a cat’s diet, but lacks certain nutrients compared to meat. When it comes to an obligate carnivore like a cat, meat provides the optimal nutritional profile over fish.

Taste Preferences

Cats have around 473 functional taste receptors compared to humans who have around 358 [1]. This allows cats to detect a wider range of tastes than humans. In particular, cats have evolved extra receptors for detecting amino acids like glutamate which gives meat its savory umami flavor. Studies show domestic cats have the highest concentration of umami receptors among mammals [2]. When given the choice between beef or salmon, most cats prefer the taste of salmon because it has higher levels of glutamate giving it a more intense umami flavor.

Texture Preferences

Cats have strong preferences when it comes to the texture of their food. In the wild, cats would eat prey animals with varying textures, so their desire for different textures is instinctual (source). When it comes to wet cat food, some cats prefer soft, minced textures, while others like chunks in gravy or jelly.

Fish tends to have a softer, flakier texture than red meats. Many cats enjoy this smooth, easy to chew texture. Meats like beef or venison can have a denser, chewier texture that cats need to break down more before swallowing. The meat pieces in chunky cat food often mimic this harder to chew texture. Ultimately, cats have individual preferences, but the softer fish texture may appeal more broadly.

Smell Preferences

A cat’s sense of smell is estimated to be 14 times stronger than a human’s, due to having nearly 200 million odor-detecting cells compared to just 5 million in humans ( This superior sense of smell plays an important role in a cat’s food preferences.

Cats use their strong sense of smell to detect the aroma of food from a distance. Studies show that cats rely heavily on their olfactory system when assessing the palatability of meats ( The aroma given off by fish is especially enticing to cats due to amino acids like glycine and taurine that stimulate their smell receptors. Fish emits a strong, fishy odor that cats can easily pick up on and find very appealing.

The meaty smell of red meats like beef and lamb is also attractive to cats, but likely not to the same degree as the unique smell of fish. Since a cat’s sense of smell is so acute, the powerful fishy aroma seems to be more alluring than the typical meat smell. The especially strong fish odor and flavor makes seafood a top food choice for many cats.

Wild Instincts

Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat meat to survive. Their ancestors were solitary hunters that relied on meat for nourishment. While domesticated cats no longer need to hunt to find food, they still retain strong hunting instincts from their wild counterparts. Studies show predatory instinct, rather than hunger, drives a cat’s motivation to hunt (Source). Feral cats and outdoor pet cats will hunt small prey like birds, rodents and lizards. The availability of easy to catch prey, like rodents and birds around homes, creates ample hunting opportunities for outdoor cats.

Ancestral wild cats were solitary hunters that ate small animals such as rodents, birds, amphibians and reptiles. While domesticated house cats do not need to hunt to survive, their natural instincts drive them to hunt for pleasure and excitement. Allowing cats outdoor access provides opportunities to satisfy their inborn predatory drive.

Nutritional Value

Both meat and fish can provide the high levels of protein that cats require since they are obligate carnivores. According to Statcare, cat meat contains about 53% protein while fish like tuna contain about 42% protein.

Meat contains more amino acids like taurine that are essential for cats’ health and not provided in plant-based foods. According to Cornell University, look for cat foods where meat, meat byproducts or seafood are listed in the first few ingredients to ensure adequate protein (Source).

Fish can provide healthy fats like omega-3s. According to Orijen, fish contain vitamins A, B, D and K as well as minerals like selenium and zinc (Source). Both meat and fish can meet cats’ high protein needs, but meat may contain more essential amino acids.

Common Pet Food Ingredients

Most cat foods contain both meat and fish as the primary ingredients. Meat sources typically include chicken, beef, turkey, and lamb.[1] Fish ingredients often include salmon, tuna, trout, and whitefish.

Meat provides essential amino acids like taurine, arginine, and lysine that cats cannot synthesize on their own. Fish is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which support skin and coat health. Meat and fish ingredients supply high-quality, complete proteins to meet cats’ nutritional requirements as obligate carnivores.

While most cat foods contain both meat and fish, the proportions vary. Dry foods tend to have more meat meals as the first ingredient, while canned foods often have fresh meat or fish first. This difference reflects the higher protein content needed in dry foods due to processing. Some cat foods focus on a specific protein source, like chicken, salmon, or duck.

Grain-free and limited ingredient diets have increased in popularity in recent years. These recipes exclude grains and limit protein sources, which can help cats with food sensitivities. Despite these specialized diets, most commercial cat foods include both meat and fish as natural, nutritious ingredients cats evolved eating.

Overall, the combination of meat and fish provides high-quality animal protein sources to meet cats’ dietary needs. Careful selection of specific meat and fish ingredients can help tailor a diet to a cat’s preferences, sensitivities, and optimal nutrition.

Individual Tastes

While cats as a species prefer certain tastes, textures, and smells in their food, each individual cat has their own preferences. According to the Purina experts, “There is a huge amount of individual variation in what cats like” (Purina). Just like people, every cat has a unique palette. Some cats love fish flavors while others prefer poultry or meat. The texture of food also matters – some cats like crunchy kibble while others prefer soft, wet food.

To find out an individual cat’s preferences, cat owners should experiment with different food types and flavors. It’s important to slowly transition cats to new foods to avoid upsetting their stomachs. Over time, observe which foods your cat devours immediately and which ones they leave behind. Talk to your veterinarian if your cat refuses to eat certain foods or has a very limited diet. With patience, you can learn your cat’s unique tastes.


In conclusion, while cats have evolved as obligate carnivores and overwhelmingly prefer meat, their individual tastes can vary greatly. Some cats seem to prefer poultry while others favor red meat or fish. Texture and smell play key roles in cats’ preferences. Ultimately the nutritional makeup of the food is most important, as cats require certain amino acids like taurine that are only found in animal products. Both wet and dry commercial cat foods are formulated to provide balanced nutrition by combining different animal protein sources like chicken, beef, lamb, and fish.

When it comes to a recommendation between meat or fish, the answer depends on the individual cat. Offering a rotation of different proteins like chicken, beef, salmon, or tuna can help provide variety. Cats that reject certain ingredients may need extra encouragement through mixing or transitioning slowly to new foods. Consulting your veterinarian helps ensure your cat’s unique nutritional needs are met. While cats are obligate carnivores at heart, they can learn to accept and even enjoy different meat and fish varieties in moderation.

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