If you’re a cat parent, you’ve probably heard your veterinarian mention something about taurine and its role in your feline’s health.
But what exactly is taurine, and why is it such a big deal for cats?
We’re going to help you understand what you need to know about taurine so that you can keep your cat in optimal health.
What is Taurine?
Taurine is an amino acid, the building block of proteins. It is found only in animal-based proteins.
For cats, taurine earns the additional classification of an essential amino acid. Essential amino acids must be obtained from the diet because they cannot be synthesized in the body. Cats cannot produce taurine, making it an essential amino acid for them.
It was first classified as an essential amino acid for cats in the 1980s. Since that time, all commercial cat foods have been supplemented with taurine.
Is Taurine Good for Cats?
Absolutely! Taurine plays a vital role in many body functions including:
- Fetal development
- Healthy pregnancy
- Heart muscle function
- Immune system functioning
Common Sources of Taurine for Cats
Taurine is found only in animal-based proteins. Sources of include chicken and beef. All regular commercial cat foods are supplemented with taurine.
The amount of taurine in cat food varies between wet and dry foods. The heat processing required to manufacture dry cat food decreases the amount of taurine in the food. Therefore, the amount of taurine is higher in wet cat food than in dry food to account for what’s lost during heat processing.
Cats’ bodies metabolize taurine quickly, so cats need to have taurine in their diet every day.
Taurine Deficiency in Cats
Given taurine’s many functions in a cat’s body, a taurine deficiency in cats has significant health consequences.
First, though, let’s discuss why cats develop taurine deficiencies.
Diet is the main reason. Cats that eat homemade diets without enough animal-based proteins are at high risk of a taurine deficiency. Also, cats that prefer dog food can become taurine-deficient because most commercially available dog food does not contain taurine.
Underlying illness is another reason for taurine deficiencies in cats. For example, cats with heart disease tend to be taurine-deficient.
Signs of taurine deficiency develop very slowly, taking anywhere from several months to several years to become apparent.
Now that you know why cats get taurine deficiencies, let’s explain what this deficiency can cause in a cat’s body:
Feline central retinal degeneration: Taurine helps maintain the health of the retina. With a taurine deficiency, the cells within the retina, called photoreceptors, start to degrade. This degradation is irreversible and leads to blindness.
Dilated cardiomyopathy: Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) occurs when the heart muscles become large and flaccid, making the heart unable to pump blood adequately. A taurine deficiency weakens the heart muscles, leading to DCM. Left unmanaged, DCM eventually leads to congestive heart failure.
Signs of heart disease include weakness and reduced appetite.
Digestive problems: Taurine is found in bile salts, which are produced in the liver and help with a cat’s digestion. A taurine deficiency leads to digestive problems.
Pregnancy and fetal development complications: Taurine is necessary for a healthy pregnancy in cats. Mama cats with a taurine deficiency won’t be able to provide enough nutrition to their unborn kittens. After birth, kittens born to mothers with a taurine deficiency have poor and delayed growth and low birth weights. Also, taurine-deficient mama cats tend to have small litters.
Diagnosing a Taurine Deficiency
Taurine deficiencies in cats are not always readily noticeable. If your cat has any of the health complications listed above, take your cat to your veterinarian for a diagnostic workup.
Diagnosing a taurine deficiency is a thorough process.
Your vet will ask you detailed questions about your cat’s history, especially their diet. Expect questions like these listed below:
- Do you feed your cat commercial cat food?
- Does your cat eat a homemade diet? If so, what’s in the diet?
- Does your cat eat dog food?
- What symptoms have you observed, and when did you first notice them?
- Is your cat bumping into furniture, as if they’re having trouble seeing?
The physical exam will be a comprehensive observation of all of your cat’s body systems, especially the heart and eyes. For the heart exam, your vet will listen closely to your cat’s heartbeat and rhythm. Additional heart testing, such as chest X-rays and an electrocardiogram, will provide more information about your cat’s heart function.
For the eye exam, your vet will look closely at your cat’s retina, located in the back of the eye. They will look for any signs of retinal damage.
Beyond the physical exam, your vet will take a few blood samples to perform routine blood work and test specifically for taurine levels.
If your cat has a taurine deficiency, your vet will prescribe taurine supplementation, which could be lifelong.
Taurine Supplements for Cats
The only way to correct a taurine deficiency in cats is through supplementation. Taurine supplements come in various formulations. There’s powdered taurine, as well as taurine capsules, tablets, and gels.
Taurine supplements are available over the counter. However, they are not regulated by the FDA, and thus do not have the requirement to undergo rigorous testing for safety and effectiveness.
If evaluating the products yourself seems daunting, ask your veterinarian for recommendations. For whichever product you select, your veterinarian can instruct you on how much to give your cat.
Here are a few more things to consider about supplementation for cats:
- Retinal damage from a taurine deficiency is irreversible. Supplementation may slow or stop the vision loss but cannot reverse it.
- Taurine deficiency-related heart damage is also irreversible. Supplementation may help to slow the heart muscle dysfunction.
- Other than retinal and heart damage, taurine supplementation may reverse the symptoms of deficiency if the deficiency is caught early enough.