Part One: The Basics  

In a world where pets are beloved family members, their health and well-being are of utmost importance. Optimal care starts with proper nutrition. Whether you have a loyal dog or an independent cat, each has unique nutritional needs throughout their life. Understanding the basics of pet nutrition can help you make informed decisions about the food you provide. 

Essential Nutrients for Pets 

Much like humans, pets need to obtain nutrients from their food to maintain optimal health. There are six main nutrient categories:   proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water that form the basis of survival.

The ingredients that make up your pet’s food must contain a unique combination of these different nutrients in order for the food to provide a complete and balanced diet for your dog or cat. Some of them are considered ‘essential’, meaning that they must be obtained from food. Others can be synthesised within the body by combining elements of different nutrients together. 

Proteins are the key structural component of skin, muscle, fur and nails and they aid with tissue building and repair. Quality protein sources for pets include meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. 

Carbohydrates provide a good source of energy and can be obtained from grains, vegetables, and fruits. 

Fats contain 2.5 times the quantity of energy than either proteins or carbohydrates. Fats also assist in vitamin absorption and storage. They are easily derived from animal fats, vegetable oils, and fish oils.

Vitamins support various bodily functions and are necessary for overall health and vitality. They can be found in fruits, vegetables, and supplements. 

Minerals are essential for processes such as bone formation, nerve function, and maintaining fluid balance. Important minerals include calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium and magnesium. 

Water is essential for all life processes, including digestion, temperature regulation, and waste elimination. 

Dietary Needs of Different Life Stages 

Pets at different life stages have specific nutritional needs. 

Kittens & Puppies require high levels of good quality protein, essential fatty acids, and more calories than their adult counterparts. The correct balance of calcium and phosphorous is also essential to support their rapid growth and bone development. Care must be taken with large breed dogs to avoid bone development abnormalities, which can occur if their mineral intake is not balanced appropriately.

Adult Dogs and Cats need a balanced diet with appropriate levels of protein and fat to maintain their health and energy. It’s also essential that cats have taurine in their diet. 

Senior Cats and Dogs may benefit from diets with reduced calories, increased fibre and appropriate added functional nutrients to prevent obesity and support digestive and joint health. 

Geriatric Cats and Dogs should have appropriate levels of easily digestible protein, moderate fat, and additional specific nutrients to support aging joints and overall health, as advised by their veterinarian or qualified veterinary nutritionist. 

The Role of Lifestyle in Pet Nutrition 

A pet’s lifestyle is how they spend most of their lives, including their home environment and activity levels. It significantly influences their nutritional requirements. Every pet will have their own individual needs. 

Active pets require more calories and higher levels of good quality protein and fat. 

Inactive pets need fewer calories to prevent weight gain and may benefit from higher fibre content to help them feel full. 

Indoor pets generally need fewer calories as they aren’t as active and can also benefit from enrichment activities including play. This not only helps keep them active but strengthens the bond you share. Indoor cats may also benefit from specific functional nutrients that assist with enthusiastic self-grooming and litter tray use. These can help mitigate hairballs and strong toilet odours. 

Outdoor pets may require more calories and additional nutrients to support immune health. 

Overall health factors further dictate dietary needs: Pets that are pregnant or lactating and pets with health conditions may need special diets. It’s always best to discuss any individual dietary requirements with your veterinarian or a qualified veterinary nutritionist.  

Plant-Based Diets for Pets 

The trend towards plant-based diets is growing among humans and some pet owners. However, ensuring a plant-based diet meets the unique nutritional requirements of our pets can be challenging, especially for obligate carnivores like cats. 


While dogs are omnivores and can derive their essential nutrients from plant sources or synthesise them according to need, it’s vital to ensure that their diet is complete and balanced according to their individual status. Some nutrients such as certain amino acids, vitamins, and fatty acids are only found naturally in animal products. Careful formulation is necessary to ensure plant-based diets provide all the necessary nutrients appropriate to each dog. Veterinarians should be able to guide pet parents on the adequacy of these diets, particularly for puppies and dogs with higher nutritional demands.1 


Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that they must derive some of their nutrients from animal sources and have a higher protein requirement than dogs. They have unique nutritional needs, including essential nutrients like taurine and arachidonic acid, which are crucial for heart health, vision, and overall well-being. These nutrients are only found naturally in animal tissue. Taurine deficiency can lead to serious issues like dilated cardiomyopathy (an often-fatal heart condition) and blindness. Cats also don’t digest carbohydrates well, so diets high in plant material may be more challenging for them to metabolise. To support animal welfare, pet owners can choose pet food brands with humane and transparent farming practices2

If you’re considering a plant-based diet for your pet, consult with a veterinarian first to ensure the proposed diet is nutritionally complete and safe. If your veterinarian doesn’t have a special interest in nutrition, you can always consult with a qualified veterinary nutritionist. This qualification requires additional postgraduate training and takes a minimum of 3 years to complete.  

Understanding the basics of your pet’s nutritional needs, considering their lifestyle, and carefully planning dietary changes, can ensure they receive the right balance of nutrients for optimal health. 

This article forms Part One of a three-part nutrition focused series “Beyond the Bowl: Understanding Your Pet’s Nutritional Needs”. Stay tuned for Part Two, where we’ll delve deeper into pet nutrition. 

For further insight into your pet’s health care needs, download our 2024 Pet Health Monitor here


1 American Veterinary Medical Association (2018) ‘Plant-based diets for pets: a review’, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 253(11), pp. 1425-1432. Available at: (Accessed: 5 June 2024). 

2 ASPCA (2018) ‘Why can’t my cat be vegan?’, ASPCA. Available at: (Accessed: 4 June 2024). 

My Own Vets, 2023. Understanding the basics of pet nutrition: A beginner’s guide. Available at: [Accessed 4 June 2024]. 

Matraville Veterinary Practice, 2023. Pet nutrition. Available at: [Accessed 4 June 2024]. 

Tufts University (2018) ‘Cats are not small dogs: Unique nutritional needs of cats’, Tufts Veterinary Nutrition. Available at: (Accessed: 4 June 2024). 

American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) (2023) ‘Why can’t my cat be vegan’, ASPCA News. Available at: (Accessed: 4 June 2024). 

American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) (2018) ‘The association between pet food and nutritional needs’, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 253(11), pp. 1425-1431. Available at: (Accessed: 5 June 2024). 

Purina Australia (2024) ‘Feeding adult dogs’, Purina Australia. Available at: (Accessed: 5 June 2024). 

RSPCA NSW (2024) ‘Nutrition’, RSPCA NSW. Available at: (Accessed: 5 June 2024). 

Pet insurance can help by covering a portion of the eligible vet bill if the unexpected happens. Because it is difficult to predict the costs of veterinary care, it can help to have measures in place to help prepare for the unexpected. Check out our partner network and explore our policy tools to find a pet insurance policy.

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