Can I Give My Cat Fish?
Pop culture has given many pets stereotyped diets. If we were to gather all of our knowledge by watching Saturday morning cartoons, we would come to think that many animals, wild or tame, eat one type of food exclusively: mice eat cheese, anteaters eat ants (duh), rabbits eat carrots, squirrels eat acorns, and cats eat fish. Though most of us understand that cartoons do not necessarily reflect reality—after all, we have never seen a cat play the piano—these stereotypes influence us more than we realize. When people who have cats start looking for healthy, natural treats to feed them, one of the first things to come to mind is fish.
Pop culture is full of fish-eating felines, but how does this stereotype hold up under scrutiny? Where does this food fit in the feline diet? Can cats have fish?
The answer is yes, cats can eat fresh, fully cooked fish in small quantities. Most fish are not poisonous to cats, so the occasional generous serving of tuna or salmon will not likely result in any long-term damage to their health. However, it is important that we practice caution when we feed fish to cats. Fish is often a source of parasites, bacteria, and other substances that can damage our cat’s health. Even fresh, fully cooked fish may have adverse effects if it is given to cats in large quantities. Fish of any kind should serve as a treat or a dietary supplement, not as a mainstay.
Though there are some serious risks associated with excessive or ill-prepared fish in the feline diet, there are also several points in its favor. Many types of fish are high in nutrients that are important for optimal feline health. In recent years, salmon in particular has become popular thanks to its high concentration of healthy fats.
Gone are the days when we dismissed all fat as being bad for our health— in today’s health and nutrition world, many of us are actively pursuing certain types of fats to improve our own health. We have learned how to differentiate between the types of fat. Unhealthy fats, like trans and saturated fats, should be minimized because they increase our risk of cardiovascular problems, including heart attack and stroke. Trans fats, which are manmade, are the worst offenders, and they should never pass our cats’ lips.
Then there are the healthy fats, which are necessary for us and for our cats to achieve optimal health. Many of the fats that are beneficial to our health are good for our cats, too. Many types of fish (again, salmon) are loaded with these health-boosting types of fat.
Today, everyone’s favorite healthy fat is the omega-3 fatty acid. While there have not been too many studies performed on the effects of omega-3s on feline health, it may be possible to extrapolate based on the results of research done on humans and other animals. There is some evidence that these fatty acids may help fight several types of cancer—a couple of studies have discovered that omega-3s correlated with a reduced rate of cancer growth, and another study revealed that omega-3s actually slowed down the growth of cancerous tumors.
Things to ConsiderDespite the omega-3s, pet owners should be cautious when giving fish to their cats. Raw, undercooked, or spoiled fish is loaded with bacteria and parasites that can result in food poisoning. A mild case of food poisoning may pass with nothing more than an upset stomach and vomiting, but a more severe infection can be life-threatening. Some types of fish also contain high concentrations of heavy metals, which can damage your cat’s nervous system in the long term.
Fish is not a nutritionally complete food, either—even if the fish you select is fresh, fully cooked, and loaded with omega-3s, it will not meet all of your cat’s dietary needs. Cats who subsist on large amounts of fish will almost certainly develop nutritional imbalances. The deficiency most commonly associated with fish consumption is a thiamine deficiency. Cats who do not consume enough thiamine may develop vascular and nervous system problems.
Surprisingly, fish are also one of the most common feline allergens. One study found that fish made up over 20% of feline allergies. Cats who are allergic to fish will exhibit symptoms such as sneezing, itching, red or inflamed skin, vomiting, and behavioral changes. If your cat develops any of these symptoms after eating any quantity of fish, remove all fish products from their diet and see if they improve. If symptoms persist, consult a veterinarian.
In the end, it’s probably better to avoid getting our dietary advice from anthropomorphic cats on TV. Though cats love fish, and though fish can provide many of the vitamins and minerals they need to stay healthy, this food should be saved for special occasions. If you decide to give your cat fish, make sure it is fresh and fully cooked to remove the risk of food poisoning.