Can Cats Have Sweet Potatoes?
Though foods like cookies, cakes, bread, and pasta are almost universally loved, there are only a handful of vegetables that are popular among people of all cultures, age groups, and varying degrees of pickiness. Some of the safest options are kid-friendly veggies such as corn, raw carrots, and tomatoes in the form of marinara sauce, but none of these vegetables are quite as beloved as nature’s favorite complex carbohydrate: the humble potato. Though these root vegetables are not particularly exciting—they are pretty bland, soft when cooked, and painfully boring in appearance—they are staple foods in many kitchens. There are many types of potatoes, and the sweet potato is one of the most popular.
Sweet potatoes are what would happen if you took a standard russet potato and tried to turn it into a nutrient-rich, diet-friendly superfood. They are higher in heart-healthy fiber and antioxidants, they are slightly lower in calories, and they are chock full of key nutrients like beta-carotene, potassium, and manganese. Even better: as opposed to bland white potatoes, sweet potatoes are, well, sweet! While most of us enjoy white potatoes with a lot of salt and spices, many people will eagerly gobble up sweet potatoes without any added flavors. They are one of the healthiest sweet foods we can eat, so we devour them without guilt all winter long.
But can we feed them to our pets without guilt? Sweet potatoes seem like some of the most harmless foods in the supermarket, but so do raisins, and they can kill cats! So, what should we do with the leftover sweet potato on our plates? Can you give your cat potatoes?
The answer is technically yes, cats can consume properly prepared sweet potatoes in small amounts in the context of an overall healthy, feline-appropriate diet. This is not a food that is recommended as a dietary staple for our cats—even though sweet potatoes are a fantastic source of complex carbohydrates (which provide lasting energy) for human beings, they are not an adequate source of nutrition for our feline friends. If you would like to give your cat a scoop of cooked sweet potato while you are preparing Thanksgiving dinner, there is nothing to worry about, but understand that any health benefits will be minimal. Furthermore: your cat might not even like sweet potato, because cats do not have the kind of taste bud necessary to detect sweetness!
Though white potatoes are almost completely empty of nutrition for our cats, sweet potatoes may offer some small health benefits because they are far richer in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. They are packed with carotenoids like beta-carotene, which is responsible for the sweet potato’s brilliant orange color. Humans benefit from all of this beta-carotene because we can convert it into Vitamin A, an essential nutrient that helps maintain eye health, fight cataracts and macular degeneration, and protect night vision.
Some pet parents suggest that orange veggies may be a good way to help your kitty’s eyes, too—after all, cats need their night vision even more than we do!—but it is unlikely that they will get a lot of Vitamin A from eating sweet potatoes and carrots. While we are masters at converting beta-carotene from plant foods into the Vitamin A we need to thrive, our cats can hardly do it at all; they lack the biological equipment necessary to turn beta-carotene into anything that will help them meet their nutritional requirements. Cats are obligate carnivores who can only absorb many nutrients (including Vitamin A) in their pre-formed states. That is why they eat meat—the prey animal has already done the conversion for them.
If you think that your cat might be deficient in Vitamin A or any other nutrient, you should talk to your veterinarian instead of trying to supplement their diet with plant foods. No matter how nutritious sweet potatoes are for humans, they do not provide most nutrients in forms that are readily available for our cats, so they should not be used to meet any dietary needs.
Though sweet potatoes are rich in vitamins and antioxidants, most people who eat them regularly do so for one reason: they are an excellent source of the complex carbohydrates we need to fuel our busy lives. Unfortunately, the starchy nature of sweet potatoes is one of the things that make them such a lousy food for our cats! While humans thrive on diets that contain moderate amounts of starch, our house cats struggle to digest them at all.
It goes back to their being obligate carnivores. Cats actually need very few carbohydrates in order to thrive, as most of their calories should come from protein! While we were learning how to eat foods like potatoes and corn, our cats were gobbling up the mice living in our caves. They did not develop the enzyme that helps us digest starch, amylase, and so they struggle to process foods that are rich in starch.
Things to Consider
Our pets have evolved to live on mostly the flesh of prey animals, which is made up almost entirely of protein. Protein-rich foods are easily digestible, satiating, and rich in the amino acids your cat needs in order to grow and maintain nearly every structure in their body.
Giving your cat too many carbohydrate-rich, starchy foods can cause some health problems. In the short term, your cat may suffer from upset stomach, vomiting, or diarrhea. In the long term, cats who eat too much sweet potato may gain weight, which can quickly result in obesity and all of its complications.
Sweet potatoes are safe for cats to eat in small quantities—they are nontoxic, readily available, and they contain moderate amounts of fiber, but cats can’t absorb many of their most powerful micronutrients like beta-carotene. If you want to give your cat sweet potato, make sure that it has been thoroughly cooked, peeled, and either cut into bite-sized pieces, mashed up, or blended into a puree. Never feed your cat raw sweet potatoes, practice moderation, and pick a different food if the starch upsets their stomach.