Essential nutrients for cats and dogs explained

For more than 50 years, our nutritional and research teams have spent countless hours researching the nutritional needs of cats and dogs to understand the role nutrition plays in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. As such, each of our tailored diets includes at least 50 individual nutrients, adapted to a pet's unique needs.
Afghan Hound and Russian Blue cat in black and white

The nutrient-based approach to pet food

At Royal Canin, we know that the value of ingredients in pet food is the nutrients they provide. That's why we take a nutrient-first approach to our unique diets.

In this approach, the nutritional needs of a pet are evaluated through detailed research and observation. An optimal diet profile is then determined for cats and dogs, based on both species guidelines and unique observations of the breed, age, lifestyle, vulnerabilities and health status. From here, high quality, highly digestible ingredients are sourced which can be combined to meet each tailored nutritional profile.

Relying on this approach, we are able to select high-quality nutrients from more sustainable sources with a lower carbon footprint. In doing so, we can choose recipes with the least environmental and social impact whilst providing pets with nutrition of the highest quality, benefits and safety.

Royal Canin's detailed approach to nutrition has four goals which underpin all of our nutritional developments:

Illustrated dog and cat walking with a green background

Energy provision

Provide the energy the pet needs in the right amount and form through precise levels of

  • Protein
  • Carbohydrates
  • Fat
Illustration of the different lifestyles of a dog

Body development and maintenance

Meet the nutritional requirements of healthy physical development and maintenance through precise levels of

  • Amino acids
  • Minerals
  • Vitamins
  • Fatty acids
Illustration of owner walking a dog with a green background

Targeted support

Support long-term health by considering common concerns including, for example, the effects of ageing, digestive problems and skin conditions through precise levels of

  • Antioxidants
  • Fibre
  • Prebiotics
  • Essential fatty acids
Illustration of a dog and a cat walking with red bowls

Special care

Very specific nutrients can be limited or added in certain formulations in order to help cats and dogs affected by particular health issues.

By meeting all of these goals, we are able to supply precise nutritional diets for the unique requirements of cats and dogs.

Understanding the role of nutrients

By recognising the key benefits of each of these nutrients, you can make informed decisions about your pet's diet. At Royal Canin, we know that understanding what nutrients are important for your pet, and why, can be difficult. As such, we've broken down the 5 most important nutrients, where they can be sourced and the role they play in cat and dog nutrition, so that you can be confident in choosing the right food for your pet.

Cat standing in front of red bowl

The role of protein in pet food

Protein is one of the main macronutrients in a pet's diet, alongside carbohydrates and fats. Cats and dogs require a lot of protein, as it is a source of energy, but is also key to healthy growth, cells regeneration and gestation. Due to these roles, puppies and kittens, gestating animals may require more protein than adult pets.

It doesn’t matter if dietary protein comes from one source, or from multiple ingredients, as long as the total proteins supplied in the diet provides all the necessary amino acids in the correct amounts.

4 illustrations showing the benefits of proteins

Benefits of proteins

Proteins are often large, complex molecules, consisting of a string of amino acids. They play critical roles in almost every aspect of the body, including:

  1. Building and maintaining muscle mass
  2. Producing enzymes which assist the many biochemical processes in the body
  3. Supporting strong immunity, including the production of blood cells
  4. Promoting healthy growth and development
5 illustrations showing the sources of proteins

Sources of proteins

Proteins from one ingredient may differ from another, based on; the length of the polypeptide chain, the individual amino acids that are in the chain, and how the chain folds. Sources of protein include:

  1. Meat
  2. Grains
  3. Seeds
  4. Legumes
  5. Vegetables

The role of carbohydrates in pet food

Carbohydrates is a term that covers molecules composed of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen that have certain chemical characteristics in common.

Cats and dogs can live without carbohydrates in their food, as they synthesise some types of carbohydrate they need for the cells from amino acids. The intake of carbohydrates does, however, greatly improve the body’s functioning. Recent research has revealed that as they became domesticated, dogs have undergone genetic changes which mean they are able to thrive on diets with a greater proportion of carbohydrate.*

*Axelsson et al. The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet. Nature. 2013;495(7441):360-4

Benefits of carbohydrates

Using carbohydrates as an energy source means that the other calorie-containing macronutrients can be used in other ways. For example, protein and fat can be spared for other bodily functions such as growth or even cell regeneration. Other benefits of carbohydrates include:

  1. Supporting the health and bacterial population (microbiota) of the digestive tract
  2. Providing immediate energy to pets
  3. Producing a satiety feeling in animals, which is particularly beneficial to pets at risk of becoming overweight
3 illustrations showing the benefits of carbohydrates

Sources of carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are predominantly plant-based. Some examples of carbohydrate sources include:

  1. Rice
  2. Maize
  3. Wheat
  4. Barley
  5. Potato
  6. Milk
  7. Plants with fruit, berries, roots or tubers
7 illustrations showing the sources of carbohydrates

The role of lipids (fats) in pet food

Lipids constitute a family of organic substances commonly known as fats. Fats are the benchmark energy source for dogs and cats, who oxidise them to extract the energy they need. A gram of lipids represents approximately 8.5 kcal of metabolisable energy, almost two and a half times more than a gram of carbohydrate or protein provides.

4 illustrations showing the benefits of lipids

Benefits of lipids

As with proteins and carbohydrates, in the correct proportions, lipids are an important source of energy for cats and dogs. Some fatty acids – termed "essential" – also have structural roles for the cell or act as precursors to specific hormones. Other benefits of lipids include:

  1. Optimising palatability
  2. Helping animals absorb important vitamins
  3. Developing metabolic pathways and neurological systems
  4. Supporting immune functions and the inflammatory process which occurs in tissue injuries or infections
10 illustrations showing the sources of lipids

Sources of lipids

Dietary lipid sources are all foods rich in animal fats and vegetable fats. Some of these sources include:

  1. Soya oil
  2. Corn oil
  3. Borage oil
  4. Safflower oil
  5. Butter
  6. Tallow
  7. Lard
  8. Eggs
  9. Poultry fat
  10. Fish oil

The role of minerals in pet food

The minerals that are present in high quantities (calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium) are called macro elements. Those present in very low quantities – trace elements – represent a few milligrams/kilograms (or parts per million), but they are essential to the functioning of the body (e.g. iron, zinc, manganese, copper, iodine, selenium).

An excess in mineral salts has an adverse effect on digestibility and may even produce effects contrary to expectations. This is why a precise, nutrient-based approach is vital when it comes to determining diets for cats and dogs.

Benefits of minerals

Each mineral is involved in several different functions. For simplicity, we've outlined some of the main roles the most important minerals play in the body:

  1. Building blocks of bones
  2. Energy transfer
  3. Cellular ionic balance
  4. Sensory impulses
  5. Synthesis of haemoglobin of red blood cells
  6. Supporting the health of skin
  7. Formation of cartilage and skin, and the synthesis of skin pigments
  8. Functioning of the thyroid gland
  9. Antioxidant functions
9 illustrations showing the benefits of minerals

Sources of minerals

Minerals are provided by different ingredients, but they may also be included in the form of purified salts: iron sulphate, zinc oxide, manganese oxide, copper sulphate, sodium selenite, calcium iodate, etc.

Ingredients which are rich sources of minerals include:

  1. Meat such as pork, duck or liver
  2. Fish
  3. Wheat, cereal, grains
  4. Peas, lentils, soy
5 illustrations showing the sources of minerals

The role of vitamins in pet food

Vitamins are split into two families: vitamins that are soluble in fats (liposoluble vitamins) and vitamins that are soluble in water (hydrosoluble vitamins). If they are consumed excessively, liposoluble vitamins accumulate in the body which may be dangerous.

6 illustrations showing the benefits of vitamins

Benefits of vitamins

Each vitamin is involved in several different functions. As with minerals, we have highlighted some of the major roles in the body.

  1. Calcium and phosphorus metabolism regulation
  2. Protection against cell oxidation (antioxidants)
  3. Formation of blood cells and blood clotting
  4. Synthesis of hormones as part of the reproductive process
  5. Regulate the growth of epidermis cells (outermost layer of skin) and the production of sebum.
  6. Neutralisation of free radicals (anti-oxidative stress effect): vitamin C permits the regeneration of vitamin E, a powerful natural antioxidant itself
8 illustrations showing the sources of vitamins

Sources of vitamins

Vitamins are provided in various ingredients and they can also be included in pure form. As naturally fragile substances, sensitive to light, heat and oxidation, vitamins need to be protected during the cooking process.

  1. Meat, kidneys and liver
  2. Fish oil
  3. Eggs
  4. Dairy products
  5. Cereals
  6. Vegetables
  7. Citrus fruit
  8. Berries

Determining your pet's nutritional profile

When it comes to determining the nutrients involved in any diet, it's important to remember that excess can be just as harmful as deficiency. The main criteria in ensuring a complete and balanced diet, therefore, is that each nutrient must be present in the correct ratio and easily digestible for pets.

The precise ratio of nutrients can be unique to your pet's breed, age, lifestyle, vulnerabilities or health concerns. If you're ever unsure about the nutrients your pet needs to support their health and wellbeing, speak to your vet. A vet will be able to carry out a full diet history and any physical examinations necessary to determine the best nutritional profile for your cat or dog.

Selection of three Royal Canin kibbles

Tailored Nutrition for Unique Needs

At Royal Canin, we put our scientific, nutritional knowledge at the service of the health and wellbeing of pets. We place cats and dogs at the heart of each step of the innovation process to develop precise nutritional solutions. Find out how we tailor our diets for breeds, lifestages, lifestyles and care needs.

Explore tailored nutrition
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Royal Canin's Nutritional Philosophy

Royal Canin has been at the forefront of science-led nutrition for over 50 years. Since the very first day, our nutritional approach has been based on scientific facts and constantly fed by research from nutritionists, veterinarians and scientists from across the world.

Our nutritional philosophy