The Importance of Taurine for Dogs and Cats

Back in the 1970s, thousands of dogs and cats were mysteriously dying due to a form of heart failure called dilated cardiomyopathy. At the same time, there were reports of cats going blind that were often associated with cats being fed dog food. But within a few years, the same problems were discovered in cats eating a “premium” cat food sold by veterinarians. Finally, in the late 1980s, the problem, in cats at least, was traced to the deficiency of a basic amino acid called taurine.

There are 22 amino acids, the basic building blocks of protein. Animals can manufacture many of them in their liver, but some must be obtained in the diet—these are called “essential.” In humans and dogs, taurine is not essential, but it turned out that in cats, it is. Taurine is found primarily in muscle meat, and is completely absent in cereal grains. The lack of taurine in the diet caused serious eye and heart diseases to develop.

But what happened to the cat food? Thousands of cats had been eating the same “complete and balanced” cat food since it came on the market in the 1960s, so why should they suddenly start dying a decade later?

The answer lies in a part of the history of pet food that the big manufacturers don’t want you to know.

Before WWII, more than 90% of commercial pet food came in cans, and contained mostly meat. However, metal was needed for the military, and by the time the war ended, 85% of pet food was dry kibble. It still contained a good amount of meat, and this is what prevented taurine deficiencies from occurring.

The primary machinery for producing what is familiar to us today as dry food is called an extruder; it was introduced in the 1950s. However, to get the right crunchy texture, the recipe called for a higher proportion of starch. This started the trend of ever-increasing quantities of cereal grain, such as corn, in dry foods. At the same time, meat processors were getting more proficient at getting more meat from livestock carcasses. Less meat was available (and what was available was getting more expensive), so pet food makers substituted other animal tissues leftover from slaughter, officially called “by-products.” Over time, the result was a high-grain, low-meat dry food, for which the profit margin was—conveniently—much higher than for canned food.

Unfortunately, cats were about to pay for the pet food companies’ profits with their lives. With virtually no muscle meat in even the premium dry foods of that period, cats eating that food were missing crucial taurine, and suffered the consequences of corporate greed as sickness, blindness, and death.

When studies fingering taurine deficiency as the cause of these ailments were published, pet food manufacturers hastened to supplement taurine in their diets. Curiously, because bacteria in the cat’s digestive system evidently prefer canned food to dry, they needed to put three times more taurine in canned food than dry. The problem disappeared, and everyone lived happily ever after…or did they?

Because dogs make their own taurine from other amino acids, it’s been thought that they didn’t need such supplements. But in the last few years, researchers have discovered that a few dogs evidently can’t supply their own taurine needs; at least not on a diet of cereal grains and by-products. Certain lines of spaniels, retrievers, and particularly Newfoundlands developed the same form of heart disease that was killing cats. Now, this disease is actually pretty common among dogs of all breeds, but what was interesting about these particular dogs was that supplementing taurine could reverse their heart disease. As it turned out, many of these dogs were eating lamb and rice dog foods. Lamb meat has a relatively low level of taurine compared to chicken, the most common pet food protein. (Beef, venison, and rabbit are also much lower in taurine than poultry.) Consequently, a few pet food makers have started to supplement taurine in some (but not all) their dry dog foods.

However, the basic reason remains the same for dogs as cats: there isn’t enough real meat in the food to sustain a meat-eating predator like a dog or cat. The vast majority of dry pet foods out there contain little or no real meat, but instead use cheaper substitutes like grain proteins (corn gluten, wheat gluten, soy protein), and by-products such as meat and bone meal.

Here at Only Natural Pet Store, we stock only the best natural pet foods. You won’t find any low-end foods full of by-products here, so you can be confident that your pet is getting the best nutrition available. Shop now for your dog or cat!

While all processed cat foods and some dog foods are supplemented with taurine, in some cases more might actually be better. Taurine is a helpful and valuable supplement for pets with liver disease, seizure disorders, and Type I diabetes (the most common form in dogs). Here are some products that contain extra taurine:

Only Natural Pet Super Daily Canine Senior

Only Natural Super Daily Feline Vitamins

Missing Link Feline Formula

Pet Naturals of Vermont Natural Cat Daily

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11 Responses so far »

  1. 2

    Brent Harte said,

    Is the taurine mentioned is this article the ingredient in energy drinks

  2. 3

    jhofve said,

    Hi Brent, yes it’s the same taurine, in synthetic form. It is made in China and imported for use in pet food, energy drinks, and muscle-building supplements.

  3. 4

    amel said,

    it’s bad the cat food, for the dogs? the taurine?. Im bad in English, sorry.

  4. 6

    ziggy's grandma said,

    but isn’t high taurine content in cat food implicated with feline kidney disease?

  5. 7

    Saving Pets one family at a time said,

    Please check your facts, if the pet food contains chicken meal, lamb meal, salmon meal etc it is actually healthier for your pet and should be the first ingredient. Meals are dehydrated meats which contain all the protein and nutrients of ‘fresh meat’ without the excess water. Ingredients are listed by weight and since the water weight has been taken out of the meat it is now extremely light so to see a meal as the first ingredient (or even the second depending on what the first ingredient was) means your pet is getting mostly meat.

    A problem you could run into is when companies are vague and say things like “meat meal” or “animal meat”. My rule is if a company doesn’t want to be upfront with what animal(s) they have used I don’t want my pet eating it.

    • 8

      Dr. Jean said,

      I’m not sure what “facts” you are referring to. Perhaps this? “With virtually no muscle meat in even the premium dry foods of that period…” During that period–the early 1980s–there was indeed very little meat, or meat meal, in cat foods; plant proteins like corn gluten meal had assumed the primary position in those foods. (Actually, all of the affected cats were being fed Science Diet Feline Maintenance.) There just weren’t any high meat content natural, holistic foods on the market then. Fortunately, things have changed for the better.

      Meals are rendered products that are found primarily in dry food. If you are feeding dry food (which I do not recommend for cats for many reasons), then you are correct the first ingredient should be a named meal such as chicken meal or lamb meal. If the product lists any kind of “meat” (e.g., chicken, lamb) first, that “meat” is actually a high-water slurry containing very little meat protein; so then you do need to look at the second ingredient–and that should be a named meat meal.

      However, other meals (chicken by-product meal, meat and bone meal, etc.) contain very little muscle meat. So it all depends on the formulation of the food and the type of meal.

      Research shows that fresh meat is a higher quality protein as well as more digestible than any rendered meal. The enzymes that are abundantly present in fresh meat are denatured at about 120 degrees F, while rendering is a process of cooking at over 200 degrees F. Additionally, some of the meat proteins themselves are also denatured at those temperatures, which is one likely reason that dry foods are often implicated in the development of food allergies. So meat meal is certainly not “healthier” for any pet than real, fresh meat.

      In any case, whether a meal is used in the food has nothing to do with the taurine content of the food (which is the subject of this article). Regardless, taurine must be supplemented in cat food.

  6. 9

    Tanya said,

    I have a multi-cat household. Raw cat food can be very expensive to feed a number of cats. Raw dog food, on the other hand, comes in bulk patties for several brands; unlike the small bags for cats. Is it possible to add taurine to this raw dog food? If so, what amount of taurine is necessary?

  7. 10

    Dr. Jean said,

    It’s not only taurine that’s lacking; cats have several other specific requirements that are not provided by dog food. I would not advise feeding cats a diet made for dogs.

  8. 11

    Suzan Phelps said,

    I know its not scientific, but our dog’s poor health did not respond to several supplements and veterinarian prescription diets until we added taurine into her diet. She is a large lab and a chance discussion with a vet nutrition specialist lead me to the VitaHound Supplement containing taurine. The vet emphasized taurine as crucial amino acid the revitalizes their cellular health allowing the various other organ systems to operate without stress. Nevertheless thanks to forums like Only Natural Pet I have remedied our beloved Sally’s poor health.


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