Do Domestic Cats Chew Food Enough?

The modern domestic cat no longer needs to chew food and therefore doesn’t. Is that correct? If it is correct, is it a bad thing? Or is it a natural thing that domestic cats don’t chew food? Do wild cats need to chew? If wild cats do not need to chew we cannot say that the domestic cat does not chew because of the food he is given.

[Update: please read Sarah Hartwell’s comment. Cats shear food and bone with the teeth at the rear of their mouth. I have used the wrong language as “chew” implies mastication. I mean biting and breaking up. I have made some small amendments to reflect this.]

The Wildcat

The wildcat eats bone and therefore, it seems, must chew (bite) to break it into smaller pieces. The wildcat is the wild ancestor of the domestic cat.

Conclusion – Appraisal

My initial appraisal is that domestic cats do chew (biting action) but less than humans and the amount of chewing depends on the cat and the food. Commercial cat food can encourage cats not to chew, depending on the individual cat. If a domestic cat is meant to be using his jaw in a more energetic way to masticate food – raw flesh and small bones – commercial cat food may have long term detrimental, anatomical effects on the species (Felis silvestris catus – domestic cat) over thousands of future years.

In the wild, lions don’t eat large bones but probably eat small bones. Captive lions are apparently fed bones, even large bones and therefore need to chew on their food.

Domestic cats eat all of the captured mouse, including the small bones, except the gall bladder and tail perhaps. There is some chewing going on.

The molars at the back of the mouth are designed to masticate food aren’t they? Answer: No. They are used to shear off flesh and break up bone and tough food. If you watch a domestic cat eating a chicken leg they will bite on the bone using their rear teeth. This is probably a good thing as it is natural.

Commercial Cat Food

Modern cat food doesn’t need chewing. Wet food is 70% water and sloppy. Cats lick off the jelly or whatever and swallow the rest. Dry cat food is made of small pellets that cats can, if they wish, simply swallow. I first believed that cats just swallowed dry food pellets because the pellets were too small. That must be logically true but I wonder if a domestic cat would eat dry cat food if the pellets were bigger so that they could not be swallowed. A cat might reject the food completely.

All manufactured food doesn’t need chewing. Homemade cat food probably does need some chewing because of a high meat content. The only time my cat chews on food is when I give him ham or chicken. He does chew it using his rear teeth (see video). But he does not chew that much.

Some cats will even swallow pieces of ham without chewing it. Is this normal or has the cat got into the habit of not chewing her food?

Valley Girl (VG) a PoCer – a regular visitor has these ideas

VG who lives with Tootsie. VG gave me the idea for this article. She says this about why domestic cats don’t chew:

I am now wondering to what extent domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) actually chew their food, what ever its constitution. Maybe the reason cats don’t chew hard food pellets is simply that they don’t chew food! Nothing to do with the design of the hard food itself. So, the representation by cat food makers that hard food of any kind is good for cleaning teeth is uh, bullshit, generally.

Granted this is only based on my observation of one cat.

However, it you think about the evolution of cats, from big cats to small domestics, why should they chew food? They might tear it apart into smaller pieces then swallow it. Other than that, why would big cats, wild cats, hang around their prey carefully chewing up the meat and entrails before swallowing? No good reason I can see. The longer time they hang around the prey, the longer time they are in one place. Thus they risk attracting animals who might prey on them, plus opportunistic predators who would take advantage of their kill- stealing it away from the cats. Buzzards, for example? Final factor in my reasoning is that, aside from previous two, even a closely associated group of cats (lion pride?) present at the kill, those who eat the most rapidly (no chewing) will acquire the most food, the most benefits.

I can see the same evolutionary logic for Felis silvestris catus especially when they’ve killed found rats and other vermin around grain supplies. No reason to lose the wild bid cat habit of eating as rapidly as possible. No selection advantage for hanging around and spending time chewing each piece of meat ripped off the carcass. Cats can smell food! Eat it as fast as possible before the other cats get there!

So VG leans towards the idea that domestic cats naturally don’t chew (bite on food) much. It is an inherited trait. The alternative view is that cat do chew but manufactured cat food trains cats to not chew and over 1000 and more years, will it have an anatomical effect on the domestic cat?

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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15 Responses

  1. Everycat says:

    My Gerry has no teeth at all now and thrives without the need to shear his food. He scarfs down everything put before him, which worries me with dry food. With some wet foods, especially the ones mimicking real meat he does seem to chew on the lumps to maybe break them up a bit.

    I have seen him gum a shrew to death and eat it without a problem. I think his gums must be very tough now.

  2. Valley Girl says:

    Michael, thanks for the added information. I didn’t know about big cats eating bones, and forgotten about domestic ones eating mousie bones. I can still see the adaptive logic of cats being able to “hoover” up food, but you give a more complete picture. My thoughts were based on my observation of Tootsie- one data point. She’s more into hoovering than chewing- I’ve never noticed her chewing dry food pellets, or anything else for that matter. Her teeth and gums are in good condition, so I don’t think that would be an explanation.

    Possibly I’ve never fed her anything that she would like to chew on! Like bones, for example. For some reason I got the idea that it was not safe/ wise to allow cats to chew on bones- but maybe that depends on the size of the bones. I’d hate to have her choke on some sharp bone bit- like tiny chicken bones from ribs or such. Any suggestions as to bones that might be safe for her to chew on? I’d like to see if she would enjoy those. Or some larger hard food items (commercial stuff) that would be more “bone like”? Like the so called “dog bones”?

    Commenters reports above and elsewhere on how their cats differ in this behavior are really interesting.

    • Valley Girl says:

      ah, I hadn’t read Sarah Hartwell’s comments when I typed above. So maybe I wasn’t as wrong as I though.

    • Michael says:

      Sarah Hartwell has provided a very useful comment. Cats don’t chew they shear food. However, it might be argued that the definition of “chewing” incorporates a shearing action. Chewing includes shearing and grinding 😉 “To bite and grind with the teeth”

      • Valley Girl says:

        Yes, see above, I thought Sarah’s comment really helpful. As I said to you as part of email (more or less), the idea that cats “chew things up” as humans do is possibly an example anthropomorphism. We naturally tend to look at animal behavior from our human perspective.

        • Michael says:

          I agree the word “chew” is incorrect. Although chewing incorporates biting and shearing I would have thought.

          However, the point I make is that cats don’t have a chance to use their back teeth to shear flesh and bone if they eat commercial cat food. Is this not a bad thing?

        • Michael says:

          the idea that cats “chew things up” as humans do is possibly an example anthropomorphism

          I think for me it was a mixture of that and carelessness or imprecise use of language. For me chewing was biting more than once. Shearing is more about cutting nearer rather than crushing. I did not consider the difference.

  3. Sarah Hartwell says:

    Cats aren’t supposed to chew food. Their dentition isn’t designed for chewing. Feline molars are specialised into carnassial teeth that act like shears, cutting off chunks of flesh into gobbets they can swallow. Those carnassials also scrape flesh from bones or crack smaller bones, which gives the cleaning action and which owners can mistake for chewing. Some owners feed raw chicken wings (the raw bones don’t splinter) which encourages cats to use their carnassials as nature intended.

    So there you have it – cats don’t have grinding/chewing molars, they have carnassials. They evolved to slice up meat, not chew food.

    • Michael says:

      Well thanks a lot Sarah. You are a mine of information. I guess the “chewing” action I videoed is shearing off flesh. I guess chewing is pretty close to shearing 😉

      I love it when you comment Sarah. So helpful and most welcome.

      The commercial cat food we buy robs the domestic cat of the need to use the molars. Would you recommend that people give their cats chicken wings from time to time to make up for this lack of use?

      • Valley Girl says:

        Great question for Sarah, Michael. I’d surely like hear what she has to say on this issue.

        ~ Would you recommend that people give their cats chicken wings from time to time to make up for this lack of use?~

    • Valley Girl says:

      Sarah! Thanks for your input. Makes me feel better that my “wild” idea was not so much off the mark, even though I didn’t know about the details of cat dentition that you have provided. Just seemed to me that taking the time to chew food might not aid survival, whereas ripping up chunks (your apt word) small enough to swallow would be a good strategy.

  4. Marc says:

    Mine chew dry food, but Lilly only a very tiny bit – I always thought chewing was important for the health of their teeth. I think it is. I think that is one of the only advantages of dry food actually – it helps keep the teeth stronger. Molly and Gigi chew and crunch on the little pellets every bite whereas Lilly every five, the other four she just swallows but she’s always been a light eater so when she doesn’t chew it’s not like she’s hoovering down big plates of food. She also prefers wet food and thats what they all get for the most part anyway.

    Is dry or chewing good for teeth? My guess is that it must be, it certainly is with humans I’ve heard.

    • Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

      My thoughts are the same Marc, dry food is taking the place of bones as something to chew on, but some cats don’t crunch biscuits up.
      Cat food has changed over the decades, I remember when there was only kit e kat, it was smooth food and had very strong fishy smell, now we can get smooth, jelly or gravy of all kinds of cat food and some of the jelly is in quite big chunks.
      Jozef sometimes eats a mouse and thoroughly enjoys chewing it lol but he doesn’t crunch biscuits!

    • Michael says:

      I agree that cats should be using their natural skills and biting on bone and flesh whether we call it “chewing” or “shearing” needs to be done, I think. Commercial cat food could be made to make cats use the teeth at the back of their mouths. At the moment, modern cat food means that a cat’s rear teeth need not be used at all.

      Dry cat food is meant to be good for teeth as some cats will bit on it. However some vets think it just sticks to teeth and is as bad as gluey wet food.

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