Taurine in Cats

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH

What is taurine?

Taurine is a type of amino acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of all proteins. Taurine is exclusively found in animal-based proteins. It is critical for normal vision, digestion and heart muscle function, for the maintenance of a healthy immune system, and the maintenance of normal pregnancy and fetal development. Taurine is an essential amino acid for cats.

What is an essential amino acid?

When an animal eats proteins, the proteins are broken down into their individual amino acid components before they are absorbed. Of the 20 common amino acids, some can be manufactured within the body from other amino acids. Others are called “essential”, meaning that the body cannot manufacture them, and they must be included as part of the diet. Different species of animals have different essential amino acid requirements.

"Taurine is an essential amino acid for cats."

Most mammals can manufacture enough taurine from other amino acids to meet their needs. However, cats have a limited ability to manufacture taurine, so taurine is classified as an essential nutrient for cats. Taurine is readily obtained from a cat’s diet if the diet contains animal-based proteins. Unfortunately, it is not stored in large quantities in the body and so must be consumed on a regular basis.

What happens if taurine levels are deficient?

Clinical signs of taurine deficiency are slow to develop. It can take several months before symptoms become apparent, depending on the cat's life stage.

If taurine levels are deficient, the retinal cells of the eyes will eventually degenerate, impairing the vision. This condition is referred to as feline taurine retinopathy or, more commonly, feline central retinal degeneration (FCRD). Deficiency of taurine will also lead to a weakening of the muscle cells in the heart, causing a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). See the handouts “Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Dogs” and “Cardiomyopathy in Cats” for more information. Taurine is a component of bile salts, and its deficiency may cause digestive disturbances.

If caught early enough, dilated cardiomyopathy may be reversible with dietary supplementation. Left untreated for too long, it will progress to heart failure and death. If retinal degeneration is left untreated, it will lead to irreversible blindness.

During pregnancy, a cat must have adequate levels of taurine to maintain her health and to ensure proper growth and structural development of her kittens. Low taurine levels result in small litter sizes, low birth weights, or fetal abnormalities. In growing kittens, taurine deficiency can result in delayed growth.

Why recommend administration of taurine to my pet?

Food processing can affect taurine levels in the diet, and increased dietary fiber can decrease its absorption. Cat foods that contain high-quality animal-based protein will supply adequate levels of taurine for a normal, healthy cat. Dog food does not contain enough taurine to meet the normal requirements for a cat.

Supplemental taurine may be added to certain cat foods, especially diets that are formulated for specific needs such as heart disease or growth and development. Supplementation is relatively safe, with no reports of problems associated with excessive dietary taurine in the cat.

Taurine was first recognized as a necessary component of the cat's diet in the late 1980s. Since then, all diets that are formulated for cats are supplemented with enough taurine to meet the normal cat's needs.

Supplemental taurine is used as a treatment for dilated cardiomyopathy in cats.

Are other pets treated with taurine?

There are isolated occurrences of taurine-deficient dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs. There appears to be a genetic predisposition to this problem in some breeds of dogs, including American cocker spaniels, golden retrievers, and Newfoundland dogs. Supplementation may be recommended for these dogs as part of their treatment for dilated cardiomyopathy.

As previously noted, all cats require taurine as part of their diets. A healthy cat that eats a high-quality cat food appropriate to its life stage does not require supplementation.

Supplemental taurine is recommended for cats with health problems, or cats that are not getting most of their nutrition from a high-quality commercial cat food. Taurine may be part of treatment for certain conditions, including dilated cardiomyopathy, retinal degeneration, epilepsy, and fatty liver disease.

How successful is taurine supplementation?

When used to treat dilated cardiomyopathy, taurine supplementation is usually effective if the disease is caught in its early stages. Taurine supplementation may slow or stop the progression of retinal degeneration but is usually not successful in reversing the damage.

How safe is taurine?

Supplementation is relatively safe, with no reports of problems associated with excessive dietary taurine in the cat.

Where do I obtain taurine and do I need a prescription?

Consumers are advised that quality of supplements may vary significantly among manufacturers. Your veterinarian may have preferred supplement manufacturers that they will recommend. Taurine is available over-the-counter without a prescription.

How do I store this medicine?

Your veterinarian will review storage and side effects with you or it should be clearly labeled on the bottle (see the handout “Taurine” for more information).

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