The pathologic changes of essential fatty acid (EFA) deficiency were studied in specific-pathogen-free, domestic shorthair cats which were fed purified diets for 1.5 to 2.5 years. Cats fed an EFA-deficient diet exhibited signs of deficiency: severe fatty degeneration of the liver, excessive fat in the kidneys, dystrophic mineralization of the adrenal glands, degeneration of the testes, and hyperkeratosis of the skin. Minor clinical pathologic changes were consistent with liver damage. Fatty acid analyses of plasma lipids revealed low concentrations of linoleate and other n6-fatty acids, and high concentrations of n7- and n9-fatty acids, consistent with EFA deficiency. These signs of deficiency were prevented by including safflower seed oil in the diet at a concentration to supply linoleate at 6.7% of dietary energy. Therefore, linoleate is an EFA for the cat, despite negligible conversion of linoleate to arachidonate in cat liver. However, in cats fed a diet containing linoleate, but lacking arachidonate, there was mild mineralization of the kidneys, and the neutral fat content of the liver was slightly higher than that of cats fed a diet containing arachidonate and other long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. Also, 2 of the 19 cats fed arachidonate-deficient diets developed unusual inflammatory skin lesions. In cats fed a diet containing hydrogenated coconut oil, safflower seed oil, and chicken fat, fatty livers developed despite the presence of high levels of linoleate. The fatty livers appeared to result from a specific deleterious effect of the medium-chain triglycerides in hydrogenated coconut oil. Most of the organ pathologic changes of EFA deficiency in the cat can be prevented by feeding dietary linoleate. Linoleate meets the EFA requirement for functions which depend on proper membrane structure: growth, lipid transport, normal skin and coat condition, and maintenance of the epidermal permeability barrier. However, dietary arachidonate is required by the cat for functions which depend on eicosanoid formation, such as reproduction and blood platelet aggregation.