Dogs and cats have evolved to have entirely different nutritional needs, digestive systems, and overall physiological makeups. While a frisky feline with a promiscuous palate (i.e. is stealing your dog’s food), poses no immediate danger to your cat, over time, the habit could have major consequences for their overall health.
So, can a cat eat dog food?
When looking at the do's and don'ts of feeding you cat, this one is a definite no. Below, we break down four reasons why, as well as what to look for in a pet food that meets their species’ unique nutritional needs.
Why Can’t I Feed My Cat Dog Food?
Trying to cut costs, caving when they meow non-stop at family mealtime, running out of their favorite nibbles, and being too exhausted to dash to the pet supply store—there are plenty of reasons why you may be tempted to let your feline friend tear into dog kibble.
But as a pet parent, there are several ways to answer “Can cats eat dog food?” that reveal far better reasons to avoid it altogether.
#1 Cats Need More Animal Protein Than Dogs
As natural-born hunters, cats evolved to derive the nutrients they need chiefly from small animals (birds and mice among them, as you may have gathered from the surprises they leave on your back porch).1 Alongside snakes, seals, orcas, and some other species, this makes them obligate or true carnivores—a kind of animal that can only obtain all of its dietary needs by eating meat.2
While today’s cats tend to spend much more time prowling the living room as opposed to the wilderness, they still need a diet that mimics their evolutionary roots.3 So, while your pup can feed happily and healthily on a meal of protein, fat, starchy or sugary carbohydrates, and plant-based nutrients, when looking to improve your cat's diet, keep in mind that cats require considerably more protein and fat than their canine siblings.3
Ideally, each meal your cat eats should contain:4
- 30 to 35% protein for adult cats
- 35 to 45% protein for growing kittens
In measurement terms, most vets agree that 30 grams of protein per 100 grams of dry matter should be adequate for adult cats (and at least 25 grams minimum).5
#2 Eating Dog Food Stresses Out Their Digestive System
Aside from depriving cats of the protein they need to stay healthy, eating dog food on a regular basis can actively compromise their digestive health. Since they evolved to rely on protein, cat digestive systems don’t have the enzymes necessary to break down the slew of carbohydrates typically found in commercial dog food.
If they do consume excessive amounts of carbs—whether from your dog’s food bowl or another food source—a series of actions happen in their bodies:6
- Blood sugar elevates – Because cats lack the enzymes necessary to break down carbohydrates, eating too many causes their blood sugar to spike (and it’s more difficult for them to bring them back down to normal levels). Their bodies also store the excess starch they ingest as body fat, which can lead to weight gain.
- Protein digestion is inhibited – Since carbohydrates move more quickly through the digestive system than proteins, the rapid passage of dog food means cats will have a harder time obtaining and using the protein in the meal.
- Stool pH changes – When cats’ small intestines can’t adequately digest carbs, that undigested matter moves into their colon. There, it will continue to ferment, which can lead to the overproduction of organic acid byproducts. Their waste becomes more acidic, which can lead to a host of gastrointestinal issues.
- Microbiome becomes imbalanced – Due to a higher pH value in the colon, cats’ intestinal flora changes. When “good” bacteria can’t flourish, this can cause gas, loose stool, vomiting, and abdominal cramping.
Remember: A few nibbles of dog food your cat sneaks on the sly won’t qualify as an emergency. But if letting your cat have dog food becomes a habit, your feline friend will be vulnerable to a host of more serious, chronic conditions, such as:6
- Fatty liver disease
- Frequent vomiting
- Food intolerances
Ideally, aim to limit your cats’ carb consumption to no more than 10% carbohydrates per feeding on a dry matter basis.7
#3 Dogs and Cats Need Different Essential Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins—some can be made in the body, while others must be acquired through food. When we must obtain them through food, they are known as essential amino acids.8
Every species has its own set of essential amino acids. Humans have 9, dogs have 10, and cats have 11. Taurine is the 11th essential amino acid (although dogs can produce this amino acid on their own). It’s plentiful in meat, but it can’t be obtained from plant-based food sources, so cats must acquire it through food.
If they don’t, they may be at risk of developing several health consequences related to taurine deficiency.9 These include:10
- Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) – Taurine deficiency has been correlated with a weakening of the heart muscles and a heart condition known as DCM.11 DCM causes irregular contractions of a cat’s heart and can even result in heart failure. Fortunately, the condition can be remedied when caught early; treatment typically involves oral supplementation with 500mg of taurine daily
- Central retinal degeneration (CRD) – CRD is a severe eye condition that causes essential structural components of the eye to deteriorate. It affects the eye’s rods and cones (both of which help interpret light and color) as well as the tapetum lucidum, a vital part of the eye’s tissue. If CRD progresses without veterinary intervention, it can cause irreversible damage to cats’ vision.9
In addition to these specific illnesses, feline taurine deficiency has been linked to problems with reproduction, stunted growth in kittens and young cats, and chronic digestive issues.9 Pregnant cats, in particular, need adequate taurine levels to help promote her kittens’ growth in-utero.11
Fortunately, if your cat consistently consumes commercial food for cats (and not canines), you probably won’t need to worry about keeping track of their taurine consumption. Since the 1980s, all commercial cat food is required to include enough taurine to meet feline’s daily requirements.11
#4 Certain Ingredients Could Poison Them
We know that eating dog food habitually is detrimental to cats—but can cats eat dog food in treat form? Just like some human foods are poisonous to cats, the same goes with dog food.
As it turns out, giving your cat a taste of your dog’s treats is considered by some vets to be okay—but only on an extremely infrequent basis. Moreover, there are two occasions when doing so could be toxic to cats:
- Dangerous foods – Some dog treats contain ingredients that cats aren’t physiologically equipped to digest, particularly onion, leeks, and garlic. In large enough quantities, these can cause significant digestive distress. Eaten frequently, and onions may cause feline anemia (low blood iron levels).12
- Dangerous chemicals – Dog treats may contain ingredients that can be downright poisonous to cats. One to keep an eye out for is propylene glycol—a synthetic, water-absorbing additive. In large amounts, propylene glycol was found to cause Heinz body anemia, a blood disorder that can cause weakness, fever, skin discoloration, and other adverse symptoms in felines.13
Generally, however, the same rule applies to dog treats: True to canine’s tastes and dietary needs, most of them (yes, even those fancy artisanal ones) are formulated the same way commercial dog food is—heavy on carbs.14
For this reason, it’s best to keep your feline on the “Catkins” low-carb diet and refrain from rewarding them with your dog’s goodies.
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How to Keep Your Cat From Eating Other Pets’ Food
As it turns out, commercial cat food’s high protein and fat value means that it’s more likely your dog will salivate over your cat’s food (rather than the other way around). Even so, it’s not uncommon for mischievous cats to help themselves to a few chomps of your chow’s meal when they think you aren’t looking!
If you’re struggling to get them to keep their paws to themselves, you might try establishing regular feeding schedules. Free feeding works for some cats and some households, but sticking to a more disciplined schedule has several benefits, including:15
- Discouraging feeding “crossover” during mealtimes
- Preventing weight gain in your cat
- Diffusing antagonism between animals
- Making it easier for you to administer medication when they need it
If all else fails, you can always try feeding your animals in separate areas of the house. In a perfect world, we’d all be able to enjoy family mealtime together—but just as you’re tempted by that alluring heap of french fries on a dinner date’s plate, sometimes it’s best to remove the temptation altogether.
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- College of Veterinary Medicine. Feeding Your Cat. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feeding-your-cat
- Britannica. Obligate carnivore. https://www.britannica.com/science/obligate-carnivore
- PetMD. Can Dogs Eat Cat Food? https://www.petmd.com/dog/nutrition/can-dogs-eat-cat-foo
- The Nest. How Much Protein Do Cats Require? https://pets.thenest.com/much-protein-cats-require-12867.html
- VetHelp Direct. How much protein do cats actually need in their diet? https://vethelpdirect.com/vetblog/2022/09/15/how-much-protein-do-cats-actually-need-in-their-diet/
- Cats on Broadway Veterinary Hospital. Cats are Carnivores, Part 3: Carbohydrates. https://www.catsonbroadwayhospital.com/cats-are-carnivores-part-3-carbohydrates/
- PetMD. Cat Nutrition: What Makes a Nutritional Cat Food? https://www.petmd.com/cat/nutrition/cat-nutrition-what-makes-nutritional-cat-food
- National Library of Medicine. Amino acids. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002222.htm
- PetMD. What is Taurine? https://www.petmd.com/blogs/nutritionnuggets/cat/dr-coates/2014/december/what-taurine-32287
- Pet Radar. Can cats eat dog food? A vet's guide to whether dog food is bad for cats. https://www.petsradar.com/advice/can-cats-eat-dog-food
- VCA Animal Hospitals. Taurine in Cats. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/taurine-in-cats
- PetMD. Human Foods That Are Dangerous for Cats. https://www.petmd.com/cat/emergency/poisoning-toxicity/e_ct_human_food_poisoning
- The Nest. Polypropylene Glycol & Cats. https://pets.thenest.com/polypropylene-glycol-cats-11688.html
- Pets Radar. Can cats eat dog treats? A vet's guide to whether dog treats are bad for cats. https://www.petsradar.com/advice/can-cats-eat-dog-treats
- Pet Keen. 5 Benefits of Feeding Your Cat on a Schedule. https://petkeen.com/benefits-of-feeding-your-cat-on-a-schedule/