We know just how stealthy cats can be in all aspects of their everyday lives. That said, if you happen to catch your cat eating dog food, there’s no need to worry. While dog food isn’t intended for our feline friends to eat, it doesn’t pose any immediate risks if they sneak in a nibble on occasion.
We spoke to two veterinarians who explain why cats shouldn’t eat dog food, foods they can—and should—eat, and ways to prevent them from eating from your dog’s bowl.
What Happens If Cats Eat Dog Food?
While it’s generally safe for a cat to eat dog food in small amounts, some cats may experience the following symptoms, according to Dr. Paula Simons, DVM, an Emergency and Critical Care resident veterinarian at Cornell University Veterinary Specialists (CUVS) and veterinary consultant at K9 of Mine:
- Pancreatitis (although, rare)
Eating dog food won’t hurt a cat if it’s not a common occurrence. However, it’s best that they don’t eat too much too often to avoid any unpleasant reactions.
If your cat has been eating dry dog food on a daily basis for months or years, though, “this will likely lead to prolonged malnourishment with serious health consequences,” Dr. Simons says. This is due to the different amounts of protein, fats and carbohydrates that cats need than dogs.
Long-term effects of cats eating dog food may lead to:
- Protein malnutrition
- Heart disease
- Eye disease
- Organ damage
- Weakened immune system
Why Shouldn’t Cats Eat Dog Food?
Dog food doesn’t contain any ingredients that are toxic to cats, making it technically OK to eat. However, just because they can doesn’t mean they should, as they have different nutritional needs from dogs, says Dr. Dan Su, MS, DVM, DACVIM-Nutrition at BSM Partners.
This is because cats are obligate carnivores, whereas dogs are omnivores. Obligate carnivores thrive on eating meat—and only meat—whereas omnivores can eat both meat and plants.
“Cats need diets with higher protein and need to obtain certain nutrients, like taurine, from the diet instead of making their own,” Dr. Su says.
If cats eat dog food long-term, they won’t get the proper nutrition needed to maintain their overall health, resulting in possible malnutrition and health issues.
What Do Cats Need to Eat?
What’s the Difference Between Cat Food and Dog Food?
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and National Research Council (NRC) have nutrient requirements for dogs and cats, as well as diets formulated based on those requirements, says Dr. Su.
“Cats can tolerate higher levels of certain nutrients than dogs and vice versa, leading to certain nutrients being included at different levels,” he says. “Ingredients used in cat food differ from dog food because cats (carnivores) can’t utilize certain nutrients like dogs (omnivores) can.”
For example, cats can’t get their vitamin A from beta-carotene, an antioxidant found in carrots and sweet potatoes. Instead, they need preformed vitamin A either from supplements or animal livers.
Cat food is:
- Higher in calories
- Higher in fat
- Made with Vitamin A
- Made with Vitamin B (i.e. niacin)
- Made with taurine
- Made with fatty acids (e.g. arachidonic acid)
Can Cats Eat Dog Food in an Emergency?
Yes, it’s OK for cats to eat dog food in an emergency situation.
“Dog food can be mixed with cat food or be the sole source of nutrients if there is no cat food available,” Dr. Su adds.
What Can I Feed My Cat If I Run Out of Cat Food?
If you’re in search of food to hold your cat over while you run out to grab more cat food, the following human foods safe to feed cats:
- Cheese (e.g. cheddar, Swiss and gouda)
- Turkey (cooked)
- Berries (e.g. blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries and raspberries)
- Yogurt (plain, whole milk)
- Eggs (cooked)
- Chicken (cooked)
- Pumpkin (plain, cooked)
There are plenty of other human foods that are safe for cats to eat. Of course, treating your cat to foods other than their usual cat food should be done sparingly.
As with any human food, pet parents looking to incorporate new foods in their cat’s diet should consult with their veterinarian beforehand.
Treats should only constitute a small percentage of your cat’s daily food. Treats should not make up more than 10 percent of your cat’s diet (and if your pet is overweight, it should be even less than that). For example, if your cat needs 200 calories per day, they should have no more than 20 calories from treats. Feeding too many treats can lead to nutrient deficiencies. If your cat has health issues (including sensitivities to fats) or if you have any concerns, consult your cat’s veterinarian before offering any new treats.
Why Does My Cat Want to Eat Dog Food?
“Not all cats will want dog food, but a few will show interest in the dog’s food and maybe even the human’s food!” he adds.
If your feline friend seems more interested in what others are having than their own food, Dr. Su recommends to first make sure there are no underlying illnesses causing this behavior.
I Have a Cat and a Dog.
How Do I Feed My Multi-Pet Household?
A few ways you can ensure your pets are eating their own food include:
- Feeding them in their own designated area
- Establishing different feeding times (and avoiding free feeding)
- Using an elevated dog food bowl or automatic feeder
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