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Can Cats Eat Dog Food?

We assume there are only two reasons you’ve stumbled upon this article. One is that you caught your cat stealing a snack from your dog’s bowl and can’t help but wonder if you’ll have a sick kitty on your hands later. Or two, your day got away from you, you’re totally out of cat food, and wondering if you’re also totally out of luck. So, the short answer to whether or not cats can eat dog food: yes, but only in an emergency or for a short period of time.

Why? Cats and dogs have different dietary requirements. Dog food lacks the vital nutrition that cats need to live a long, healthy life. Cats are carnivores, which means that they eat meat. Dogs are omnivores, which means they eat meat, grains, and vegetables, so they need a more varied diet than just meat alone to meet their nutritional requirements.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty details about why your cat can’t eat dog food forever, it’s important to start with the basics of cat nutrition and the difference between cat and dog nutritional needs.

What do cats need to eat?

As carnivores, cats need foods high in protein, fats, and taurine in their diets. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, cats need:

  • Protein from meat or fish
  • Amino acids like taurine and arginine (from meat or fish)
  • Fatty acids
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Water

Many veterinarians believe that about 35 to 45 percent of a cat’s diet needs to be protein.

What is cat food made of?

According to Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM, a small animal and exotic veterinarian in east Texas and a veterinary consultant for doglab.com, cats absolutely need food with taurine in it. Taurine is an amino acid that is important for normal heart function, vision and reproduction. Since taurine is found only in animal-based protein, all cats need meat-based diets to meet their nutritional requirements.

Cat foods are very high protein, calories, fat, and contain the necessary amount of taurine. More specifically, Patrick Mahaney, DVM explains on PetSafe that healthy cat food looks like:

  • Natural, whole-food ingredients
  • High-quality animal proteins (at least 30%)
  • Healthy, animal-based fats (about 15% to 20%)
  • Digestible carbohydrates and fiber
  • Essential vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and fatty acids
  • No by-products, fillers, or artificial additives

What’s the difference between dog food and cat food?

Dog foods contain protein but also contain grains and vegetables for their omnivore diets. Cat food contains just proteins (no grain or vegetables) because they are carnivores. Carbohydrates like rice and corn in small amounts are fine for cats, but they aren’t necessary for a cat’s diet. However, they usually have a major role in dog food.

What if my cat accidentally eats dog food?

If your cat accidentally eats your dog’s dinner, don’t fret. Dog food isn’t dangerous to cats, but it shouldn’t be eaten in place of cat food on a regular basis. A cat can eat some dog food without illness even though it’s not the best nutrition for them.

If you are in an emergency situation where you forgot to stop by the store to pick up more cat food and all you have is dog food, feeding it your cat will be fine, Dr. Ochoa says. And if your cat takes a few pieces of food out of your dog’s bowl, there’s nothing to worry about, she adds.

But cats cannot survive on dog food alone for their long term diet. Without the right amount of protein, cats lose muscle mass and become lethargic. When it comes to taurine, VCA Animal Hospitals explains that the amino acid is critical for vision, digestion, heart function, fetal development, and a healthy immune system in cats.

What if my dog eats my cat’s food?

Mealtimes in multi-animal households can be pretty intense. Cats hovering around bowls, dogs drooling over literally anything. It’s pretty common for the whole family to snag bites of food from each other’s bowls if they can, but is it OK?

Although a dog could conceivably live on cat food alone, it’s not advisable, according to the American Kennel Club. The caloric density, high protein levels, and heavy doses of fat aren’t ideally suited to canine gastrointestinal tracts, and it can lead to obesity or even pancreatitis.

Your dog can safely sample a bit of your cat’s food, but a diet consisting solely of cat food won’t give your dog the balanced nutrition they need.

How do I feed my multi-pet household?

Cats and dogs can live together harmoniously, but their food dishes just don’t mix. The easiest solution for feeding your cats and dogs: separate feeding areas.

Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior expert with Rover, suggests having separate food dishes for each animal in your house and place them in separate areas. “Keep in mind that cats naturally hunt small animals that they don’t share,” she explains. “Although for us, it’s a ritual to eat together, that is not true for cats!”

Delgado also brings up an excellent point about cat’s natural instincts: “They prefer their space and privacy while eating, and they don’t always want to take turns at a shared bowl.”

Bottom line: Cats can eat dog food for a short period of time, but not forever

The truth is, there is no real concern when your pets swap food for a short period of time. That said, while an occasional nibble of your dog’s food won’t hurt your cat, long-term feeding of dog food can lead your cat to become malnourished.

For proper nutrition, feed your kitty healthy food specifically labeled for cats.