Part of being a caring and responsible pet owner is ensuring that your pet receives the appropriate nutrition. Species, age and health all come into choosing the best food for your pet. I often encounter people who assume that cat and dog food are interchangeable, if not identical; it’s widely believed that manufacturers simply cram scraps of less desirable meat byproducts into a can and slap on a label. In fact, this is not the case. Reputable brands of cat food are formulated with a cat’s unique physiology in mind. It’s important to make sure that all your pets get the right food.
Can cats eat dog food? Dog food contains nothing that will cause serious harm to a cat but lacks certain key nutrients. Unlike certain human foods, dog food isn’t toxic to cats; that said, a diet of dog food could eventually cause serious health problems in a cat.
You’ve found your way to this page because you have questions about your cat’s diet and health. Maybe your cat has eaten some dog food and you’re worried that she might get sick. Maybe your cat regularly steals your dog’s food and you’re concerned. Perhaps you’re wondering if you can feed both your cat and your dog the same food to save time. Maybe you’re curious about the best and safest diet to give your cat. Luckily, you’ve come to the right place. We have all the answers you’re looking for, plus plenty of useful tips on kitty nutrition.
Can cats eat dog food?
The short answer is “yes — but they shouldn’t.” In the short term, a helping of dog food will not do any harm to your cat. There is nothing in dog food that’s toxic to cats or dangerous indigestible for them. In a tight spot, the odd meal of dog food should not cause any problems, especially if it’s consumed alongside a regular diet of good-quality cat food.
It’s tempting to assume that one can of unappealing meat products is much like another. As I mentioned above, there’s a popular myth that cat and dog foods are made from identical ingredients and simply packaged differently. I encounter this urban legend with rather alarming frequency, even among life-long pet owners who really ought to know better. In fact, properly formulated cat and dog foods are very different.
Difficulties can arise when a cat regularly eats dog food to the exclusion of a properly balanced diet. Food intended for dogs is formulated for a dog’s nutritional needs, not a cat. There are certain vital nutrients that are absolutely necessary for feline health which is likely to be missing from dog food. Crucial nutrients found in cat food but not usually added to dog food include vitamin A, taurine and arachidonic acid.
As well as vitamins, dog food often lacks sufficient animal protein for your cat’s long-term health. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that their digestive systems have evolved for a meat-based diet. The healthiest diet for a cat is a good quality wet food, high in protein, with no grain and minimal vegetable ingredients. Dog food tends to contain quite a lot of grain or vegetable-based ingredients — fine for the more omnivorous canine digestive system but not great for a cat’s. While cats may nibble at grass or enjoy the occasional piece of cat-safe fruit as a treat, they cannot live on a plant-based diet. (Yes, there are vegetarian and vegan pet foods that claim to provide sufficient nutrition for your cat; in my personal opinion, these produces should be mentioned only to be condemned.)
Because a dog’s digestive system requires a certain amount of roughage, dog food is usually high in fibre. For a cat, this can cause digestive issues. Some cats may develop gas and diarrhoea after consuming vegetable fibre; in other cases, the reverse may occur, with the cat becoming constipated. Cats do require some dietary fibre but the large quantities present in dog food can be too much for the cat’s shorter gut to handle.
There are pet foods on the market that claim to be suitable for both cats and dogs. Personally I’m not a fan. The ingredients suggest that they’re not rich enough in protein to make a good staple food for a cat and may be too high in calories to be entirely healthy for a dog. They also tend to contain grain, which is not healthy for cats. Still, some pets seem to do quite well on products like this.
What nutrients does cat food supply that dog food doesn’t?
A very important nutrient for cats is vitamin A. Dogs can produce vitamin A from precursors such as beta carotene, while cats cannot. Although some dog foods do contain a little vitamin A, the amounts usually aren’t sufficient to keep a cat in good health. Poor-quality cat foods may also contain sub-optimal vitamin A-concentrations. A deficiency in vitamin A initially leaves your cat’s coat looking ratty and dingy, followed by symptoms such as night-blindness and lethargy. If the deficiency is not addressed, your cat’s muscles will weaken and deteriorate. Vitamin A is especially important for pregnant and nursing females. Per the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials), each kilogram of food for adult cats should provide 9000 IU or 2700 micrograms of Vitamin A. Note that it is also possible to have too much vitamin A; an oversupply is toxic.
Another vital nutrient for cats is taurine. This amino acid, crucial for eyesight and the nervous system, is very seldom added to dog food. As with vitamin A, concentrations of taurine in some cat foods may be too low to keep your pet in good health. A deficiency in taurine can quickly rob your cat of her vision by allowing her retinas to degenerate. Her nervous system will also start to break down. As the condition progresses, your cat’s heart will become weak and will eventually fail. Damage from long-term taurine deficiency can be irreversible and may be fatal.
A deficiency in arachidonic acid is less immediately deleterious than in vitamin A or taurine but your cat really can’t be healthy without it. A cat with an arachidonic acid deficiency may suffer from problems with their muscles and can develop issues with the platelets in their blood.
So which foods should a cat eat?
Your cat needs a steady diet of quality food, tailored to each individual’s particular characteristics. In general, all cats that have been weaned must have regular meals of quality cat food. Choose a brand that is high in protein and not too high in fat. All foods given to cats should be grain-free; this is especially important as cats get older since grains contribute empty carbohydrates that less active felines really don’t need.
Favour wet cat foods over dry — cats have evolved to get most of their fluid requirements from their food and often don’t get enough hydration if fed a diet of dry kibble. While providing extra water sources and setting up a pet water fountain can help, you still need to watch out for signs of dehydration such as constipation and discomfort when urinating. In hot weather, it’s advisable to provide additional fluid by mashing water into your cat’s wet food.
Your cat’s needs will change with her age, her activity level and her general state of health. A lively, energetic kitten or young adult cat can be fed pretty much as and when food is requested since any surplus calories will be burned off through activity. Malnutrition is a far greater concern in the young cat than obesity. Later in life (after the first year or so) you should try to cut down your cat’s feeding to two or three modest meals per day. Senior kitties (ages 10 and up) should be fed a diet that’s higher in protein and lower in calories — chunky cats may be cute but a severely overweight animal can develop conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Remember that different brands of cat food — and even different flavours, sometimes — will contain different amounts of fat, protein and energy. When you’re determining how much food to give your cat, check the guidelines offered by the manufacturer. These will give you a good idea as to how much your cat should be eating based on her age and weight.
I want to give my pets a home-made diet. Can I feed them all the same recipe?
There are a few home-made pet food recipes out there in the wild that claim to be suitable for both cats and dogs, sometimes with a few additions or substitutions. These recipes are seldom nutritionally balanced, is designed to offer a “one size fits all” solution for animals with very different requirements. Tossing in additions such as extra taurine or an egg probably isn’t going to adapt your dog food recipe as a cat food recipe.
Generally speaking, I would discourage people from trying to concoct their own pet food. While it’s certainly possible to make your own cat or dog food at home from scratch — I have several friends who do this very successfully — it is a lot harder than it might seem. The main issue is creating a nutritionally balanced diet on your own, without the know-how and facilities available to pet food manufacturers. Another issue is the problem of food poisoning since you’ll be handling and preparing a lot of raw ingredients. It is perfectly possible to do this safely in a domestic kitchen but it does require a level of scrupulous cleanliness that can be tricky to achieve in a busy household.
It’s easy to see why people want to make their own pet food. Recent years have brought scandals relating to commercial pet food that wasn’t up to snuff and some pets have specific dietary needs. There’s also the emotional satisfaction of preparing a delicious meal for someone you care about, which is just as intense when the someone in question has four legs. All that said, making home-made pet food is a very time-consuming and tricky business. I certainly couldn’t recommend any recipe that pretended to be suitable for both cats and dogs.
If my cat can’t eat dog food, can my dog eat cat food?
It’s a common annoyance in multi-pet households: you dish up a nice helping of your cat’s favourite food, only to have your dog snaffle it before your cat can get a look-in. Some pet owners are tempted to give up the battle and simply feed both animals that delicious, coveted kitty food.
Unfortunately, this is not a good solution. Just as dog food is formulated for dogs, cat food is formulated for cats. Your dog is unlikely to miss any vital nutrients if he eats cat food and probably won’t suffer any ill-effects if he steals a helping of food from your cat. A dog that eats cat food on a regular basis, however, is apt to develop some health issues.
Because cat food tends to be richer than dog food and doesn’t use lower-calorie vegetables such as carrot or turnip, it can quickly put your dog over his daily caloric requirement. It’s entirely possible for a small dog to become overweight on a cat food diet. The rich food can also upset your dog’s stomach, causing nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea. A dog who is fed principally on cat food may not receive enough dietary fibre to keep his digestion in good shape.
While a cat food diet isn’t a death sentence for your dog, it’s not good for his long-term health. One more serious complication of this overly rich diet is pancreatitis — a nasty inflammation of the pancreas that can come on very suddenly if your dog eats too much rich food. Pancreatitis is treatable but it’s very unpleasant and can be dangerous to your dog.
It’s fine if your dog occasionally gets a helping of at food. This does need to be occasional, however — your dog’s health could be seriously impaired if he eats it too much or too often. Kitten food, being richer and fattier, is even worse for your dog’s health than food made for adult cats. Feed your cats and dogs separately and don’t let your dogs into the room where cat food is on display.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.