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Can Cats Eat Dog Food? Understanding Nutritional Needs

Having a multi-pet household can be challenging at times, especially when different diets are involved. Perhaps your pup has a penchant for catnip or your kitty enjoys making the dog’s bowl its personal buffet. But is this safe, and can cats eat dog food? Let’s explore managing feline nutrition in a multi-pet household, answer some common questions, and discuss what to do if your cat digs dog food more than their kitty kibble.

Understanding cat vs. dog diets

Dogs and cats are two different species, so it’s no surprise they have different dietary needs. Hence the reason you’re buying cat food and dog food when you have both pets at home and there’s no one-size-fits-all pet food on the market. Each food must be specially formulated to meet the nutritional needs of its intended species.

Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they require meat to survive and get a majority of their nutrition from animal protein. Dogs, on the other hand, are omnivores, meaning they can eat and obtain nutrients from a more varied diet of meat and plant foods. Cats have higher protein needs than dogs, and with the exception of prescription diets for treating certain illnesses (such as kidney disease), most cat foods are higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates than dog foods.

Key nutrient differences in cat food vs. dog food:

  • Arginine. An essential amino acid derived from animal protein that aids in removing ammonia from the body after protein is broken down. Cat food has higher amounts of arginine than dog food, as dogs make some of their own arginine, whereas cats rely on dietary sources.
  • Taurine. An essential amino acid derived from animal protein that is vital for heart and vision health in cats. Similar to arginine, cats are limited in taurine production, so their food must contain it. Not all dog food contains taurine, but it is an essential ingredient in cat food.
  • Arachidonic acid. An essential fatty acid derived from animal fats and tissues necessary for energy production and reproductive health. Similar to arginine and taurine, cats are limited in producing arachidonic acid, so it must be supplied by their food. Dogs can produce arachidonic acid by converting it from other fats in their diet, so it is not considered an essential nutrient in dog food.

In addition to these key nutrients, cats and dogs have different vitamin and mineral needs, so their diets will contain different sources and amounts. For example, cat food tends to be higher in vitamin A, and it must come from an animal source. Cats cannot convert vitamin A from plants, whereas dogs can.

Nutrient requirements for pet foods are set by The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which sets guidelines and standards for optimal nutrition and pet food safety. Dog foods and cat foods have very different requirements, based on species-specific needs.

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Is dog food bad for cats?

Dog food isn’t bad for cats in the toxic sense. Most foods don’t contain any ingredients that would be harmful to felines, but it’s also not ideal for them as it may be nutritionally insufficient. In addition, some cats can be sensitive to changes in their diet and get an upset stomach from snacking on dog food. This could include symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Overall, if your cat occasionally sneaks a few bites of the dog’s kibble, it’s not likely to cause any major issues, but it’s not something your cat should eat regularly. Eating dog food on a regular basis will not fulfill the unique nutritional needs of cats and can lead to several health risks.

Risks of cats eating dog food regularly:

  • Nutritional deficiencies such as a lack of taurine can lead to retinal degeneration, which can progress to vision loss and cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle which can progress to heart failure.
  • Muscle loss and weight gain due to a lack of protein and overabundance of carbohydrates.
  • Poor skin and coat health or dry, flaky skin due to inadequate protein and omega fatty acids.
  • Dental problems due to chewing kibble that is too large. Cat kibble is smaller and often softer than dog kibble, so regularly eating kibble that is too large or brittle can lead to dental problems for cats, including fractured teeth.
  • Various health conditions caused by an unbalanced diet. These can range from digestive problems and disruptions to urinary pH to kidney disease and neurological disorders.

If your cat prefers the taste of dog food over cat food or is finicky with food overall and there are malnutrition concerns, seek veterinary advice.

Can cats eat dog treats?

Similar to food, cat treats and dog treats are species-specific for a reason. While dog treats aren’t likely to contain anything harmful for cats, they might be too large, too hard, or contain ingredients unnecessary to a cat’s diet. They might also cause gastrointestinal upset. It’s best to stick to cat treats for cats and dog treats for dogs.

What should I do if my cat ate dog food?

If your cat got into some dog food and is otherwise healthy, it’s not likely to cause any major problems. However, monitor them for any signs of gastrointestinal distress, such as vomiting or diarrhea. Contact your veterinarian if any symptoms occur.

If your cat has underlying health issues, a sensitive stomach, or ate a large amount of dog food, it’s not a bad idea to contact your vet’s office ahead of time. They can advise on any other steps that should be taken for accidental pet food ingestion, depending on the situation.

Preventing cat and dog food sharing

Feeding time in a multi-pet household can be tricky, especially with different species. To ensure both pets get fed their proper diet, try separating them during mealtimes and pick up bowls once finished. It's also important to store pet food in an inaccessible area or pet-proof containers so they don't try to help themselves to the bags.

It’s not uncommon for dogs to eat all of their food in one sitting and cats to be 'grazers' throughout the day. To keep your dog out of the cat bowl, try putting your cat’s dishes in an elevated area or a separate room that your dog can’t access. If your dog is the peckish one, this can be a bit harder. Try to keep the dog’s bowl in an area inaccessible to the cat, or pick it up and offer it again at a later time. Be patient, it may take a little time and training to get your pets used to new feeding arrangements.

Bottom line on balancing diets with cats and dogs

Maintaining a balanced diet for cats and dogs is vital for their health and longevity. And while you may have pets that love to share everything, food sharing is one thing that should be avoided. Be sure to keep an eye on your pets during feeding time to avoid any sharing, and always keep your vet in the loop on any nutritional changes or concerns.


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