Is It Safe For Dogs To Eat Cat Food?

Cats and dogs have different dietary needs, and should eat food specific to their species.

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Cats and dogs should not eat the same food. humonia/iStock/Thinkstock
Cats and dogs should not eat the same food. humonia/iStock/Thinkstock

Having grown up in a household that never had less than eight cats, and always at least one dog, our dogs were always taking advantage of the ever-present feline food items — no matter how hard we tried to keep them from the cat fare. (Though in the end, I will say that for the most part, all of our pets ate their own species-specific food).

Ounce for ounce, most cat food is typically more expensive than most dog food — and so most dog owners for economic reasons alone would rather feed their dog his own food. But maybe you are having the same problem as I had, where my dogs always found a way to get their paws on the cats’ cuisine. You might be left wondering if it’s OK for your dog to always be chowing down on Kitty’s food. In short, the answer is no.

Diet Differences

Technically and evolutionarily, cats are obligate carnivores who need to eat meat as their main food source. Dogs, on the other hand, are omnivores who eat both meat-based foods and plant-based foods to fulfill their nutritional requirements.

Generally speaking, the canine diet typically contains more fiber than a strictly-carnivorous regime.

Though dog and cat foods may seem similar at first glance, there are some significant differences. Cat foods typically contain more protein than dog food, and also contain higher amounts of fat. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recommends a minimum of 5 percent fat for dog food and 9 percent fat for cats, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The Consequences Of Dogs Eating Cat Food

Though these differences in diet may not seem that significant, the higher percentages of protein and fats mean more calories for your dog for the same sized portion of cat food. These richer feline diets can lead to weight gain and even obesity if eaten for extended periods of time.

Also, as a dog’s gastrointestinal system was not designed to digest consistently high-fat foods, cat food can upset the stomach resulting in vomiting and diarrhea. Too much fat can negatively affect a dog’s pancreas, leading to pancreatitis, which can at least impact the efficiency of their digestion and at worst have serious health consequences.

Some of the newer cat foods contain an improper balance of vitamins and minerals for your dog, and this may lead to either deficiencies or excesses of these ingredients. As an example, cat food typically contains less zinc and vitamin E than dog food. Cat food also usually contains added taurine, something that dogs do not need in their diet. These nutritional differences can affect your dog’s overall health over a long period of time.

Cat food is richer and can cause your dog to become overweight or obese. vadimmmus/iStock/Thinkstock

Cat food is richer and can cause your dog to become overweight or obese. vadimmmus/iStock/Thinkstock

Dogs also need more carbohydrates than cats and often will not get the energy they need without these ingredients in their food. Dogs can consume a diet containing almost 50 percent carbohydrates to give them energy, while a cat gets the majority of its energy from fats.

The higher protein content of most cat foods can pose a metabolic threat to an older dog, especially one that has kidney disease, liver disease or diabetes. A proper dog-specific senior food should be fed to older pooches or a specific prescription canine diet should be fed to dogs with medical conditions.

One question that I am commonly asked, “Is it bad for my dog if it occasionally has some cat food as a snack?” This should not be any worse than if your cat has an occasional doggie biscuit. However, for optimal pet health, I would not recommend incorporating the other pet’s food into your pet’s diet — and instead do all that you can to feed each species of pet its species-specific diet. So as it relates to dogs, ideally I recommend feeding your pup food designed for dogs to avoid health issues.

Can Cats Eat Dog Food?

Just to note, feeding a feline dog food is not advised. Dog foods have been and some continue to be deficient in taurine – an essential amino acid required for cats either not found in some dog foods or not at adequate levels for felines. Arachidonic acid, a fatty acid that cats need, is also often not found in dog food. Other unique nutritional needs of felines are that they cannot synthesize enough niacin, arginine, and vitamin A, along with arachidonic acid, or taurine, and they need five times as much thiamine as dogs do. Also, your pup’s food typically contains more fiber, and this can also upset a cat’s gastrointestinal tract.

Tips To Stop Your Pets From Eating Each Other’s Food

Sometimes the temptation of your cat’s food may be difficult for your dog to resist. To avoid having your dog eating your cat’s food:

  • Feed your cat in a separate room that your dog doesn’t have access to, e.g., feed the dog in the kitchen and the cat in the laundry room.
  • Separate the cat’s feeding area from the rest of the house with a gate that the dog cannot jump over or crawl under.
  • Feed your cat on a high shelf or counter.

If these techniques are not successful at keeping the pooch away, consider getting a cat-sized crate or box into which the dog cannot fit, and feed your cat in the crate/box. Finally, if all else fails, install a pet door to a separate room, such as the laundry room, that is either too small for your dog to use or that is activated by a remote on your cat’s collar. Close the door to deny your dog access to the cat food, and monitor feedings to make sure that each pet eats its own food.

The Bottom Line

So again, more often than not, cat-food-eating canines tend toward being overweight and may often suffer more gastrointestinal ailments because they eat the richer cat food. Diarrhea, vomiting and pancreatitis — which can be life-threatening — are all possible outcomes for either short- or long-term feeding of cat food to dogs. Kitten food, which typically has even higher protein and fat levels, is even less appropriate for dogs. And, again, older dogs and those with established medical conditions may be even more adversely affected by the higher protein and fat levels of cat and especially kitten food.

In many stores where you would purchase pet foods, the commercial dog foods and cat foods are labeled and sold separately for a reason. We should not be feeding our dogs cat food — and we definitely should not be feeding dog food to your cat. It is possible that a dog could eat some cat food as a snack on occasion or even could steal a meal from the cat, but this is not something that you want to promote on a regular basis, because of the potential health problems discussed.

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