Can Cats Eat Dog Food? And is it Bad?

Written by Sharon Parry
Updated: May 6, 2022
© Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com
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We’ve all been there. You’re in jammies and ready for bed, and it’s pouring down rain outside when you discover you’ve run out of cat food. Surely, it can’t hurt to feed your kitty some of your dog’s food, right? After all, they are both household pets, and cat and dog food look kind of similar! Sadly, it’s not as straightforward as that. Cat and dog food may look the same but they are very different products. There are plenty of good reasons why you should not let your cat eat dog food and here we explain why. You’ll also find out how to stop kitty pinching the dog’s food and what to do if you discover that your cat has been feasting from the dog’s bowl.

Why Are Cat Food And Dog Food Different?

Cats have very different dietary requirements from dogs because they have evolved in different ways and their metabolism is different.  

Their Digestive Systems Work Differently

Cats and dogs have evolved to eat different diets and their digestive systems work in different ways. Cats are referred to as obligate carnivores which means that they can only get the nutrients that they need from meat and fish proteins and animal fats. Dogs, however, are termed omnivores. A dog’s body is able to extract nutrients from meat, grains, fruit, and vegetables. One important example of this is Vitamin A.

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Dog’s Bodies Can Make Their Own Micro-Nutrients

A fascinating fact is that animals’ bodies can actually make some of the nutrients it needs from other things – think of them as building blocks. So, for example, both a dog’s and cat’s bodies can make Vitamin C in their liver. Neither animal needs to eat Vitamin C in their diet.

Importantly, there are some nutrients that a dog’s body can make but a cat’s body cannot. Therefore, these nutrients have to be provided in cat food but are not so important in dog food. Some examples are arachidonic acid and taurine.

Dogs Are Not So Sensitive to a Lack of Some Nutrients

There are some substances, such as the amino acid called arginine, that a cat’s body desperately needs. They are very sensitive to a lack of it in their diet. Even one meal that does not contain it can affect a cat’s metabolism. Dogs, on the other hand, are nowhere near as sensitive to low levels of arginine in their diet.

Dogs Don’t Need Some Nutrients at All!

Finally, there are some nutrients, such as the amino acid (protein) felinine, that dogs don’t need at all! A complete lack of it will not bother them. Your cat, however, needs a lot of it!

The Difference Between Dog Food and Cat Food

So, we are clear that dogs and cats may look a bit like each other but inside they are very different. Now, we can consider the major differences between dog and cat food.

Protein Content

Cat food needs to contain 30-34% protein and this protein must come from meat and fish sources. Dog foods usually contain 18-26% protein and some of that is often provided by vegetables such as pea protein. This is not enough or suitable for a cat.

Carbohydrate Content

Commercial dog foods can contain anything from 30% to 60% carbohydrates which a dog can use to make energy. Most of this is supplied by grains, rice, or potatoes. Cats don’t need any carbs but some cat food may have a little rice or corn.

Fat Content

Cats need around 15% to 20% of their diet to be made up of animal-based fats. In contrast, dog food is usually around 5% fat to prevent obesity in dogs.

Taurine

Taurine is an essential amino acid for cats. Without it, they can develop heart problems, sight problems, and digestion problems. All commercial cat food contains taurine but you hardly ever find it in dog food.

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Arachidonic Acid

This is a fatty acid that is vital in a cat’s diet and is found in all cat food. However, you are unlikely to find it in dog food. Without arachidonic acid, a cat will suffer from altered liver and kidney function and may have skin problems.

Vitamin A

This is found in much higher quantities in cat food compared to dog food. Dog food will not provide a cat with enough Vitamin A to keep them healthy. A lack of vitamin A in cats can cause a poor coat, muscle weakness and night blindness.

Niacin

For cats to get enough Niacin from food, it must be provided by animal tissue (meat, bones, etc.) and not by grains. This is why dog food will not provide a cat with enough niacin to keep them healthy, it simply does not have sufficient meat content. Niacin deficiency in cats can result in weight loss, inflamed gums, and diarrhea.

Why Would You Want To Feed Dog Food To Your Cat?

There are only two reasons that your cat will eat dog food. The first is because they have helped themselves to the dog’s bowl. The second is that their owner has fed them dog food.

The first reason is the least likely. Cat food is far more palatable than dog food and this is because cats are picky eaters. They have only 470 taste receptors compared to the 1700 that dogs have. Nevertheless, cats do like to scavenge and explore new food so it is possible that they will try out some dog food at least once.

It can be very tempting for a cat owner to feed dog food to their kitty. Cat food is much more expensive than dog food. This is mainly because it has to contain more protein (which is the most expensive ingredient). Also, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, it needs to contain 41 essential nutrients compared to 37 in dog food.

Of course, the other reason that you may need to feed your cat dog food is that you have run out of cat food or find yourself in a situation where it is not available.

Should Cats Eat Dry Dog Food?

No, cats should not eat dry dog food. It will not contain the correct proportions of protein, fats, and carbohydrates to keep your cat healthy. Also, it will lack the essential nutrients and micronutrients, such as taurine, that are essential for your cat’s health.

In reality, cats are unlikely to be very attracted to dry dog food. It will not be tasty enough for them and many cats prefer wet food anyway.

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Should Cats Eat Wet Dog Food?

Wet dog food may provide some hydration for cats but they should not eat it. They will not get enough protein and it will contain carbs that are of no use to your cat. Wet dog food is supplemented with vitamins and minerals that suit dogs. These will not suit a cat and will leave your cat lacking essential nutrients.

Can Cats Eat Dog Food In An Emergency?

In a huge emergency, a cat could have a few mouthfuls of dog food. Although, you may struggle to persuade them to try it because cats are picky eaters. A dog, on the other hand, will jump at the opportunity to try out some cat food!

 In all honesty, it is worth the effort of leaving the house to get some commercial cat food if you possibly can. Any change of diet can result in a cat having an upset stomach and this may take more time to clear up than a quick trip to the pet store!

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How to Stop a Cat From Eating Dog Food

The best approach is to have different feeding bowls and different feeding areas. Cats tend to prefer porcelain bowls.

Place your dog’s bowl in a different area than the cat’s bowl and use a mat underneath that makes it easier to clear away any stray food.

Clear away any uneaten food so that it is not available for your cat. Also, keep the dog food in sealed containers in a cupboard that your cat cannot access. Don’t forget it is no problem for a cat to leap onto a counter in the kitchen.

Finally, choose a high-quality commercial cat food that your cat finds delicious!

What Should You Do If Your Cat Eats Dog Food?

If your car has nibbled a small amount of dog food, there is no need to panic. There are plenty of foods that are toxic to cats including onions, garlic, chives, grapes, and raisins but the medical advice is that a little dog food as a one-off is unlikely to harm them.

However, if you notice any changes in your cat after they have eaten the food, contact your vet right away for more advice. Tell them the exact ingredients of the dog food that your cat has ingested.  


The Featured Image

royal canin cat food
Cute cat eating on floor at home.
© Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Sharon has a Ph.D. in Public Health but has spent the last decade researching and writing about all things connected with animal health and well being. As a life-long animal lover, she now shares her family home with three rabbits, a Syrian hamster, and a very energetic Cocker Spaniel but in the past she has also been a Mom to Guinea Pigs and several cats!She has a passion for researching accurate and credible information about pets and reviewing products that make pet owners' lives a bit easier. When she isn't checking out new pet products she's trekking around the Welsh mountains and beaches with her dog - although she lets her husband and her three grown up daughters tag along sometimes if they are lucky!

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