Can dogs eat cat food? A vet's guide to whether cat food is bad for dogs

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'Can dogs eat cat food?' is a common question asked by many dog owners. Concerned pet parents often ponder in particular whether cat food is bad for dogs, especially when their dog accidentally gets into the cat food. 

The dog stealing the cat’s food is an age-old problem. In households with multiple pets, it is common for dogs to get into another pet’s food from time to time. Dogs usually find cat food quite tasty, but is it safe for them to eat? While even the most nutritious cat food is not toxic to dogs, there are certain health concerns associated with long-term consumption of cat food instead of dog food. Cat food is not ideal for your dog, but we will answer some common questions about what to do if your dog gets into cat food and how this product differs from dog food. 

What is the difference between cat food and dog food? 

While cat food and dog food may look pretty similar, the nutritional content of the food is quite different. Since cats are carnivores and dogs are omnivores, cats require more fat and protein in their diet than dogs. Likewise, cats and dogs synthesize nutrients differently and require different amounts of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals in their diets. 

Based on the nutritional needs of each animal, special guidelines are set to make sure commercial pet foods meet the nutritional needs of the animal they are created for. In the United Kingdom, the European Pet Food Federation (FEDIAF) sets these nutritional guidelines for cats and dogs. In the United States, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets the nutritional guidelines for pet foods.  

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Is cat food bad for dogs?

The good news is that the occasional consumption of cat food is not likely to harm your dog. If your dog has eaten some cat food, you should expect some mild gastrointestinal upset.

It is important to remember, however, that cats and dogs have different nutritional requirements, and their food is designed to meet those specific needs. Long term consumption of cat food can lead to serious health concerns. 

What happens if my dog eats cat food? 

If you find your dog licking up the leftovers of your cat’s food, there is no need to panic. An isolated incident where your dog has gotten into a little bit of cat food is not an emergency. In a healthy dog, the high fat and protein content may cause some gastrointestinal upset, such as vomiting or diarrhea.

Dogs that consume cat food regularly are at risk of developing more severe health conditions. The high protein level in cat food is particularly hard on the liver and kidneys and can cause damage to these organs over time. Dogs who already suffer from diseases that affect these organs may have more adverse reactions to cat food consumption. 

The high-fat content of cat food is also a concern when consumed in large quantities or consumed over a long period of time. The consumption of too much fat can cause pancreatitis and obesity. Dog owners should take extra precautions to keep cat food away from dogs with a history of pancreatitis or who are overweight. In these dogs, even small amounts of cat food can be harmful and should be avoided. 

These health conditions are why sticking to the nutritional guidelines set by FEDIAF or AAFCO is so essential for your pet’s health. If you have any concerns about how cat food has affected your dog’s health, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to have them fully evaluated. 

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Can you mix cat food with dog food?

Cat food should never be considered an equal substitute for dog food. In a multi-pet household, make sure your animals have their own eating spaces to prevent the sharing of food. Providing your pets with a diet that is appropriate for them is an essential part of keeping them healthy.

Can dogs eat cat food once or an emergency?

In an emergency where dog food is not available, you may be wondering if it is safe to give your dog a little bit of cat food instead. The occasional use of cat food is not toxic to dogs, but as previously mentioned, it is not ideal. As with any abrupt change in diet, you should expect some mild stomach upset. A better alternative in these situations is to feed a bland diet of boiled chicken and rice. 

Another common scenario where owners consider using cat food is when their dog is not interested in the dog food. Since dogs usually find cat food appetizing, some owners will try to mix a little cat food in with dog food. Although this poses less of a health risk than feeding only cat food, it is still not recommended. Nutritional imbalances can still occur with the mixing of food. Some dogs are just picky eaters, but a poor appetite can indicate that your dog has an underlying health condition. If you notice your dog’s appetite has changed, get them checked out by your veterinarian and discuss your concerns before making any major changes to your pet’s diet.

Can dogs eat cat treats? 

Feeding cat food to your dog on a regular basis is not recommended, but what about popular cat treats? The long-term nutritional concerns associated with feeding your dog cat food are not as big a concern when it comes to cat treats. As long as your dog is getting a proper diet that is meeting their nutritional needs, the occasional use of cat treats is safe. There are not any ingredients in cat treats that are safe for cats but toxic to dogs. Like any treat, moderation is key.

When using cat treats, one thing to keep in mind is that they typically contain a large number of calories. As a general rule, treats should make up approximately 10% of your pet’s daily calorie requirement. Consuming a large number of calories from treats can lead to problems with obesity. When using cat treats, you may need to reduce the number of treats and how frequently you give them. If weight is an issue in your dog, it is best to look for lower-calorie treat options. When in doubt, it is always best to stick to treats specifically formulated for your dog.

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What to do if your dog has eaten cat food

Once you discover that your dog has gotten into the cat food, make sure they cannot get into it again and monitor them closely for any signs they are not feeling well. If your dog seems particularly uncomfortable or the symptoms do not resolve within 24 hours, you should have them checked out by your veterinarian. 

Elizabeth Racine, DVM

Dr. Elizabeth Racine is a small animal general practice vet covering all things pet health and wellness.  Her special interests include veterinary behavior, nutrition, and internal medicine.  As a freelance writer, Dr. Racine has written content for major companies in the industry such as the American Kennel Club, Merck Animal Health, Bayer PetBasics, Elanco, and CareCredit.  In her free time, Dr. Racine enjoys playing trampoline dodgeball, hiking with her beagle Dasher, and spending time with her three mischievous cats.