Can Cats Eat Dog Food? Is The Nutritional Value the Same?

A black and white cat and a small, off-white/light tan dog are eating food out of the same red bowl on the floor.

With many similarities, many pet owners often wonder if it’s okay for cats to eat dog food. After all, many of the ingredients are the same. 

The short answer is yes, it’s okay for your cat to have the occasional bite of dog food. It won’t cause any toxicities. However, cats can not eat dog food for the long term. Here’s why:

The Differences Between Cat and Dog Food

The labels and ingredients may be very similar, but some significant differences between cat and dog food make dog food a bad choice to feed cats.

  • Protein Content: This is the big one. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they get the bulk of their nutrition from meat. Cats require lots of protein to build and maintain muscle and for energy. They require very few carbohydrates and can have a difficult time digesting plant matter. High-quality cat foods typically range from 30 to even 50% protein, while dog food is more around 20-25% or 30% for active diets. If a cat were to eat dog food long-term, protein deficiency could result.
  • Taurine: Taurine is an amino acid most mammals make in their bodies. It is essential for heart function, vision, and nerve growth. Cats, as well as humans, need to get taurine from their diet. They can’t make it on their own. Taurine is commonly added to commercial cat foods to prevent taurine deficiency that leads to heart issues, among other things, but is rarely added to dog foods.
  • Arachidonic Acid and Vitamin A: Like taurine, arachidonic acid and vitamin A are two components that cats can’t produce themselves. They need to be added to their food to maintain healthy skin, liver, muscles, and haircoats. Dogs are capable of making arachidonic acid, so it is rarely added to commercial dog food. Vitamin A is a common supplement in dog food but generally not in levels high enough for a cat’s needs.
  • Taste: Cats have a relatively weak sense of taste, especially compared to dogs. First off, they aren’t capable of tasting sweet. They also have about ¼-1/3 as many tastebuds as dogs. This means cat food needs to be extra tasty to get a cat interested. Dog food doesn’t have the flavor that they’re looking for.

What Happens if a Cat Eats Dog Food?

A black and white cat and a small, off-white/light tan dog are eating food out of the same red bowl on the floor.

Don’t expect to see anything happen if your cat gobbles the occasional bite of dog food. Even a small sample every day shouldn’t make much of a difference. It will become a problem if your cat is fed dog food over a long period. There simply isn’t the proper nutrition in dog food to sustain a healthy cat.

Your cat may start relying on dog food as their sole food source, or they might eat enough dog food to replace a high percentage of their regular diet. They may start to lose weight and have a dry, dull hair coat. Some cats may show early stages of blindness, such as bumping into things or having trouble seeing in the dark. You may also notice a reluctance to exercise, difficulty breathing, or vomiting.

If your cat happens to grab a bite or get into and devour a large part of your dog’s food, they’ll more than likely be okay. They may have an upset stomach from eating too much, but as long as they don’t make eating dog food a habit, any adverse effects should be minimal. 

How to Keep Your Cat From Eating Dog Food

Fortunately, most cats aren’t going to like the taste of dog food, so after a quick sample, they will probably leave the rest of it alone. However, if your cat develops a taste for it, make sure to provide them with high-quality cat food that supplies around 30% protein, has a flavor that they like, and that meets AAFCO standards for your cat’s life stage. You may have to experiment with different flavors and textures if you have a picky eater to give them something that they love.

Keep dog food out of reach. Feed your pup behind a closed door so that your kitty can’t join in. If you free-choice feed your dog, you may have to switch to meal feeding to keep your cat from snacking on the dog food left in the food bowl. Store dog food in an air-tight container to help maintain freshness as well as keep your cat out.

If your cat continues to beg for dog food, see your veterinarian to rule out any medical reasons or nutritional deficiencies that may have your cat acting this way.

Final Thoughts

You may love all of your pets the same, but that doesn’t mean you should feed them the same. While dog food isn’t toxic to your cat, it’s not meant for long-term feeding. Cats that eat dog food consistently can develop nutritional deficiencies that can become very serious and even fatal if left untreated.

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