Vets share 3 reasons why cats shouldn't eat dog food and tips to make sure they get the right nutrients

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Vets share 3 reasons why cats shouldn't eat dog food and tips to make sure they get the right nutrients
To make sure your kitty gets the right blend of nutrients for good health, stick with cat food only.Janie Airey/Getty Images
  • Cats and dogs have different nutritional needs, so the same food won't work for both pets.
  • Dog food doesn't have enough fat or taurine, and it also has grains that may upset a cat's stomach.
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Plenty of curious cats like to nibble their housemates' food. Who wouldn't want to try new flavors from time to time?

If your cat prefers your pooch's morsels over their own, you might even consider swapping out their regular cat chow.

But experts say it's not a good idea for cats to eat dog food regularly.

That's because cats have different nutritional requirements from dogs, and dog food isn't designed with the needs of cats in mind, says Dr. Hunter Finn, veterinarian and owner of Pet Method Vet Clinic.

Get the details on why cats shouldn't eat dog food below, along with vet-approved tips for feeding your cat a balanced diet.

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Why shouldn't cats have dog food?

Your dog's food won't meet your cat's nutritional needs for a few key reasons.

1. Cats need nutrients only found in meat

Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they need nutrients found only in animal sources, says Dr. Katja Lang, veterinarian, medical director of Heart of Chelsea Veterinary Group, and feline health consultant for cat food brand Made By Nacho.

In contrast, dogs are omnivores, which means they can get nutrition from plant and animal sources. As a result, your dog's kibble might contain plant-based foods that may not agree with your cat's stomach.

"Many dog foods contain grains, such as corn and wheat, which can cause digestive issues in cats," says Dr. Audrey Wystrach, veterinarian and CEO and co-founder of Petfolk.

2. Cats need more fat than dogs

Most cat food also has a higher fat content than dog food. Cat foods need a minimum of 9% fat, while dog foods only needs a minimum of 5.5% fat, according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

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Fat is essential for a cat's diet, according to Lang, since it:

Regularly eating a low-fat diet could leave your cat deficient in essential fatty acids, like omega-3s, which could raise their risk of developing health problems, including:

  • Scaly skin
  • Fur loss
  • Vision problems
  • Learning difficulties

3. Cats have different amino acid needs

Additionally, dog food may not contain enough of the amino acids cats need to survive and thrive, like taurine.

Taurine isn't essential for dogs, but cats need it for their bodies to function properly.

Thus, cats who regularly eat dog food may develop a taurine deficiency, which can cause serious or potentially fatal health problems, like:

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  • Retinal degeneration or blindness
  • Deafness
  • Poor immune response
  • Cardiomyopathy and heart failure

If you're worried your cat may have a health issue from a taurine deficiency, a few signs it's time to make a vet appointment include:

Will eating dog food make my cat sick?

If your cat is a serial snacker, here's some good news: Eating a few pieces of dog kibble from time to time won't harm your cat or make them sick — as long as dog food doesn't make up a regular part of their diet, Wystrach says.

So if your cat only nibbles an occasional bite from the dog's bowl, you typically only need to worry about your dog pleading for a few extra bites of dinner.

However, if your cat constantly sticks their nose in your dog's bowl and fills up on dog food instead of their own, it may be time to consider microchip feeders.

Microchip feeders keep a retractable shield over the food inside them. When you sync the feeders with each of your pets' microchips, the shield will only open when the right pet comes near.

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What to feed your cat for a balanced diet

To make sure your cat's food has all the necessary nutrients, you'll want to opt for cat foods that are high in protein, low in carbohydrates, and contain taurine, according to Wystrach.

Taurine mainly comes from animal sources. So, try to buy foods with animal protein near the top of the ingredient list. "Chicken, fish, turkey, and beef are all rich in amino acids," Lang says.

You'll also want to avoid foods that contain grains, preservatives, colorings, and other artificial ingredients, Wystrach says.

Additionally, keep an eye out for a nutritional guarantee from the AAFCO. They establish nutritional guidelines for pet food, and vets generally consider cat foods with an AAFCO statement nutritionally balanced.

According to the AAFCO, your cat's diet should consist of:

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  • At least 26%-30% protein
  • A minimum of 9% fat
  • Around 0.10% taurine

You also want to keep factors specific to your cat in mind, including their:

  • Age: "Cats have different nutritional needs at different stages of their lives, and a food that is appropriate for a kitten may not be appropriate for an adult cat," Wystrach says. Check the suggested age range on the bag or tin before putting it in your shopping cart.
  • Lifestyle: If your cat loves to hunt, play, or go outdoors, they may need a formula designed for active cats instead of one meant for a sedentary indoor cat.
  • Weight: If your vet says your cat may need to drop a few pounds, a food designed for weight control might help them avoid health problems associated with obesity. Your vet can recommend a few options and offer guidance on how much to feed your cat
  • Overall health: If your cat has a medical condition, like diabetes or kidney disease, you'll need to choose a food formulated for their specific needs, Wystrach says. Ask your vet what food they recommend for your kitty's condition.

Best cat food

Vets share 3 reasons why cats shouldn't eat dog food and tips to make sure they get the right nutrients
Waitforlight/Getty Images

Finding the right food for your cat can be tricky. Our guide to the best cat food, which has tried and true options for pets of all ages and lifestyles, can help ease the process.

  • Best adult dry cat food: Wellness Complete Health Adult Dry Salmon Recipe - See at Chewy and Amazon

  • Best adult wet cat food: Wellness Gravies Salmon Entree - See at Chewy and Amazon

  • Best organic cat food: Purina Beyond Organic Chicken and Carrot Recipe - See at Chewy

  • Best kitten food: Hill's Science Diet Kitten Chicken Recipe - See at Chewy and Petco

Is wet or dry food better?

Trying to choose between dry or wet food? Either can be a good option.

"Both types of food have their own set of benefits, and the choice ultimately depends on your cat's individual needs and preferences," Wystrach says.

The benefits of wet food include:

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  • More moisture: Many cats notoriously drink less water than they need, possibly because they descended from wildcats that lived in the desert. Wet food could help your kitty stay hydrated, thanks to its higher moisture content, Lang says.
  • More palatable: Many cats prefer the taste of wet food, making it a good choice for finicky eaters.

On the other hand, dry food is often:

Of course, it's perfectly fine to feed your cat a mix of wet and dry foods, so they can have the best of both worlds. After all, you'd probably get bored eating the same thing every day, and your cat might enjoy mixing things up, too.

Insider's takeaway

Does your cat love to sneak bites out of your dog's dinner bowl? While cat and dog food might look the same on the surface, they contain very different nutritional content. And feeding your cat a diet meant for dogs could put them at risk of serious health concerns, like heart disease or vision issues.

To make sure your cat gets all the nutrients their organs need to function, it's best to only feed them food specifically designed for cats.

When shopping for cat food, choose one with a high animal protein content. You'll also want to consider your cat's other individual needs — like their age, weight, and any underlying health conditions.

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It's always good to discuss your cat's diet with your vet, since they know your cat and can address any specific needs they may have, Finn says.

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