Dog & Cat licking their lips.

Can Dogs Eat Cat Food? Fact Checked By Our Vet

Written By Vedrana Nikolic | Canine Coach, B.A Ethnology & Anthropology, M.A Semiotics.
Edited & Fact Checked By Renae Soppe | B.A Journalism & Science. 
Last Updated: 18th January 2024

Cat food has a unique allure for dogs. Regardless of breed, age, or behaviour, many dogs can't resist sneaking a bite of cat food. But is this harmless fun or a problem?

The short answer to this question is yes, dogs can eat cat food. If your dog accidentally (or on purpose) ate a bit of cat food, there is no reason to worry. Cat food might even be OK in an emergency or as an occasional treat.

However, that doesn’t mean you can simply opt for feeding cat food to your dog exclusively. Dogs and cats do have different nutritional requirements, and feeding cat food to dogs long term could potentially lead to problems.

Want to learn more about the differences and similarities between cat and dog food? Let’s dive in. 


What’s the Difference Between Dog Food and Cat Food?

Dog and cat food look quite similar. When you look at the ingredient list, you’ll also find that there is often lots of overlap. So are there really any crucial differences?

Related: The Best Dog Food.

Dog vs Cat Nutrition

In the end, it all boils down to the issue of meat. Dogs are classified as omnivores, meaning they have evolved to eat a balanced diet that includes both animal and plant-based foods. On the other hand, cats are obligate carnivores, which means their bodies are adapted to a diet primarily consisting of animal tissues (1).

Dogs require a variety of nutrients, including protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Their digestive systems are equipped to process a broader range of foods, allowing them to thrive on a mixed diet. In contrast, cats have a higher protein requirement and need specific amino acids like taurine, which is essential for maintaining healthy eyesight and cardiovascular function.

Related: How To Choose The Right Dog Food?
Related: Understanding Guaranteed Analysis Levels in Dog Food.
Related: How to Calculate Carbohydrates in Dog Food.

Food Composition

If you look at the AAFCO guidelines for “complete and balanced” food for dogs and cats, you’ll notice that they are not all that different (2). Yes, the minimums for fat and protein are higher for cats (26% protein and 9% fat for adults) than for dogs (18% protein and 5.5% fat for adults). However, many high-quality dog foods have higher percentages of protein and fat than the required minimum.

Related: AAFCO vs PFIAA: Dog Food Standards Comparison Australia.

This points to the fact that a healthy dog most likely won’t be harmed by cat food. In fact, there are some cases where cat food is even recommended:

“In fact, for some dogs, like those battling cancer and experiencing weight loss, muscle wasting, and a poor appetite, cat food may be an ideal alternative to many dog foods. Cat food tends to be more palatable, provide more calories per serving, and offer a more nutrient-balanced option compared to many home-prepared diets in these cases.” - Amanda Ardente, DVM, PetMD (3)

We don’t recommend switching your dog to cat food without consulting your vet, but it has certainly been done before. The main difference tends to be in the levels of specific nutrients like amino acids which cats absolutely need in order to thrive, while dogs don’t. Cat food is always very rich in protein and fat. In principle, this is good for dogs too, but not always.


Potential Risks of Dogs Eating Cat Food

For certain dogs, even an occasional indulgence in cat food might pose issues, especially if there are underlying factors that make excessive protein or fat intake undesirable.

These are some of the possible problematic situations:

  • Dogs with sensitive stomachsA dog with a delicate digestive system might experience vomiting or diarrhoea after eating cat food due to its richness.
  • Dogs with kidney or liver ailments: These dogs require controlled protein consumption to ensure the best possible functioning of these organs, and too much protein can do a lot of harm.
  • Overweight dogs or those prone to pancreatitis: These dogs should adhere to a low-fat diet to manage weight or prevent inflammation of the pancreas.

My Dog Ate Cat Food - Now What?

Well, most likely, nothing! If your dog has indulged in a bit of cat food, there's no need to hit the panic button just yet.

While the occasional taste might not lead to immediate harm, it's a good idea to keep an eye out for any potential adverse reactions. Some dogs might experience digestive issues like upset stomach or diarrhoea due to the higher fat content in cat food. But, even if that happens, the symptoms will most likely subside within a few days, provided that your dog stops eating the problematic food, that is.

If your dog belongs to a group with specific dietary sensitivities, such as those with kidney problems or obesity tendencies, it's recommended to monitor their condition more closely. When in doubt, consult your veterinarian and they can offer tailored guidance based on your dog's individual health needs.


Can Cats Eat Dog Food?

If you live in a multi-pet household, accidents can happen both ways. The good news is, a bit of dog food most likely won’t do your cat any harm either. There might be short-term gastrointestinal upset, but long-term effects are very unlikely. However, it is never a good idea to feed dog food to cats long term due to the cat’s specific nutritional requirements (4).


My Final Thoughts

In conclusion, while a small taste of cat food here and there might not be immediately harmful to your dog, it's important to recognise that cat food is specifically formulated to meet the unique nutritional needs of cats.

Regular consumption of cat food by dogs can lead to imbalanced nutrition, digestive issues, weight gain, and potential long-term health complications. As for the occasional nibble: all is good and there is no need to worry.

References

  1. PetMD Editorial. March 4, 2011. “Cats Are Different: How a Cat's Nutritional Needs are Different from a Dog's”. PetMD. Retrieved August 26, 2023. https://www.petmd.com/cat/nutrition/evr_ct_cat_nutritional_needs_different
  2. LaMon, V. December 28, 2020. “What Is AAFCO and What Does It Do?”. PetMD. Retrieved August 26, 2023. https://www.petmd.com/dog/nutrition/What-Is-AAFCO-and-What-Does-It-Do
  3. Ardente, A. May 27, 2020. “Can Dogs Eat Cat Food?”. PetMD. Retrieved August 26, 2023. https://www.petmd.com/dog/nutrition/can-dogs-eat-cat-food
  4. Keller, M. May 5, 2020. “Can Cats Eat Dog Food?”. PetMD. Retrieved August 26, 2023. https://www.petmd.com/cat/nutrition/can-cats-eat-dog-food

Vedrana Nikolic


Vedrana Nikolić is Gentle Dog Trainers Canine Coach, Professional Writer, Anthropologist & dog lover.

With a Masters Degree in Semiotics & Bachelors Degree in Anthropology, studying the communication between animals and humans, Vedrana is able to use her expertise to analyse and review dog products and write informative posts on canine behaviour and training.

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