Does your dog cheat on his diet by eating cat food? Find out why food swapping is not ok.

By Debra Steilen
August 24, 2020
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Admit it. Your dog eats a lot of strange things, from nasty stuff in the kitchen trash to socks, paper towels, and maybe even homework. (It could happen!) But can dogs eat dry or wet cat food? Learning what makes cat food appealing to dogs and why it may hurt them will help you understand why you should stop Spot from eating any kind of cat food at all.

Why Do Dogs Eat Cat Food?

Because of the flavor! Cat food and dog food may look a lot alike, but they’re made to satisfy the nutritional needs of two different species. Cats are carnivores, which means it’s absolutely necessary for them to eat meat. Cat food is packed with protein. Dogs, on the other hand, have evolved from ancient wolves into animals who can digest plant materials—which makes them omnivores according to Tufts University. And that’s why dog food includes grains or other plant-based ingredients in addition to protein. Long story short: Cat food has a higher protein content than dog food, which means it smells and tastes better, which means dogs really, really love it.

Why Is Cat Food Bad For Dogs?

You may really, really love sushi, but you can’t limit your diet to raw fish or you’ll get sick. The same goes for dogs. Just because something tastes good doesn’t mean your dog should eat it all the time. 

Experts at the American Kennel Club (AKC) say cat food does not have the right balance of fiber, protein, and certain nutrients to suit dogs' nutritional needs. And eating cat food can be hard on dogs’ livers and kidneys because of all the protein. Plus, say the experts at Meow Mix, cats can tolerate levels of Vitamin D that could make a dog very sick or even die (avoid fish-or marine-based cat foods for this reason).

Rover is also at risk for developing pancreatitis (inflammation of the organ that aids the digestive process) when he overindulges in cat food. That’s because some cat foods are made with more fat than dog foods, says Jessica Romine, DVM, DACVIM, a veterinarian at BluePearl Veterinary Partners  in Southfield, Michigan. “When dogs eat cat food, they can take in excessive nutrients—but usually [those nutrients] are not toxic,” says Romine, who is board-certified in veterinary internal medicine. “Too much fat is a much bigger risk.”

What Happens to the Cat Whose Food is Being Swiped?

Kitty is also at risk, Romine says. “If a cat, particularly an overweight one, doesn’t eat for a few days, or doesn’t get enough calories, she’s at risk for fatty liver disease,” the veterinarian says. “And that can lead to fatal liver failure.”

How Do I Stop My Dog From Eating Cat Food?

Experts agree: Keep cat food out of your dog’s reach. Put cat bowls up high—such as on counters or cat trees—that Rover can’t reach. Or feed your dog and cat in separate locations, even if that means using a baby gate or pet barrier to segregate hallways. 

Another suggestion is to schedule your dog’s and cat’s mealtimes 10 minutes apart (maybe even in different locations) so you can supervise and keep your fur babies from swiping food from each other’s bowls.

Open to high-tech solutions? Get each of your pets a feeder programmed with his or her microchip or RFID collar tag. These types of feeders only open when the registered pet approaches. That means your cat can access her food at any time without the fear of it being stolen. 

Will Eating Cat Food Kill My Dog?

Probably not, says the AKC, as long as your dog simply snacks on it now and then. But if Rover is eating a lot of cat food on a regular basis, or you’re feeding him cat food instead of dog food, the nutrient imbalance can lead to gastrointestinal upset, obesity, and pancreatitis—which requires immediate veterinary care. Even if your cat-food-eating dog doesn’t exhibit any ill effects, the high protein levels can be hard on his liver and kidneys.

If your dog is suffering from pancreatitis, he’ll display these symptoms and should be examined by a vet immediately:

  • abdominal pain
  • a hunched back
  • lethargy and weakness
  • appetite loss
  • vomiting and diarrhea
  • a distended abdomen
  • fever

Can You Give Dog Food to Cats?

Nope. Eating the other pet’s food is a much bigger problem for cats than dogs, Romine says. “Cats cannot eat dog food because it’s too low in several nutrients that they need,” she says. “Not enough [amino acids] carnitine and taurine and your cat will be at risk for heart and ocular problems.”