Mealtimes in my multi-pet household can be frantic: the dogs stand under the cat tree hoping to catch pieces of fallen food, the cats gather ’round the dog bowls waiting for a chance to snag a bite, and I dance around them all trying not to trip. If you have a dog + cat combo at home, this is probably a familiar scene.
It’s common for dogs to slobber at the scent of cat food, and for cats to take an interest in the dog bowl. Cats and dogs sharing food with each other is indisputably cute…but is it safe? Cats vs. dogs is a favorite argument among pet enthusiasts, but their differing dietary needs are not debatable.
Why Your Dog Loves Cat Food
Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they depend on nutrients found only in meat to survive (source). They can have a little bit of plant matter, but cat bodies require meat to function, and commercial cat food is loaded with protein. Dogs are able to eat an omnivorous diet (meat, plants, and grains), so their food has a broader range of ingredients.
If they can eat more than just plain old meat, why do dogs love cat food so much? Well, think about the pungent aroma that arises from a freshly-popped can of cat food. Cat food is specifically formulated to appeal to your carnivorous cat, but that juicy, meaty goodness will get your dog salivating, too.
Another reason cat food appeals to dogs: it’s there! Many cats free-feed, meaning their food is left out all day long. Depending on how food-motivated your dog is, sometimes the mere presence of off-limits, delicious-smelling food can cause an obsession (it sure does in my house).
Why Your Dog Shouldn’t Eat A Lot of Cat Food
If cat food is full of meat and smells delicious to dogs, you have to wonder: can dogs eat cat food? The answer is, yes and no (but mostly no). Your dog can safely sample a bit of your kitty’s chow. I sometimes let my dogs lick the cat food spoon as a treat! But a diet consisting solely of cat food won’t give your dog the balanced nutrition they need.
Think about humans’ reactions to our favorite junk food; we know our body needs a balanced, healthy diet, but sometimes a burger and fries just smells and tastes so good. Feeding your dog a cat food-only diet would be like feeding yourself McDonald’s every day. It might sound delicious at first, but in the long run, it’s a bad idea.
Overconsumption of cat food can cause health problems for dogs, including:
- Gastrointestinal distress in the short term (my dog Radar always ends up with a bad case of the f-a-r-t-s)
- Higher obesity risk as time goes on (thanks to the high protein and fat content in cat food)
- Kidney problems in the long run (particularly in older, already-vulnerable dogs)
Bottom line: you don’t have to panic if your dog gets into the cat food, but you shouldn’t make it part of her regular diet.
Why Your Cat Needs More Than Dog Food
While it’s not ideal, a dog could live on a cat food diet for a while. A cat, on the other hand, cannot subsist on dog food alone. While a bite or two of dog food won’t hurt your cat, a dog food diet is lacking several essential ingredients to kitty health.
As mentioned, cats are obligate carnivores, and they need a meat-based diet with the appropriate nutrition. There are a few essential ingredients in cat food that just don’t come up in dog food:
- High protein content. Without the right amount of protein, cats lose muscle mass and become lethargic.
- Taurine. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, this amino acid is critical for vision, digestion, heart function, fetal development, and a healthy immune system in cats. Cats get taurine from a high-protein, meat-based diet, but commercial cat foods add extra taurine to make up for what’s lost in processing. Dogs don’t need as much taurine, so it isn’t added to their foods, meaning a dog food diet cannot keep a cat healthy.
- Vitamin A. As explained by Doctors Foster and Smith, “dogs can use beta-carotene as a source of Vitamin A; cats cannot.” Commercial cat food is formulated to include the appropriate level of Vitamin A for cats, and they simply won’t get that from dog food.
It’s a little less common for cats to go cuckoo for dog kibble, but if you happen to have one of those special cats, just keep an eye on them and make sure they’re eating their own food too, even if they get a doggy sample once in a while.
How to Handle Feeding Time
We’ve established that a dog shouldn’t eat cat food, and a cat shouldn’t eat dog food, but in a busy, multi-pet household, how the heck can you keep them apart?
Separate feeding areas are a start. In my house, I feed the cats on a tall, sturdy cat tree where the dogs can’t reach. Raised surfaces are ideal for cat feeding, but if your cat is older or has mobility issues, instead of moving their food up, just move it to a closed-off area in your home. Here’s a list of DIY cat feeding station ideas to get you started:
- A stable bookshelf
- A wide windowsill
- An empty countertop (so long as you don’t mind your cat having access)
- A dedicated “cat shelf” like the one shown here
- A laundry room or walk-in closet with a cat door installed
- A dog-proof feeding station (you can make your own out of an upcycled chest or side table)
Just make sure your cat-feeding surface is secure in case your dog tests the limits. You don’t want a broken door, or a bookshelf toppling over on top of your eager pup!
As for keeping the cat out of the dog bowl, closed doors are the cheapest and easiest solution. Simply feed your dog in a separate room, and don’t open the door until all the food is gone! If you don’t have extra doors to close, a raised dog feeder can help keep your cat from getting into the bowl. You can also try hand-feeding your dog (doubles as a great training opportunity), or simply feed both species at the same time so they stay busy with their own food.
At the end of the day, a little bit of kitty kibble won’t hurt your dog, and a bite or two of dog food won’t harm your cat. But dogs and cats have different nutritional needs, and neither one should rely on the other’s diet. Cats and dogs can live together harmoniously, but their diets just don’t mix.