Cats and dogs are the most common domesticated pets in households across the world. We love them both equally, but we also recognize the significant differences between them.
The contrast in personality between most cats and dogs has been highlighted in culture and pop media for decades, but the differences in their living needs are less well known. One of the areas these two creatures differ most is their nutritional needs.
Many pet owners aren’t aware of this and understandably wonder if they might be able to save some work and money by buying the same food for both the cat and dog in their home.
Today, Spot Pet Insurance is here to provide clarity. We’re going to talk about whether it’s safe for your cat to have dog food if they happen to steal a few bites and whether it would be healthy to feed a cat dog food regularly.
Understanding cat nutritional needs
Before we talk about whether cats can or should eat dog food, we need to understand how cats work biologically and what they need to eat.
Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that meat is necessary for their survival and must make up most of their diet.
This is partly because meat contains certain nutrients not found in plants, such as taurine. Cats cannot make taurine, but because it is essential to their vital functions, they must get it from the foods they eat. Taurine is only found in meat and animal products, such as eggs.
Other essential nutrients for a cat include protein, vitamin A, arachidonic acid, and niacin. These nutrients aren’t exclusive to meat, so you might be wondering why cats can’t eat plant foods to meet these needs.
Unfortunately, cats simply can’t digest plant foods efficiently or completely. Their metabolism can’t break down carbohydrates or certain fats well, and their gastrointestinal tract isn’t adapted to process plant food.
As a result, plant-based food is not beneficial or healthy for cats, and too much plant food could make your cat sick.
Dogs were once this way as well, but because they have been domesticated for so long, our canine pets have adapted and become omnivorous, which means they can survive on a diet of plants, meat, or (ideally) both.
Cats, on the other hand, have not adapted in this way yet, likely because they have been domesticated for a much shorter period of history. For now, we must accept that our feline friends must rely on a meat-based diet to be healthy.
Is dog food safe for cats?
In general, dog food is not toxic or dangerous for cats in low quantities.
If your cat happens to eat some dog food, or you find yourself in an extreme, desperate situation with nothing else to feed your cat for one day, your cat likely would not come to any harm.
Could cats thrive on a diet of dog food?
While dog food is not toxic to cats, it is not healthy for them.
You should never feed your cat a diet based on dog food. Your cat’s health will inevitably decline without a proper cat food formula. If this insufficient diet continues long term, the results could be deadly.
This is due to the absence of necessary nutrients. Formulas used for dog food never provide sufficient quantities of the essential nutrients cats need, such as protein, taurine, vitamin A, and others.
Dogs have different nutritional needs, digestive capabilities, and tastes than cats.
Cat nutrient needs that dog food can’t meet
Cats have very specific nutrient needs, and they need some nutrients in exceptionally high quantities to survive and thrive.
Since dogs have such different needs, most dog foods do not contain the nutrients cats need to the degree they need them.
If your cat’s diet doesn’t meet their biological standard, issues range from weight problems, skin issues, coat conditions, and diabetes to more serious cardiac conditions and even death should the issues occur long enough.
The core of a cat’s diet is protein. Being obligate carnivores, cats need a high amount of protein to function – significantly more so than dogs, which are omnivores. Cats require about 26% of their diet to be protein, whereas dogs require about 12%. For reference, humans require 8% of their diet to be protein.
Dog food usually contains some protein but nowhere close to enough to satisfy a cat’s needs. Even dog foods specializing in increased amounts of protein would not suffice.
In terms of protein percentage in dog food formulas, you will typically find around 18-26%, while cats should have closer to 30-34%, or even as high as 40-50% in foods that focus on protein supplementation.
The easiest protein sources for cats to digest are egg whites, meat protein, organ protein, and fish.
For a cat to get enough protein from dog food, they would need to eat significantly more food than would be healthy for them, and their diet would not be balanced.
Taurine is an aminosulfonic acid essential to vital functions, particularly the heart.
Like humans, cats can’t make taurine themselves. Cats rely on a diet with plenty of taurine to stay healthy, so you will find it included in all proper commercial cat food.
Dogs, on the other hand, can use amino acids (found in most dog foods) to create taurine themselves, so most dog food formulas don’t supplement taurine.
With insufficient taurine, issues with vision, digestion, and cardiac health (specifically dilated cardiomyopathy) are likely to occur.
Most creatures need a range of vitamins to maintain their health, so you might wonder why vitamin A is so noteworthy in this case.
The answer is twofold: vitamin A is crucial for cats (especially during kitten years as they grow), and cats can not synthesize vitamin A themselves.
Without enough of this essential ingredient, a number of issues can occur. You’ll likely notice reduced coat quality at first, but other symptoms such as night blindness, weakness, lethargy, and muscle loss can happen as well.
Vitamin A is found in plant foods but typically in lower concentrations than in meat. Dog food also includes vitamin A supplements, but nowhere near as much as cats need.
The next dietary element cats need is arachidonic acid. Like taurine and vitamin A, this fatty acid is so important to your cat’s diet because cats can’t create it on their own.
Further, dogs don’t need this in their diet because they can synthesize arachidonic acid.
Without enough arachidonic acid in their diet, cats could suffer skin issues or unusual performance of the liver or kidney.
Do cats even enjoy dog food?
A logical question to keep in mind is whether cats even enjoy dog food.
Sure, some cat individuals seem to eat anything they can get their paws on. Some might even seem jealous of their canine siblings and want to eat their dog food simply because the cat needs to be even. However, in general, cats won’t be able to enjoy the taste of dog food.
The reason is that cats have different taste perceptions than dogs (and humans). In terms of taste buds, humans have 9000, dogs have 1700, and cats only have 470. Cats also can’t taste sweetness.
For these reasons, it’s unusual for cats to find dog food palatable. Cats are often picky eaters as is, so it’s best to rely on professionally formulated cat foods that are designed to taste good for cats specifically.
How to find the right diet for your cat
Ultimately, dog food simply can’t replace cat food. Not only do cats as a species have very specific nutritional needs, but each cat individual is also unique.
The best way forward is to talk to a trusted veterinarian to figure out the best approach to your cat’s diet.
We hope this guide has helped you understand how cats work and why they need specially formulated food to keep them happy and healthy – not just any old food, and certainly not dog food.
At Spot Pet Insurance, we’re committed to supporting your pet parent journey. You can find more resources like this one in our Blog.