Out of Cat Food? Can You Feed Kitty Dog Food in a Pinch?

Dangers of Feeding Dog Food to Cats

cat eating food from bowl

Feeding dog food to cats can be dangerous due to the nutritional differences between feline and canine diets. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they need a meat-rich diet with high levels of protein and fat. Dogs are omnivores and can tolerate more carbohydrates. Dog food contains lower protein levels compared to cat food, so feeding it long-term can cause nutritional deficiencies in cats.

One of the biggest risks is kidney and liver problems. Dog food is lower in protein but higher in carbohydrates. This can put strain on a cat’s organs since they aren’t adapted to process high carbs. It can also lead to obesity. Over time, obesity and strain on the organs may lead to kidney disease, liver problems, and even diabetes in cats.[1]

Pancreatitis is another potential risk. The high fat content in some dog foods can inflame a cat’s pancreas and cause this painful condition. Obesity is also a common problem since dog food has more calories from carbs and fat. Obese cats are prone to joint issues, heart disease, and diabetes.[2]

While a bowl of dog food won’t immediately harm an otherwise healthy cat, it does not provide optimal nutrition. Feeding it long-term or in large quantities can jeopardize a cat’s health.

Differences Between Cat and Dog Food

One of the main differences between cat and dog food is protein content. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they need to eat meat to survive. Because of this, cat food tends to have higher levels of protein compared to dog food. Cats require at least 26% protein, while most dog foods contain around 18-24% protein.

Another key difference is taurine. Taurine is an essential amino acid for cats that supports heart and eye health. Unlike dogs, cats cannot synthesize enough taurine on their own, so cat food contains added taurine. Taurine is not a required nutrient for dogs, so dog food does not contain added taurine.

Fiber content also tends to be different between cat and dog foods. Cats are obligate carnivores with shorter digestive tracts compared to dogs, so they require relatively little fiber. Most cat foods contain 3-4% fiber, while dog foods average 4-6% fiber.

Finally, there are differences in fatty acid profiles. Cat foods tend to be higher in arachidonic acid, while dog foods are richer in linoleic acid. These are important omega-6 fatty acids. The ideal balance and ratio of fatty acids is different for feline and canine health.

In a Pinch

In an emergency situation where you’ve run out of cat food, it’s okay to feed your cat a small amount of dog food for a short period of time. According to Vets Now, “Technically, cats can eat a small amount of dog food as a one-off, so don’t worry if your cat swipes a mouthful from your dog’s bowl.”

While dog food won’t immediately cause harm, it does not provide optimal nutrition for cats over the long term. Dog food contains more protein and fat than cat food, and it lacks some key nutrients cats need like taurine. Feeding dog food can also change the pH level of your cat’s urine, putting them at risk for FLUTD or urinary crystals.

If feeding your cat dog food, supplement it with human foods like cooked egg, tuna packed in water, or boiled chicken to add key nutrients. Only feed a small amount of dog food temporarily until you can purchase cat food again. As Rover notes, “dog food should never make up more than half (ideally less) of your cat’s diet.”

Check with your vet if your cat refuses to eat cat food after being fed dog food for more than a couple days. They can provide tips for transitioning back to cat food.

Transitioning Foods

When changing your cat’s food, it’s important to transition slowly over 5-7 days to allow their digestive system to adjust. Abrupt changes can upset your cat’s stomach and cause diarrhea or vomiting. Here’s how to properly transition foods:

Start by mixing a small amount of the new food in with your cat’s old food. The first 1-2 days, do a mix of 75% old food and 25% new food. Then, over the next several days, gradually increase the ratio of new food while decreasing the old food. On days 3-4, do a 50/50 mix. On days 5-6 increase to 75% new food and 25% old food.

By day 7, your cat should be eating 100% new food. It’s best to transition even more slowly (over 10-14 days) if your cat has a sensitive stomach.

Monitor your cat during the transition. Make sure they are eating well and have normal stools. If diarrhea develops, slow the transition down by going back to the previous ratio for a couple days. Cats tend to prefer consistency in their routine and diet, so a gradual transition helps avoid GI upset.

person opening can of cat food

For sources, see:

When to Call the Vet

If your cat shows concerning symptoms after switching to dog food, it’s important to call your veterinarian. Some signs that warrant a vet visit include:


Diarrhea or loose stools can be caused by the higher fat and protein content in most dog foods (source). Severe or prolonged diarrhea can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and other issues.


Persistent vomiting is not normal and may indicate your cat’s stomach is irritated by something in the dog food (source). Vomiting can also lead to dehydration.

Weight Loss

Rapid weight loss when feeding dog food can signal that your cat is not properly absorbing nutrients. Weight loss is concerning and requires an exam.

Loss of Appetite

If your cat stops eating or loses interest in food after transitioning to dog food, something may be wrong. Loss of appetite can lead to hepatic lipidosis in cats, so contact your vet.

In general, any lethargy, weakness, or signs of distress after a diet change warrant a call to the vet. They can help assess your cat and determine if the dog food is causing issues.

Tips for Picky Eaters

If your cat is a picky eater, there are some tips you can try to encourage them to eat more:

Offer food in multiple bowls around the house so your cat has easy access to food when hungry. Cats like convenience. [1]

Try warming up wet or canned food to bring out the aroma and make it more appealing. You can warm it for 5-10 seconds in the microwave. [2]

Experiment with new food textures like minced, chopped, shredded or patties to see if your cat prefers something other than the standard. Cats can be picky about texture. [3]

cat food bowls

If you have multiple cats, consider feeding them separately so there is no competition over food. Some cats may not eat as much when other pets are around.

Homemade Cat Food

Homemade cat food can be a nutritious option for your cat when done properly. It allows you to control the ingredients and tailor the food to your cat’s needs. However, it’s important to consult your veterinarian first, as homemade food may not provide complete and balanced nutrition for your cat.

The foundation of any homemade cat food should include quality sources of protein like meat, eggs, and fish. Meat options include chicken, turkey, beef, and lamb. Make sure to use meat with bones included for added minerals. Salmon, tuna, sardines, and shrimp are excellent fish choices. Eggs can provide protein and fat.

It’s essential to supplement homemade food with certain vitamins and minerals. Taurine is an amino acid cats cannot synthesize alone and must get from food. Many cat owners use supplements containing taurine, vitamin E, vitamin B complex, and trace minerals. Check with your vet on the appropriate supplement type and dose for your cat. According to Know Better Pet Food, supplements help balance homemade cat food.

When making homemade cat food, follow recipes carefully and ensure proper nutrient ratios. Getting the right balance of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins according to your cat’s needs takes some research. Work with your vet to develop recipes or analyze nutrition content to avoid any deficiencies or imbalances.

Best Commercial Cat Foods

When selecting the best commercial cat food, it’s important to look for foods that are high in protein, contain meat as the first ingredient, and have limited ingredients:

High protein cat foods help maintain strong muscles and an ideal weight. Protein should make up at least 30% of a cat’s diet. Meats like chicken, turkey, and fish provide quality protein. Look for foods where a meat is listed as the first ingredient.[1]

Limited ingredient cat foods contain fewer ingredients overall, which can help identify food intolerances if your cat has digestive issues. Limited ingredient foods often have just one protein and carbohydrate source. Common options are turkey and sweet potato or salmon and pea. Blue Buffalo, Natural Balance, and Wellness have good limited ingredient formulas.[2]

Some top-rated cat foods that meet the criteria for high protein, meat-first ingredients, and limited ingredients include:

  • Purina Pro Plan Focus Chicken & Rice Formula
  • Blue Buffalo Wilderness Chicken Recipe
  • Hill’s Science Diet Adult Indoor Chicken Recipe
  • Iams ProActive Health Chicken Recipe

Be sure to transition slowly when changing foods, watching for any digestive upset. With quality nutrition, your cat will have the energy and health to live their best life.

[1] https://nymag.com/strategist/article/best-cat-food.html
[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbes-personal-shopper/article/best-cat-food/
cats eating food

Storing Cat Food

Proper storage of cat food is important to keep it fresh and prevent it from going bad. Dry cat food in particular can easily become stale if not stored correctly. Here are some tips for storing cat food:

Keep dry food in an airtight, sealable container. Air exposure can cause the fats in dry food to oxidize and go rancid more quickly. Look for containers with tight-fitting lids or gaskets to keep air out (Source). Stainless steel and glass are ideal materials that won’t interact with the food.

Store cat food in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight. Heat and moisture hasten food spoilage. The refrigerator is a good option, but make sure to limit the time the bag is open so it doesn’t absorb fridge odors. The freezer can also prolong shelf life.

Discard cat food after the expiration or best-by date printed on the package. Even when properly stored, nutrients in dry food degrade over time. Don’t feed expired cat food as it may be spoiled or lack key nutrients (Source).

Inspect dry food occasionally for signs of staleness like a rancid smell. Discard if the kibble has visible mold, is much less crunchy, or your cat refuses to eat it.

With good storage habits, dry cat food can stay fresh for months. But open bags shouldn’t be kept for longer than 2-3 weeks. Canned wet food only lasts for a few days after opening and should be promptly refrigerated.

When to Toss Food

Cats can be picky eaters, so it’s not always easy to tell if cat food has gone bad. However, there are some clear signs that indicate it’s time to toss out your cat’s food, including:

Past expiration date – Dry and canned cat foods have a “best by” date printed on the packaging. This is the manufacturer’s recommendation for when the food will start to decline in quality and freshness. Once past this date, it’s best to discard cat food.

Changes in smell, texture, appearance – Your nose knows when cat food smells rancid or “off.” Trust your senses. Likewise, changes in the food’s consistency or color can indicate spoilage. For example, dry food that is hard instead of crunchy or canned food with an odd jelly-like texture should be discarded.

According to experts like vets at Catster, if your cat food changes in smell, texture, or appearance in a bad way, that’s a sure sign it has gone bad and needs to be tossed out. Spoiled food can make your cat sick, so it’s better to be safe than sorry if you notice anything “funky.”

When in doubt, remember the old saying “When in doubt, throw it out.” Cats are carnivores with sensitive stomachs, so it’s always a smart move to toss cat food that seems even a little bit off.

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