Cat Food vs Dog Food: How They're Different and Why You Should Use the Right One

Cat Food vs Dog Food: How They're Different and Why You Should Use the Right One

When considering cat food vs dog food for your animal, there are several nutritional factors to consider to keep your pet healthy. Here's what you need to know.

If you live in a multi-pet household, or you’ve noticed a cheaper price on pet food for dogs than the kind made for cats, you might be wondering about the nutritional make-up of cat food vs. dog food. What are the differences? Can dogs eat cat food? Can cats eat dog food?

Your pet’s food is a vital part of their daily life and health. While it might be tempting to simplify your life or pad your wallet by substituting your pet’s food with that of another species, there are important nutritional differences between dog food and cat food. Here’s why you should only give your pet food that is designed for their body, and some other things to consider when choosing the best food for your animal.

Cat Food vs Dog Food: The Nutritional Differences

Many things have to be considered when choosing a healthy pet food, including:


  • Protein levels
  • Essential amino acids
  • Essential fatty acids
  • Vitamins


Here’s what you need to know about how foods are made differently for cats and dogs, and why it’s important to stick to a species-specific formula.

Protein Levels in Cat Food vs Dog Food

The primary difference between cat food and dog food is the nutrition it provides to your animal. Because cats and dogs have different dietary requirements to stay healthy, a high-quality food for each species will be made from different ingredients.

A good cat food will always include a meat animal protein because cats are obligate carnivores. This means that the feline body needs animal meat in order to survive – no ifs, ands, or buts. Their biology requires it.

Dogs, on the other hand, have a little more flexibility. They shouldn’t eat an exclusively carnivorous diet because dogs are omnivores, which means they need additional variety in the form of grains and vegetables.

Cat food is high-protein and rich in meat, which often appeals to dogs, but a dog shouldn’t eat cat food because it needs the nutritional support provided by grains and veggies.


Someone holding a bowel of cat food giving it to their cat


Cat Food Supplements Essential Amino Acids

Another major difference between dog food and cat food is the presence of some essential amino acids. Both dogs and cats need to get amino acids from their food, but they typically need different types of these substances.

For example, dog food doesn’t need the amino acid taurine, because dogs’ bodies can make this on their own. Cats, though, require taurine in their food to prevent a condition called dilative cardiomyopathy. This condition, which can be caused by a taurine deficiency if your cat doesn’t eat the proper food, causes an overgrowth of heart tissue which puts the organ under additional strain. Obviously, this is very dangerous and unhealthy.

Taurine is often found naturally in raw meats, so a dog food made with cooked meat (where much of the taurine has been stripped) wouldn’t be sufficient for a cat. Even if your cat doesn’t eat a necessarily raw meat diet, a commercial cat-specific food will include taurine because it’s a nutritional requirement for felines.

Another amino acid that cats need, which is not present in dog food, is arginine. Arginine helps cats bind and expel ammonia. If a cat has an arginine deficiency, it will likely result in high ammonia levels that can cause your cat to drool, mewl, and lose their coordination. This can be fatal, so your cat’s diet definitely needs to include arginine.

Dog Food Doesn’t Include Some Fatty Acids That Cats Need

Another nutritional difference between cats and dogs is their needs for fatty acids. Cats, specifically, need to have arachidonic acid provided in their diet. Arachidonic acid is found in animal meat and supports your cat’s skin health, GI function, and blood clotting. Dogs can produce this fatty acid on their own, so it is not included in their food, but cats need to have it supplemented by their diet.

Cats and Dogs Need Different Vitamins in Their Food

Cats have a greater need for vitamin B, or niacin, as well as vitamin A. Dogs can convert other substances into these vitamins, so they don’t need them as a part of their diet. Niacin and vitamin A are essential for cats and typically won’t be provided in a dog food.

Choosing the Best Food for Your Pet’s Needs

If you’re wondering about cat food vs dog food, you’ve likely got other questions about how to choose the best pet food for your animal. Here are some things to consider when choosing cat food or dog food:


  • Dog food and cat food both come in dry and wet varieties
  • The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) controls nutritional adequacy statements
  • All pets are unique and have different needs – there isn’t one perfect pet food


Choosing Between Wet Food and Dry Food

Cat food and dog food both come in wet and dry versions. It can actually be broken down further into three categories: dry food, which is up to 10 percent water; semi-moist food, which is up to 30 percent; and canned food, which can be as much as 80 percent water.

This is important when you’re looking at the label to see the concentration of various nutrients. The nutritional breakdown will be obvious with dry food – 25 grams of fat per 100 grams of dry food means the food is about 25 percent fat. But with wet food, it might be a little deceiving. You have to account for the product being 80 percent water.

So, a wet food that is 25 percent fat would have 5 grams of fat per 100 grams of food (because 80 of those grams are water).

The choice of wet, semi-moist, or dry food will depend on your dog’s or your cat’s dental issues, flavor preferences, and more. Talk to your veterinarian about whether dry or wet food – or a combination of the two – is the best thing for your animal.

What It Means for a Pet Food to Be “Complete and Balanced”

Back in the early 1990s, the AAFCO established Food Nutrient Profiles for both cats and dogs. These profiles are updated regularly as new research comes out about what cats and dogs need in their diet.

Because of labeling rules in the US, a pet food that says it is “complete and balanced” must have met the requirements established by the AAFCO dog or cat nutrient profiles or passed an AAFCO trial. This phrase indicates that, if you were to provide this food as your animal’s only solid sustenance, it would be everything they need to survive.

Special Diets, Allergies, and Other Considerations

There are, of course, other considerations when it comes to your pet’s individual nutritional needs. There is no one-size-fits-all formula when it comes to cat food vs dog food. Beyond the fact that you need a specific food that is designed for your animal’s species, there are a lot of other factors to consider.

In fact, the AAFCO has two nutrient profiles for cats and two for dogs, because it recognizes that an animal who is nursing or pregnant will need a different diet than a standard adult animal. Considerations like this – your pet’s activity level, their reproductive status, their age, their size – will be important when choosing an appropriate pet food for your animal.

Furthermore, it’s possible that your pet will have food allergies or sensitivities that will need to be addressed in their diet. Or, your animal may have a specific condition – such as a cat with kidney issues or a dog with diabetes – that requires a specialized, prescription diet. While these pet foods sometimes don’t carry the AAFCO “complete and balanced” label, they are still more effective for some animals. Don’t feed your animal a prescription diet unless directed to do so by your veterinarian.

What If My Dog Eats Cat Food or Vice Versa?

If your dog gets a quick bite of cat food, or your cat eats a few pieces of your dog’s dinner, there’s no need to panic. It’s unlikely that a single serving of cat or dog food will dramatically impact an animal that it’s not intended for. Here’s what you need to know:


  • Cats will struggle to digest dog food
  • Dogs may have GI side effects if they eat cat food
  • Sustained use of an improper diet will give your pet nutritional deficiencies


Cats Aren’t Built to Digest the Ingredients in Dog Food

If a cat eats dog food, they are likely consuming grains and vegetables that their body is not meant to digest. This can result in stomach cramping, irregular bowel movements, and other GI issues in cats – even if they just ate one serving of dog food.

It’s possible that you won’t notice any changes in your cat if they just eat a few pieces of your dog’s food. Because cats are used to eating richer, more protein-heavy food, they might not even be interested in your dog’s kibble because it seems less flavorful to them. But, for whatever reason, if they eat a sizable serving of dog food, it’s possible they’ll have tummy trouble.

Dogs May Experience Stomach Issues If They Eat Cat Food

Likewise, dogs might have their gut irritated by the richness of a meal of cat food. Cat food’s high protein content and generally richer flavor will be appealing to canines but might cause diarrhea, discomfort, or even vomiting.

Because cat food – especially wet and canned varieties – will smell and taste yummy to your dog, it’s important to keep an eye on your canine when you feed your cat. While a little cat food won’t cause lasting damage, it might make your dog uncomfortable and leave you with a mess to clean up.


A dog eating from a dog bowel with dog food in it


Your Pet Needs to Eat Species-Specific Food Every Day

While there are the minor, manageable side effects of an animal eating the wrong food a single time, prolonged use of a food that’s not addressing your animal’s nutritional needs may have serious consequences. Serious nutritional deficiencies can result from giving your pet food intended for another species. It’s best to feed cat food to cats and dog food to dogs.

Consult Your Veterinarian in the Cat Food vs Dog Food Discussion

Your pet’s doctor will be able to offer you even more insight into the differences of cat food vs dog food, so you can know why your pet needs specific support for their unique body. Veterinarians can also be invaluable resources when it comes to finding the best dog food or cat food for your pet’s needs and addressing other issues like food allergies and sensitivities.

Make sure your pet’s needs are being met with a proper diet to ensure a long, happy life for your furry friend.