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The differences between cat and dog eating habits are perhaps best illustrated by this rather inelegant experiment. Drop a piece of meat on your kitchen floor in front of your cat and a friendly dog. “The cat will likely sniff and paw at the meat before ultimately rejecting it,” says pet nutritionist Hilary Watson. “The dog probably won’t even give the cat this chance, as it will have gulped down the food in no time.”
Watson, who has over 20 years of experience in pet food formulation and quality assurance, explains that all felines suffer from neophobia, or a fear of new things. “As self-reliant predators in the wild, eating something foreign could mean unexpected illness or worse,” she says, adding that “cats are also carnivores, while dogs are omnivores.” Here are more reasons not to feed dog food to your cat.
Cats have higher protein requirements than dogs do According to Dr. Allan Paul, small animal extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine at Urbana, cats use ample protein as a direct energy source. Watson agrees: “Cat food contains greater than 30 percent protein, while dog food contains around 20 to 25 percent protein.” The difference might seem minimal, but your cat needs that extra protein to satisfy its energy requirements.
Cats need taurine An essential amino acid, taurine is found only in animal tissues, such as fish, beef and poultry. Cats cannot synthesize this compound, so they must get it from a meat source. If they don’t consume enough taurine, a multitude of health problems can result, including hair loss, tooth decay, heart troubles and retina degeneration that may lead to blindness. In fact, Dr. Paul says scientists first noticed the cat eye-taurine link after felines that were exclusively fed dog chow became blind. The Association of American Feed Control Officials now requires that taurine be included in all wet and dry cat foods. The amount should be no less than 0.1 percent in dry foods.
Vitamin A is critical for cats Yet another essential component of cat food is vitamin A. “Dogs can convert beta carotene into vitamin A,” says Watson. Beta-carotene, a precursor to the vitamin, is visible as the red-orange pigment abundant in certain plants and fruits. Canines and people can therefore eat a carrot and receive a good daily dose of vitamin A, but cats must consume the vitamin from meat sources.
Felines require arachidonic acid and more niacin Dogs have two choices in getting their needed amount of arachidonic acid, which is a necessary fatty acid. They can receive it directly through meat, or they can synthesize it using linoleic acid, which is abundant in many vegetable oils, such as sunflower and safflower oils. Cats again have just the one choice, Dr. Paul says, and that’s meat. Watson adds that cats need more niacin than dogs do, too.
Taste and texture Have you noticed that many cat food commercials show beautiful cats delicately licking their food? This is in contrast to images of frisky dogs gobbling down chow with glee. As it turns out, there is some truth to the stereotypes, Watson suggests. “So long as it’s formulated correctly, dog food can look like slop and a canine will wolf it down,” she says. “Cats are much more tuned into texture.”
Felines also prefer meaty, salty tastes, as opposed to sweets. Cats additionally seem to go for a somewhat mysterious basic taste known as “umami.” It refers to savory foods with a lot of body. Japanese chefs even sometimes describe umami as “the deliciousness factor.”
Higher up on the food chain Your kitty’s choosiness stems from its position on the food chain, Watson believes. She explains that herbivores – plant-eating animals -- are at the base of the food heap. Next up are omnivores, including dogs and humans, which can eat the herbivores and some carnivores, as well as plants.
As true carnivores, cats exist at the top of the food chain. “Carnivores eat some omnivores,” Watson says. That’s one reason why large, wild cats, such as lions and tigers, take a swipe at humans from time to time.
Thankfully, domesticated house cats prefer smaller prey, as in the tasty canned and packaged vittles you can provide. While sweet and loveable, kitty is a very sophisticated predator for which only the best cat consumables will do.
Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Daily Cat. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics.