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Is There Any Difference Between Dog Food and Cat Food?

I know cats need smaller pellets for their smol mouths, but anything else?

Strolling down the pet food aisle can certainly feel like plunging into the palpable depths of capitalism: There are hundreds of brands, each contending that their grainy pellets and watery mushes are better than the rest. And sure, while you could argue that some of these manufacturers are simply repackaging the same products, if you have a dog and a cat, you still need to buy them separate food.

As board-certified veterinary nutritionist Lindsey Bullen explains, while dogs are omnivores and can stay healthy on both animal and plant fare, cats are obligate carnivores — meat is a biological necessity for them and their smol mouths. Therefore, cats have a higher, more specific need for protein, essential amino acids, fatty acids and many vitamins. In simpler terms, cats have much more specific dietary requirements than dogs do, and their food needs to reflect that. “Cats have extra essential amino acid requirements,” says Bullen. “Specifically, they absolutely have to have taurine,” which, in nature, is exclusively found in animal-based proteins. She also explains that felines have higher requirements for arginine, yet another essential amino acid.

In short, cat food tends to be higher in protein, fat and in select minerals and vitamins than dog food. Thus, Bullen says, “Dogs can eat cat food,” but not necessarily the other way around. (Although, feeding your dog cat food is still discouraged.)

As for which brands you might want to grab, Bullen says, “Usually, the ones that my clients don’t want to feed are the ones that are most reputable in my eyes. The ones that I tend to reach for first are Royal Canin, Purina and Hill’s — not necessarily in that order.”

While these big brands have a reputation for being mediocre and cheap compared to their smaller brethren, Bullen contends, “They’re longstanding, contribute to peer-reviewed research, are actively updating and improving their products and have stood the test of time.” They also have big budgets, which might not sound reassuring, but Bullen adds, “They have the money to invest in not just one expert, but multiple experts across the entire field of animal health and nutrition.”

And though some of these large companies are plagued by histories of nasty recalls, Bullen says, “The truth is, we’re all people. Mistakes can still happen. Recalls are going to happen, but it’s usually the big companies that have internal quality control methods to catch their own mistakes, then admit them, rather than the smaller companies, who might not even be able to invest in appropriate quality control and/or may not know what to look for.”

“That really bothers me,” Bullen continues. “When I hear clients say, ‘Well, this company has never had a recall,’ I truly hope that there isn’t a problem, [but] to me, it could mean they’re either not looking for potential issues, or they’re so small/new that nothing bad has happened yet.”

Okay then. I’ll take one Purina with the dog on the front and one with the cat.