The Ultimate Guide to What Cats Cannot Eat

The Ultimate Guide to What Cats Cannot Eat

A cat prepares to steal food from the dinner table.A cat prepares to steal food from the dinner table.
A cat prepares to steal food from the dinner table.A cat prepares to steal food from the dinner table.

There are human foods that are completely safe for cats, while other foods are dangerous and even potentially fatal if ingested. Unfortunately, pet owners typically learn about toxic foods after their cat has ingested something and starts having abnormal symptoms.

Cats are naturally curious and have an amazing sense of smell. This combination can lead cats to get up and steal food off counters, take food from grills, get into trash cans, and sneak food from plates. Other times, well-intentioned cat lovers offer tables scraps or human foods without understanding the potential danger.

Below, we’ll review what cats can’t eat, as well as human foods that are safe in moderation.

Safe Food for Cats

There are many human foods that are “safe” for cats. However, there are no human foods that cats need in their regular diet. What cats need is a high-quality food formulated for the age, activity level, underlying health problems, and individual metabolism. Learn more about feline nutrition here.

Safe Treats for Cats

The ideal cat treat is one made of nutritious ingredients that are moderate to low in calories, consistent in ingredients (thus, unlikely to cause stomach upset from bag to bag), very appealing to your cat, and safe. Higher-quality treats tend to be more consistently produced, so it is best to avoid discount and supermarket brands if possible.

There are many human foods you can safely feed your cat. By safely, I mean non-toxic and digestible. However, large quantities of any food given to cats with sensitive gastrointestinal tracts can lead to problems such as vomiting and diarrhea.

Any of the foods listed below as “safe” should only be given in moderation.

Safe Human Foods and Treats for Cats

Below are foods that can be safe to feed cats in some capacity. Please consider that these foods should be shelled, peeled, washed, in some cases cooked, and without seeds. They should also be fed in small pieces to prevent choking hazards.

Tips for Giving Treats to Your Cat 

  • Treats are never a replacement for their core diet of cat food.
  • Treats should make up less than 5% of your cat’s daily caloric intake.
  • Consider low-calorie treats for cats with weight control problems.
  • Feed only fresh food. Moldy or rotten food can cause gastrointestinal upset.

What Cats Can’t Eat: Foods Not Safe for Cats

Cats are pretty discriminate (at least when compared to dogs) and not as likely to eat many of the foods listed below.

Foods that cats can’t eat include:

Alcoholic Beverages

Ethanol is the component in alcohol that can be toxic when an excessive amount is ingested. Cats are much smaller than humans and can be highly affected by small amounts of alcohol. Exercise caution when drinks and cats are in close proximity. Toxicity can cause a wide variety of symptoms, and may even cause death. Signs include an odor of alcohol on the cat’s breath, staggering, behavioral changes, excitement, depression, increased urination, slowed respiratory rate, or cardiac arrest and death.

Apples, Apricots, Cherries, Peaches, and Plums

Although uncommon for cats to eat, the ingestion of large amounts of stems, seeds, and leaves of these fruits can be toxic. They contain a cyanide-type compound and signs of toxicity include apprehension, dilated pupils, difficulty breathing, hyperventilation, and shock.

Avocados

The leaves, fruit, bark, and seeds of avocados have all been reported to be toxic. However, small pieces of fresh avocado will not harm a cat. The toxic component in the avocado is “persin,” which is a fatty acid derivative. Symptoms of toxicity include difficulty breathing, abdominal enlargement, and abnormal fluid accumulation in the chest, abdomen, and sac around the heart. The amount that needs to be ingested to cause symptoms is unknown.

Baked Goods

Products made with xylitol can be highly toxic to dogs, but this has not been established in cats. However, it is recommended to not give cats products made with xylitol. Xylitol is a sweetener used in place of sugar, primarily because it is lower in calories. Xylitol is also an ingredient in many different types of gum. It is in many products designed for people with diabetes, due to its low glycemic index. Xylitol can cause low blood sugar and liver failure in dogs. Cats are generally more choosy about what they eat than dogs, so accidental ingestion is far less common.

Baking Powder and Baking Soda

Baking soda and baking powder are both leavening agents that can be toxic to cats. A leavening agent is a common ingredient in baked goods that produces a gas-causing batter and dough to rise. Baking soda is simply sodium bicarbonate. Baking powder actually consists of baking soda and an acid, usually cream of tartar, calcium acid phosphate, sodium aluminum sulfate, or a mixture of the three. Ingestion of large amounts of baking soda or baking powder can lead to electrolyte abnormalities (low potassium, low calcium, and/or high sodium), congestive heart failure, or muscle spasms.

Bones

Bones aren’t safe for cats. They can get stuck or caught in the mouth, splinter and injure the intestines, cause constipation due to their size and indigestibility, or lead to bacterial infection.

Bread Dough

Dough contains yeast, which rises in moist, warm environments, such as the stomach. After ingestion, the rising dough can expand in the stomach and decrease blood flow. Fermentation of the yeast can be reduced to alcohol, causing signs of intoxication.

Chewing Gum

Gums that are made with xylitol can be toxic to dogs. The toxicity to cats is unknown and therefore is not recommended.

Chocolate

Chocolate, in addition to having a high-fat content, contains caffeine and theobromine. These two compounds are nervous system stimulants and can be toxic to your cat in large amounts. The levels of caffeine and theobromine vary between different types of chocolate. For example, white chocolate has the lowest concentration of stimulants and baking chocolate or cacao beans have the highest concentration. A lick of chocolate is not a problem, but the ingestion of dark or baking chocolate can be hazardous for cats.

Coffee (Grounds and Beans)

Although uncommon in cats, some may eat coffee grounds or beans and get caffeine toxicity. The symptoms are very similar to those of chocolate toxicity and can be just as or even more serious.

Dairy Products

Human dairy products are not highly dangerous, but can pose problems for two specific reasons. One is their high-fat content, which poses a pancreatitis risk. The other is that cats have trouble digesting dairy products, since they lack the enzyme required to digest lactose. This affects some cats more than others and can cause anything from mild gas to severe diarrhea. Small amounts of plain yogurt or cheese are tolerated by most cats, but it is probably safest to avoid dairy products altogether.

Diet Foods

Foods made for weight loss or diabetes may have the ingredient xylitol and are not recommended for cats.

Fatty Foods

Cats love rich and fatty foods. They often get them as treats, leftovers, or from digging in the trash. Unfortunately, these fatty foods can cause pancreatitis. Signs of pancreatitis in cats can include vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Abdominal pain is often evidenced by the hunched posture or “splinting” of the abdomen when picked up. Some cats may show nonspecific signs, such as lethargy, decreased appetite or anorexia, and weight loss. Cats can become sick quickly from pancreatitis and may need veterinary care consisting of fluid and antibiotic therapy.

Grapes and Raisins

Ingestion of grapes and/or raisins can cause kidney failure in some dogs. This has not been documented in cats. However, it is probably safest not to feed them to your cat. In dogs, prolonged treatment may be necessary for a chance at survival. Despite testing, the reason for the kidney failure and the amount necessary for toxicity remains unknown.

Milk or Cream

Most cats are considered lactose intolerant, so ingestion of milk can cause gastrointestinal issues like vomiting and diarrhea.

Moldy or Spoiled Food

Some cats love to get into the trash and ingest moldy or spoiled food. This can cause gastrointestinal distress.

Nutmeg

You may not realize this, but high levels of nutmeg can be toxic, even fatal. The toxic principle is not well understood. Signs of toxicity include tremors, seizures, nervous system abnormalities, or death.

Onions and Garlic

All forms of onions and garlic are a problem. Cats lack the enzyme necessary to properly digest onions and this could result in gas, vomiting, diarrhea, or severe gastrointestinal distress. If large amounts of onion or garlic are ingested or if they are a daily part of your cat’s diet, their red blood cells may become fragile and break apart. This is due to thiosulfate, the toxic ingredient in onions and garlic. The most common source of onions for cats is in human baby food, since some baby foods have onion powder added for taste. Also, many people use garlic pills as “natural” flea control, which may lead to toxicity.

Peanut Butter

Some peanut butter manufacturers add xylitol to peanut butter, which is toxic to dogs. As noted above, although xylitol has not been found to be a problem in cats yet, it is recommended that we not give xylitol to them at all.

Raw Eggs

Ingestion of raw eggs in cats can cause food poisoning from contaminants like salmonella. Symptoms may include lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or anorexia.

Raw Fish

Ingestion of excessive amounts of raw fish can cause thiamine deficiency in cats. This is most common in cats fed raw fish diets, homemade cat foods, or canned food lacking in thiamine. Symptoms of thiamine deficiency include neurological abnormalities.

Raw Potatoes

Potatoes belong to the plant family Solanaceae, which is the same plant family as nightshade and tomatoes. Green, uncooked, and/or raw potato peels contain solanine, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and disorientation.

Table Scraps

Scraps, especially those that are fatty, can cause gastrointestinal distress or pancreatitis in cats.

Tuna

Excessive dietary consumption of tuna can cause mercury poisoning in cats. Small amounts of canned or cooked tuna is acceptable.

An Important Warning for Cat Parents

One special caution to consider around cats is the danger of the wrappers and ties used to wrap meat. Some cats will get into the trash or on counters and become fascinated with meat wrappers and string ties due to their smell, texture, and taste.  It is not uncommon for a cat to eat a string that was used to tie chicken or turkey legs, which often requires surgical removal. This situation can be life-threatening.

Best Treats for Cats

When shopping for treats, look for the seal of approval from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which publishes feed regulations and ingredient definitions.

The best treats for cats are either kibble from their regular cat food or treats made for cats that meet AAFCO requirements.

If a cat food or treat follows their guidelines, the label will include a statement that proclaims it as “formulated to meet the AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profile for Kittens/Adults/Senior.” Some companies create treats specifically to be compliant with the AAFCO standards.

It is not a requirement to meet AAFCO standards in order to sell pet food or treats, so buyer beware.

It is also possible to make your own cat treats at home. Here are a couple of good articles with recipes:

Additional Articles About What Cats Can’t Eat

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