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 and also foods that are dangerous and even potentially fatal. Many pet owners learn about toxic foods only after their cat has ingested something and started 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 that they are toxic.

Below, we will review what cats can’t eat as well as list what is safe. It is important to have healthy alternatives once you know what is not safe.

Safe Food for Cats

There are many human foods that are “safe” for cats. However, there are no human foods that cats need. What cats need is a good quality food formulated for the age, activity, underlying health problems, and individual metabolism of your cat. Learn more about Nutrition for Cats.

Safe Treats for Cat

The ideal cat treat is one made of good quality 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 feed your cat safely. By safely, I mean these foods below are not toxic to cats. However, large quantities of any food or 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 be given only in small amounts and 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.

  • Apples – small amounts without the seeds
  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Bananas
  • Blackberries
  • Blueberries
  • Broccoli – cooked or raw clean/washed
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cantaloupe
  • Carrots – cooked or raw clean/washed
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery – cooked or raw clean/washed
  • Cheese
  • Chicken – cooked
  • Cottage cheese
  • Crackers
  • Cranberries
  • Dog Food
  • Eggs – cooked
  • Fish such as salmon (cooked)
  • Grapes
  • Green beans – cooked
  • Ground beef or steak- cooked
  • Kiwis
  • Lettuce
  • Lunch meat
  • Oatmeal
  • Oranges
  • Papaya
  • Pasta
  • Peanuts
  • Peanut Butter
  • Popcorn
  • Pork
  • Potatoes
  • Pumpkin – cooked
  • Raspberries
  • Rice
  • Shrimp – cooked and deveined
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Turkey – cooked
  • Watermelon
  • Yogurt

Tips for Giving Treats to Your Cat 

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

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

Cat’s are pretty discriminate and not as likely to eat many of the foods listed below as compared to dogs. Foods NOT recommended to give cats include the following:

  • Alcoholic Beverages. Ethanol is the component in alcoholic beverages that can be toxic when an excessive amount is ingested. Cats are much smaller than us and can be highly affected by small amounts of alcohol. Exercise caution when drinks and cats are together. Toxicity can cause a wide variety of signs, and may even cause death. Signs can 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, the 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 signs is unknown.
  • Baked Goods. Products made with xylitol can be highly toxic to dogs but 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. Learn more with this article on Xylitol Toxicity in Dogs. Cats are generally more “choosy” (than dogs) about what they eat therefore accidental ingestion may be much less common in cats even if they are sensitive.
  • 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. The 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 that aren’t safe for cats. This can be due to the danger of them getting stuck or caught in the mouth, sharp splinters injuring the intestines, risk of constipation when passing relatively indigestible bone fragments, as well as possible bacterial contamination on the bone that can lead to illness.  Most cats aren’t attracted to bones like dogs are. Fish and chicken bones can cause problems in cats.
  • Bread Dough. The dough contains yeast which rises in moist, warm environments, such as in the stomach. After ingestion, the rising dough can expand 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 for cats.
  • 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 high 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 cause problems in cats.
  • Coffee (grounds and beans). Although uncommon in cats, some may eat coffee grounds or beans can 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 reasons. One is their high-fat content and like other foods with high-fat content, there is a risk of pancreatitis. The second reason is that cats poorly digest 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. Rich and fatty foods are favorites of cats. They often get them as treats, leftovers or from getting into the trash. These fatty foods can cause pancreatitis. Signs of pancreatitis in cats can include vomiting, sometimes 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. Some cats can become sick quickly 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, sometimes prolonged treatment may be necessary to give the affected dog a chance at survival. Despite testing, the reason for the kidney failure and the amount necessary for toxicity remains unknown. Learn more about Grape and Raisin Toxicity.
  • Milk or Cream. There is a lot of false information about cats and milk. Most cats are considered lactose intolerant so ingestion of milk can cause gastrointestinal upset such as 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 upset.
  • 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 onion 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, the red blood cells may become fragile and break apart. This is due to thiosulphate, the toxic ingredient in onions and garlic. The most common source of onions for cats is in human baby food. Some baby foods have onion powder added for taste. When consistently fed baby food with added onion powder, signs of toxicity can develop. This includes raw, dehydrated, cooked, powders or those in foods. Many people use garlic pills as ‘natural’ flea control. The amount of garlic is low but if large amounts of the pills are ingested at one time, toxicity may occur.
  • Peanut Butter. Some peanut butter manufacturers add xylitol to peanut butter, which is toxic to dogs. As mentioned above, although xylitol has not been found to be a problem in cats yet, it is recommended that we not give xylitol to them. Learn more about Peanut Butter Toxicity in Dogs.
  • Raw Eggs.  Ingestion of raw eggs in cats can cause food poisoning from contaminants such as salmonella. Symptoms may include lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or anorexia. Learn more at Salmonellosis in Cats.
  • Raw Fish. Ingestion of excessive amounts of raw fish can cause Thiamine (Vitamin B1) Deficiency in Cats. This most common in cats fed raw fish diets, homemade cat foods, and some canned food deficient 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, and sometimes affect the nervous system causing lethargy and disorientation.
  • Table Scraps. Scraps, especially those that are fatty can cause gastrointestinal upset or pancreatitis in cats. Some cats tolerate table scraps well but others can become very ill.
  • Tuna. Excessive dietary consumption of tuna can cause mercury poisoning in cats. Small amounts of canned or cooked tuna are acceptable.

Important Warning for Cats

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 find a fascination in the meat wrappers and string ties due to the smell, texture, and taste.  It is not uncommon for a cat to eat a string that was used to tie chicken or turkey legs that requires surgery to remove it. This situation can be life-threatening. Learn more about Gastrointestinal Foreign Bodies in Cats.

Any food in large pieces or chunks can cause difficulty chewing or swallowing and can be a choking hazard.

Some pet owners also ask if cats can get dog food. Learn more here.

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 the AAFCO requirements.

If the cat food or treat follows their guidelines, the label will include a statement that proclaims it is “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 buyers beware. It is also possible to make your own cat treats. Here are a couple of good articles with recipes:

Additional Articles About What Cats Can’t Eat

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