What Can Cats Not Eat? (And Why Not?)
Cats can safely eat a number of human foods - but what about the ones that are toxic to them? Here are a couple of common foods and ingredients you'll find in your kitchen - and why you should keep them away from your cat.
Much like dogs and some babies, even your cat might be tempted to nibble on some strange things every now and then. (Including toilet paper, thread, and other non-edibles.) So if you’ve ever wondered, “What can cats not eat?”, now’s a great time to stay informed. (Especially with holidays coming up and meal prep on full steam ahead.)
Because while it might be entertaining to watch your cat sniff around and take a nibble off your plate, it’s less funny if they end up eating something that’s toxic (or even fatal) for them. Certain foods (like the plums you cook into a dessert) might seem harmless – but are dangerous for your cat.
So here’s a deep dive into what can’t cats eat – and why. (And to help you on your next grocery shopping trip, here’s a post that covers what human foods cats are allowed to eat.)
Table of contents
- So, what can’t cats eat? (And why not?)
- Signs of food poisoning in cats
- Track your cat’s activity levels – and take action early if you spot a change
- Stay on top of your cat’s diet – and ensure their health & wellbeing for good
So, what can’t cats eat? (And why not?)
Cats are obligate carnivores. Which means their digestive systems are built primarily to absorb and break down meat from animal sources. (Which contain essential amino acids like taurine.) So let’s start with a bunch of ingredients and foods that are inherently unsafe for your cat to eat – and why:
- Most dairy products, including ice cream
- Certain fruits, like plums
- Certain vegetables, like onions
- Raw foods
- Deli meats
- Dog food
You might’ve heard of how chocolate can lead to fatal poisoning for dogs. (Because their digestive systems can’t break down theobromine, a substance found in cocoa.).So much like dogs, theobromine can be fatal to cats. Even a lick of your cake dish can lead them to experience tremors, seizures – or even death.
⚠️ To keep them safe, keep chocolate out of your cat’s reach at all times. Your cat might not be able to taste sweet foods – but their sense of smell can lead them to take a lick of foods that smell great, even if they’re not flavorful. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Nuts tend to be high in fat – much too high for cats to safely consume without it leading to weight issues. High-fat diets by themselves don’t contribute to any health problems for your cat. But since nuts are pretty calorie-dense, it might lead them to gain weight over time if they eat high amounts. Which can lead to worse health problems down the line, like diabetes, heart disease, and even UTIs in cats.
So in general, vets recommend you avoid giving nuts to your cat.1 Besides, their small size can always lead to a choking hazard for them – even more so than dogs! (Because of how cats’ throats and airways are built.)
If your cat sneaks a few nuts, don’t panic. It’s unlikely they’ll have a problem. But keep an eye out for signs of choking, stomach troubles, or a loss of appetite – and be sure to drop a call at your local vet immediately, if you notice any of these signs.
It might seem obvious, but serving your cat a sip of your drink is an absolute no-no. (No matter what the internet memes might have you believe.) Most types of alcohol contain chemicals like ethanol that are (mostly) harmless to us – but highly toxic to your cat.2
⚠️ Even just a teaspoon of alcohol can poison your cat! Because cats’ bodies aren’t built to handle such chemicals, it might cause their liver and kidneys to go into overdrive.
To keep your cat completely safe, make sure to keep alcohol-based products far away from them. These include common household cleaning products, dental products like mouthwash, and even the hand sanitizer in your bag.
Like we’ve covered, your cat’s digestive system is specialized for meat first, everything else after. So importantly, cats’ livers lack an important gene called glucokinase. This gene helps our bodies break down glucose and fructose which we usually find in sweet foods, like honey.3
So while your cat might be able to handle a tiny drop or two, avoid serving them honey in large amounts. It might upset their digestive system and lead to stomach pain and other gastrointestinal issues, including vomiting and diarrhea.
Caffeine from all sources can be toxic to your cat.4 (Meaning not just your morning cup of joe, but also from raw coffee grounds or even tea bags.) Your cat might experience an increased heart rate, tremors, seizures, breathing difficulties, or even hyperactivity. Get in touch with your vet immediately if you notice any of these signs.
Dairy products (like ice cream)
Most cats tend to be lactose intolerant. So their bodies can’t handle high-lactose foods like ice cream or even whole milk.5 Besides lactose, ice cream and milk also contain sugar in quantities much higher than what’s healthy for your cat. Which can lead to gastrointestinal issues, like diarrhea.
💡 On the other hand, low-lactose foods like cheese and yogurt are safe for your cat to consume in small amounts. But try and have this as the exception rather than the norm.
Cats aren’t normally tempted to eat fruits by their taste or smell alone. But some cats might enjoy the mouth feel – and fruits can be a healthy snack for them too. (Especially for the micronutrients.) Plus, they can safely consume fruits like apples, bananas, pears, and watermelons.
But here are a couple of fruits that might be toxic to cats instead:
- Plums, which contain cyanide in their seeds, stems, and leaves.
- Cherries, which are toxic to cats – especially their pits, stems, and leaves
- Grapes, which may cause acute kidney failure in cats if eaten in high amounts. (Along with a choking hazard.)
- Raisins, which are highly toxic to cats and might even cause toxicosis even in very small amounts.
⚠️ Be extra careful when chopping or peeling any fruits for your upcoming dessert or if you’re baking a pie. While one or two falling on the floor might not cause your cat any harm, you always want to ensure they’re not in danger either.
Much like fruits, cats don’t normally crave veggies – but safe, non-toxic greens like cucumber, celery, and lettuce can be healthy, hydrating, and packed with micronutrients.
On the other hand, watch out for these veggies that might be toxic to your cat:
- Onions, which can be poisonous to cats if eaten in large quantities – or smaller quantities over time.
- Garlic, which is five times more poisonous than onions for cats.
- Leeks, which are toxic to both cats and dogs.
- Chives, which can lead to your cat developing anemia over time.
- Mushrooms, which might lead to your cat getting poisoned. (Especially wild mushrooms.) On the other hand, most store-bought mushrooms are safe for cats in small quantities.
Your cat might not pounce on any of these veggies by themselves. But you might mistakenly let them lick a spoon or spatula that’s been doused with onion or garlic powder. So even if you’re just using it for flavoring, you’re best off keeping these veggies away from your cat altogether.
According to the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), raw food of all kinds is inherently dangerous for your cat.6
- Raw meat, including chicken, can include harmful viruses and bacteria like E.Coli and salmonella. Which won’t just make your cat very sick, but might even be potentially deadly.
- Raw eggs, including egg whites, might also include potentially harmful bacteria. Besides, raw egg whites might even damage your cat’s system’s ability to absorb nutrients from their food.
- Raw fish, like sushi, can also include harmful bacteria – but might be safe in very small amounts. But we’d recommend avoiding it altogether, since it’s better to be on the safe side.
- Raw dough, which contains yeast. If your cat eats uncooked, yeasted dough, it can quickly lead to major gastrointestinal issues. Besides, uncooked yeast can expand in their stomach so rapidly that you’ll need to rush your cat to a vet to have it surgically removed!
(At the same time, cats can safely eat small amounts of bread without much trouble.)
One small exception to this rule is liver. Partially-cooked ground liver is safe for cats to eat in small portions. But make sure to keep your serving sizes small, as an excessive amount of liver can lead to your cat’s body overdosing from vitamin A.
⚠️ Besides your cat, handling raw meat comes with significant risks for your health as well. Always wash and clean your hands thoroughly after cooking any raw meat. And when it comes to your cat, cooked meat and eggs are a safe, nutritious choice.
Most deli meats (including ham, bologna, and salami) tend to be quite high in sodium and other nitrates. Besides, they’re more likely to contain additives and artificial preservatives that might harm your cat’s health in the long run. These artificial ingredients are also prime causes of cat food allergies.
So stick to lean, cooked meats like chicken or turkey without any added chemicals. Avoid smoked or processed meats, as they might overwhelm your cat’s digestive system.
Your dog might be able to safely swallow the remnants of a chicken or fish meal. But for cats, vets recommend staying away from bones. These can damage your cat’s teeth and cause constipation and internal blockages.
Besides, raw bones (much like raw meat) can also contain bacterias that are harmful to both cats and humans. So we’d recommend avoiding serving your cat cooked bones, as these might break in your cat’s mouth and damage their internal organs.
Dogs and cats are built differently – down to a digestive level. So their nutrition needs are pretty different as well. Which is why in a nutshell: it’s generally not the best idea to feed your cat dog food.
- Like we’ve covered, cats are obligate carnivores. So their diet should ideally contain a higher amount of meat than other macronutrients.
- Dogs, on the other hand, are omnivores! So they can safely eat a whole bunch of fruits and vegetables besides just meat.
As a result, cats can safely digest most dog foods – but it should be the exception rather than the norm. Dog food is not a viable substitute for cat food. It might not be toxic for cats, but in the long run, it might cause your cat more harm than good due to the nutritional deficiencies. Dog food might lack the meat-based proteins, animal fats, and amino acids like taurine to keep cats healthy.7
Now that we’ve covered the question, what can cats not eat, let’s cover what signs might indicate that your cat might’ve eaten something they shouldn’t have.
Signs of food poisoning in cats
Much like us, cats might also mistakenly eat something they’ll regret after. (Often in the litter box.) So here are some of the signs and symptoms of food poisoning in cats to look out for:
- Loss of appetite
- Salivating or drooling
- Lethargy or overall weakness
- Coughing or sneezing
- Twitching or seizures
- Labored breathing
- Skin inflammation or swelling
- Abdominal pain (which might come out as hissing if you try and pick them up)
- Unsteady gait
- Excessive drinking
- Urinating outside the litter box
Read more: The most common cat food allergies
If your cat is showing one or more of these signs and generally seems poorly, drop by your local vet immediately. Go prepared with all the information you can find, including:
- What food your cat might have eaten
- How much of it they managed to eat
- Any other health conditions your cat might have
- Your cat’s regular diet and eating habits
Now these are the steps you need to take during an emergency. But here’s the scary part:
- Your cat is more likely to mask any signs of discomfort, pain, or illness from you. So they might seem normal, nonchalant, or even healthy instead.
- Your cat might hide away to deal with any illness themselves. (Sometimes in a far-off or hard to reach spot where you can’t find them.)
Which might make it too late by the time you’ve found them and their condition has worsened. And since some types of foods can be fatal for cats even in small doses, you want to stay on top of their health and wellbeing, no matter what.
So how do you take a more active role in your cat’s health – when you don’t see much of a change in their behavior?
Track your cat’s activity levels – and take action early if you spot a change
You might not have a clinic or medical equipment at home – but you can still keep an eye out for your cat’s regular behaviors. Aka, their daily level of activity. In fact, vets actually recommend tracking your pet’s level of everyday activity – especially how often they’re on the move and whether they can keep up with you.
⚠️ Because one of the first signs your cat or dog might be struggling with an illness or infection is if there’s a sudden (or even gradual) change in their daily movement.
But with regular activity tracking, you gain a clear picture of how often your cat is on the move. (And whether they’re getting enough exercise or not.) More importantly, if you notice a sudden spike (or hyperactivity) or a dip (or lethargy), it can help you catch on to a health issue early.
It’s how Tractive cat parents the world over are monitoring their feline friends’ health and wellbeing. Your Tractive GPS includes a built-in accelerometer that picks up on how often your cat is on the move. Which can help you:
- Ensure your cat’s getting enough exercise,
- Stay on top of any changes in their behavior,
- Help your feline friend stay happy and healthy
Take the story of Poes, an outdoor cat who seemed completely normal – until her mum checked her Wellness profile and spotted a change:
“With the Tractive GPS, I found out one night that she’d only made one little trip to the park, slept all night – and didn’t really do much during the day.
So I decided to check her up to see if she was sick – or had something else going on. When I picked her up, the pus oozed over my hand from the abscess bursting!
Without Tractive, I wouldn’t have noticed it at all. I would still see her walk around to drink and feed and think everything is okay. I might only have noticed when I didn’t see her stroll over for a whole day.
At which point, she’d probably have been dangerously sick.
We went to the vet a few hours later – she had a serious fever, a big abscess, and was pretty sick already. So we got it in time.
A whole week of antibiotics – and now she’s herself again.
Tractive is also very handy for when you need to give your pets their medication. All I have to do is check where she is and call her over to give her the antibiotics.“– Cissy V, Netherlands
“It can be easy to miss out on changes in your dog’s or cat’s regular activity – or just if they’re on the move more or less than usual. So we’ve set up Activity Degradation alerts for when your pet’s active minutes drop significantly. They can help you intervene in a situation where your pet might be struggling with an infection or even just pain.”– Sebastian Raab, Product Manager at Tractive & occasional pet-sitter
Stay on top of your cat’s diet – and ensure their health & wellbeing for good
Understanding what cats can’t eat is vital for keeping yours happy, healthy, and living a longer life by your side. With just a little extra vigilance, you can ensure you’ve got a cat-friendly kitchen and keep any potentially toxic ingredients well out of their reach.
So plan your next grocery trip with a list of human foods that cats can safely eat – and keep an eye out for any signs of sickness, lethargy, or litter box troubles.
Plus, if you can track your cat’s daily activity, you’ll catch on earlier to a change in their regular behaviors. (And take action early on by getting them to a vet before their condition worsens.)
Want a vet’s take on foods that are toxic to both dogs and cats? Here’s Dr. Karen Halligan covering a few you should pet-proof your kitchen from:
We’ve covered what to not feed your cat – but have you ever wondered how often to feed your cat? Here’s a post that covers the A-Zs of a cat feeding schedule.