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Which Human Foods Are Safe for Cats? Which Are Not Safe?

Meat? Milk? Grapes? Ice cream? Here are some popular foods, and whether they're okay for cats.

 |  Aug 27th 2013  |   204 Contributions


Cats like to eat. And sometimes they like to eat surprising things. I've had dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of people tell me that their cats like to eat melon or cantaloupe. Most of these people seemed convinced that they were the first person on earth whose cat had such an unusual craving.

If your cat likes melon, I hate to burst your bubble: It's not an unusual craving. But you may (or should) be wondering whether melon and cantaloupe are safe for cats to eat. We'll come to that in a moment.

Wild cats are obligate carnivores. That means they eat only prey animals. Note that I did not say they eat only meat. Organs, intestines, and the contents of their prey's intestines are crucial parts of their diet.

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

Domesticated cats were once obligate carnivores, but unnatural selection at the hands of humans is likely changing that. Most people don't feed their cats prey animals; modern cats generally eat cat food. Feral cats and cats in developing countries often subsist on human leftovers and garbage. Cats are nothing if not adaptable. The species is thriving even though its members are, by and large, not eating the diet of their ancestors.

However, when offering human food to cats, it's best to remember their carnivorous origins. In general, foods of animal origin are going to be OK. Plants may or may not be.

When offering human food to cats it's also wise to follow the advice of Aristotle: moderation in all things. (I would add the Barchas corollary: except for moderation itself, which should be enjoyed in wretched excess.) Even "safe" human foods can cause problems if they're given in excess. For the sake of this article, we will be discussing occasional small treats. None of the foods mentioned should be fed as exclusive diets.

Also remember that individual cats may have unique allergies to or intolerances of certain foods. The blanket generalizations that follow may not apply to all cats.

1. Meat

Small quantities of most meats are not likely to hurt cats. A little bit of chicken breast, hamburger, fish or turkey is likely to be palatable and harmless to your feline friend. Remember, however, that cold cuts can be high in sodium and should therefore not be offered in excess. And especially fatty things like turkey skin have the potential to cause upset stomach or pancreatitis.

You're a cat, not a human. Cat and meat by Shutterstock.

2. Milk

The image of a cat lapping milk from a bowl is utterly iconic. What is less iconic is the image of the cat suffering blowout diarrhea a short while later. It turns out that some cats are lactose intolerant. Other cats can tolerate milk just fine. An occasional saucer of milk is unlikely to harm cats who are lactose tolerant, but goodness help the person who has to clean the litter box of a lactose intolerant cat who drinks milk.

3. Melons and cantaloupe

The many cats who enjoy these items do not seem to come to harm from them. But remember that they're relatively high in sugar and calories, so moderation is especially important. Melon seeds also have the potential to cause or contribute to foreign body obstructions, so make sure that your cat doesn't eat them.

4. Onions and garlic

Garfield's lasagne obsession did not merely make him obese and place him at risk of diabetes. The poor fellow also probably suffers from Heinz Body anemia. Cats have notoriously fragile blood cells. Onions and garlic contain oxidizing agents that can damage the cells. A tiny bit of bolognese sauce is not likely to kill a cat, but in general anything that contains onions or garlic should be avoided.

5. Grapes

These make better wine than cat food. Grapes by Shutterstock.

Grapes are notorious for causing kidney failure in dogs. And yes, I know that cats aren't little dogs, but they do have famously fragile kidneys. Nobody knows why grapes are dangerous to dogs' kidneys, but fears exist that they could pose a similar risk to cats. Therefore I can't sign off on feeding grapes to cats.

6. Mustard greens, collard greens, and kale

These plants also may (or may not) trigger Heinz Body anemia. They are not recommended because some experts believe they have the potential to pose a risk.

7. Spinach and swiss chard

These plants are high in oxalic acid, which some experts believe may contribute to the development of kidney and bladder stones. They are not recommended.

8. Lettuce

Lots of cats like to eat lettuce. Fortunately, most types of lettuce appear to be safe for cats.

9. Ice cream

Sure, you can have a little. Woman, cat, and ice cream by Shutterstock.

I have yet to see a cat come to harm after eating small amounts of ice cream.

10. Chocolate

Fortunately cats don't seem to crave chocolate in the same way as people, because it contains stimulants that are potentially toxic to them.

11. Other things that appear to be safe in small quantities

There are countless other items that cats seem to enjoy eating and that don't seem to hurt them (as long as Aristotle's rule is followed). Examples I have heard of include asparagus, tomatoes, french fries, bread, pickles, marshmallows, bugs, apples, bananas, sweet potatoes, carrots and butter. I'd be curious to hear what unusual food items your cat enjoys.

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and your topic might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

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