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How Long Can You Safely Keep Cat Food Out For?

Jul 28, 2017 · ·
  1. Anne
    How Long Can You Safely Keep Cat Food Out For?
    You would probably avoid eating food that's been sitting out there uncovered and unrefrigerated for a few hours, wouldn't you? But what about cat food? For how long can you leave out the food in your cat's dish? How long before cat food spoils? When is it no longer safe for your cat to consume?

    We have some answers that might surprise you.

    Many cat care resources will tell you that you should remove the cat's food within 20-30 minutes. For some owners that's not a realistic timeframe. Some cats eat more slowly than others and may take their time, grabbing a few bites and returning later for more. Some owners may need to leave their home shortly after serving Kitty's meal and need to know if that's risky or not.

    In fact the 20-30-minute rule is probably taking things too far for most cats and owners.

    Let's take a look at the risks associated with leaving food out and see how they pertain to different types of cat food. Then we'll talk about how long you can leave out each type of cat food - the times do vary!

    Oh, and before we begin - this article does not address automatic cat feeders. Check out our Automated Cat Feeders Guide to see which models offer cooling options.

    When Cat Food Spoils: The Risk of Bacterial Contamination

    How does food spoil? Generally speaking, it becomes contaminated with microorganisms that break up the nutrients for their own needs. In the process, they also secrete toxins. These microscopic creatures can be either fungi (such as mildew) or bacteria.

    Whenever you leave food out it becomes contaminated with some amount of bacteria and microscopic fungi. Fungi (mildew) takes a while to develop - usually days. Unless the food had already been severely contaminated by fungi, it's unlikely to become moldy within the first 24 hours.

    Bacteria are much faster. Given the right conditions, germs can multiply significantly within several hours. Thus, the main risk associated with leaving out cat food is that of bacterial contamination by dangerous bugs such as salmonella and listeria.

    Several factors can contribute to bacterial contamination. These are the risk factors that can make food spoil sooner rather than later:

    Type of bacteria

    Some bacteria are more likely to cause disease than others. If these types of bacteria are present in the food, the risk for infection and sickness increases. Salmonella and listeria are probably the most dangerous ones.

    Fortunately, listeria and salmonella are not the type of bacteria that can just drop from the air in your home on the food. They are found mostly in raw eggs and chicken but also - to a far lesser extent - in commercial dry cat food.

    Initial amount of bacteria

    Bacteria multiplies fairly quickly. Given the right conditions, salmonella doubles in numbers every hour. The more bacteria you start out with, the more you'll get within a few hours. The severity of a salmonella infection depends on the amount of germs consumed, so the longer you wait, the more dangerous the food becomes.


    Salmonella, listeria and other bugs thrive at temperatures of 80-100 degrees Fahrenheit. That can easily be the temperature in your home on a hot day. While cold temperatures and even freezing do not kill these hardy bacteria, they can prevent them from multiplying.


    Germs like humidity because water is required for their life cycle to be complete. Some types can survive without water, but they can't grow in numbers in a dry environment.

    Types of Cat Food: How quickly do they spoil?

    Now that we know what conditions can make food spoil faster, let's take a look at common types of cat food.

    Dry cat food

    Kibble can have an initial amount of bacteria, but the dry conditions will make it harder for the germs to multiply. Moreover, harmful bacteria are not likely to be found in dry cat food because it is heavily processed at very high temperatures.
    Dry cat food - how long can you leave it out for?

    It's important to note that kibble can sometimes become cross-contaminated with salmonella, but it's a rare occurrence. Batches are routinely scanned for contaminants and bacteria by the FDA, and any amount of salmonella is cause for a recall. Obviously, manufacturers go to great lengths to prevent that.

    How long can you safely keep dry cat food out for?

    You can safely leave dry cat food out for several days and it won't spoil. The bacteria simply won't thrive in such a dry environment. However, it's best to throw out leftovers and wash the dish on a daily basis, to keep Kitty's food fresh and appealing.

    Wet or canned cat food - how long can you leave it out for?

    Wet/canned cat food

    Canned food is considered sterile until opened. The food is thoroughly cooked in the can which allows it to last for so long. Most formulas also contain some preservatives - which can be natural substances such as certain types of vitamins.

    Once you open the can, bacteria from the surrounding environment begin to invade the food. In a home environment, these are relatively benign bacteria - rarely salmonella, listeria or E coli - but given enough time the food will eventually spoil.

    How long can you safely keep wet/canned cat food out for?

    Leading pet food manufacturer Purina suggests removing uneaten wet food after one hour, while Hill's says it's safe to leave the food out for up to four hours at room temperature. Anywhere in between in a cool room is probably safe.

    Many cat owners leave wet food out for the day with no harm to their cats. That food is highly unlikely to become contaminated with virulent bacteria such as salmonella, E coli or listeria, but even less dangerous germs found in our homes will spoil the food eventually. If you're feeding a kitten, an elderly or sick cat, it's best to err on the side of caution and serve canned food only when it's fresh.

    When removing the leftovers, throw them away. Serving only half a tin? Cover the can and refrigerate immediately after pouring the desired amount into Kitty's food dish.

    Homemade cooked food

    As long as you thoroughly cooked the food and refrigerated it right away, homemade cooked food is a lot like canned food. It starts out nearly sterile and with no pathogenic microbes such as salmonella. Without any preservatives added, it may be easier for microbes to develop in homemade cooked food.

    How long can you safely keep homemade cooked cat food out for?

    Remove leftovers within a few hours, depending on room temperature and on the consistency of the dish. The drier the food and the larger the pieces (for example, chunks of cooked chicken breast), the longer you can safely keep it out. If you're not sure about the length of time appropriate for the recipe you're using, consult with a veterinarian.

    Raw Food

    According to the FDA, even human-grade meat and eggs can be legally marketed when harboring pathogenic salmonella. That's why the public health recommendations call for thoroughly cooking eggs and meat - they assume they are always or almost always contaminated. Freezing the meat does not kill the bacteria, and once the meat is thawed, the germs are free to multiply.

    That makes raw meats - whether commercial or homemade - the most sensitive to bacterial contamination of all types of cat food. Ground raw will spoil even faster because the grinding process allows bacteria better access to the nutrients in the meat.

    How long can you safely keep raw cat food out for?

    The shorter the better. Salmonella doubles its population within 40 minutes, given the right conditions. Raw chicken and eggs on a warm day provide these very conditions. It's best to remove any leftovers as soon as your cat has finished eating.

    When The Food Doesn't Taste Good Enough

    Even if you keep the food within the safe time limit, it simply may not taste as good a few hours later. Wet food tends to congeal or dry up within a few hours. Dry food will go stale within a day or two. The food is still safe to consume, but some cats still choose not to eat it because it's not fresh enough for their taste.

    By the way, don't rely on your cat's sense of smell or taste as a way to tell when food is unsafe for consumption. Cats do get food poisoning from consuming small amounts of harmful bacteria that doesn't affect the food's odor or flavor.

    Read more - Salmonella in Cats: 9 Things Every Cat Owner Needs To Know.

    So, what's your choice? For how long do you leave your cat's food out? Let us know in a comment and don't forget to mention the type of diet you're feeding.

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    SweetiePie1, Isidora and PushPurrCatPaws purraised this.


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  1. SweetiePie1
    Excellent article. Thank you for taking the time to write such a broad and thoughtful piece. Plenty of info to digest (pun intended!!:))
  2. poppy2507
    Poppy gets canned food. I've always understood you shouldn't leave wet (canned) cat food out much more than an hour.

    Poppy does better with smaller meals, and I'm retired so I can cater to her schedule. I feed her 4 or 5 small meals over the day. I immediately remove food from tins and refrigerate any un-served food in glass dishes with lids. I heat any cat food in the fridge in the microwave just enough to take the chill off (a few seconds).

    I'm curious to know the effect of heating cat food in the microwave?
  3. sivyaleah
    This article calmed me down about the length of time canned wet food can be left out. Typically, I don't leave it down more than an hour. Cocoa tends to eat what she wants within the first few minutes and then will graze for a bit over the next hour. After that usually she's done so we lift the bowl.

    However, there are times where we're leaving the house for a few hours and just don't have time to wait for her to finish eating. Or, my husband, who is retired, may feed her dinner on the early side and then get involved doing something at home and forget that the food bowl is still there so it sits far longer than usual. Even though Cocoa rarely will touch the food once it's more than a couple of hours old (she's picky) at least I now know the chances of it being "bad" are slim, especially since our home is centrally air conditioned in summer.

    We personally never keep leftovers. I use 3 ounce cans only since it's only 1 cat now (even before when we had 2 they were eating different foods so it was still small cans) and have learned that she will not touch leftover food that has been refrigerated, even if gently reheated in any manner. Luckily she doesn't have fancy tastes in food - just picky about the freshness so it's not expensive to feed her this way.
  4. augie
    on "how long can you leave cat food out", some of the posters said they put leftover food in the fridge and then heated it in the microwave. i recently read you should not heat cat food (don't know about dog food) in the microwave because it kills the taurine and depletes the vitamins. best to add a little hot water and wait a few minutes for the chill to subside.
    1. poppy2507
      I'm curious about the re-heating, Augie. First time I've read you should not heat cat food in the microwave because it kills taurine. Poppy does better with small meals, so I feed her 4 or 5 times a day. I remove food from tins and put in glass dishes with lids, and keep in the fridge. I do nuke any refrigerated food for 12 seconds (just long enough to take the chill off). Am I killing the taurine? Where did you read this?
  5. Tkpowers
    Hi, I'm having issues with soft cat food (both kitten and cat kinds of a couple brands). I noticed I have not had the issue with Fancy Feast, but I have had it with Blue Buffalo, Science Hill, another brand I have bought at Walmart and Royal Canin. None of the cans are expired or close to expiration. None have been exposed to air till I open them and none have been left in "extreme heat" temperatures. I live in Seattle so that gives you an idea.

    Anyway, I open the can of cat food, I put in their dish and walk away for work or bed or whatever and anywhere between 1- 4 hours or longer but no more than 8, I see these creamish/white colored sprouty things starting to grow in the food. They aren't super mushy or hard even. But they seem to just appear out of nowhere.

    The mama cat and her kitten usually do not eat anymore soft food once they have eaten but I'm not there usually to pick it up right away. It is summer so the house can get warm but I have lived here my whole life and have never seen this happen to anything but potatoes. Any ideas what it is or why it is happening? I have had cats almost my whole life and have never had cat food go bad or grow things. And it's not just one kind of food.

    When searching, I could not see anything close to talking about it. Luckily the kitties don't eat it and I wash their dishes out every feeding with Dawn soap and water. I'm just completely dumbfounded by it. I am also curious to let it keep growing to see what happens.

    Usually, the longest they have grown to by the time I get there is about 1-2 centimeters. Again I would love any input on what it is or why it is happening.

    Oh and I have used plastic and metal dishes and it has grown in both.
    Thank you so much!
    1. Frankophile Feline Fan
      Can you post a picture of it?
    2. PollyZ
      A picture would be helpful, but maybe...do you have flies in your house? The eggs are about that long, whitish, look like closely packed small grains of rice...in little clumps...(I am way more familiar with this than I want to be!)...
    3. PollyZ
      Here's what they look like (ugh!). Well, I don't know how to post a picture. Google Fly Eggs and take a look...
  6. Frankophile Feline Fan
    I feed Colette 1/2 thawed raw frozen commercial & 1/2 canned. I’d feed her 100% raw but she won’t eat it without meaty bits & gravy. I keep some mixed in the fridge & bring it out several times throughout the day. Whatever she doesn’t eat right away is wrapped up & stored in the fridge. I work with food so I’m very conscious of food safety.

    Coincidently, I’m looking for ways to keep Colette fed on a fresh, b.a.r.f. diet if I go out of town. Catmate c500 does not keep food cold enough even with the ice packs.
      Lenox purraised this.
  7. angels mommy
    Good article. I feed Sammie a 1/2 a can for breakfast & the other half for dinner. A lid goes on the 2nd half & in the fridge until it's time to warm it up for dinner. She likes to eat a little & come back for more later, sometimes taking a few trips to finish a meal. I have a gas stove, so the stovetop stays warm, so I have always covered what was left in her dish w/ foil, & put it up there to stay warm for when she decides she wants more. After reading this, I'm not sure if I will do that anymore. I think if it's for less than 2 hrs it may be fine, no different than us keeping something warm, since it's cooked food. Any longer than that it will have to go bk in the fridge, & just get warmed up in the microwave when she'd ready for it. So yep.... as we say, "we're just their servants." LOL!
    What do you guys think??
      Lenox purraised this.
  8. Lenox
    I put wet food in a glass Pyrex bowl. I wait until Mookie is no longer interested in eating any more (20 minutes or so), put the cover on the bowl, and place the bowl in the fridge. Anyone else take this approach? And any issues with it?
      Frankophile Feline Fan purraised this.
  9. Burlews
    Good to know the recommendations, I always tried if dry food no longer than day then fresh food and bowls, and canned half day if I had to and canned usually was just a "treat" few nights a week unless I was caring for a sick furry child of mine or friends or a spoonful of canned.. I figured it was better to treat whatever our pets eat just like we would our own foods.. Fortunately ive had cats live into their 20s, 21.. And it was cheaper choices for food and growing up they were indoor-outdoor (shame on us but was a billion years ago and we didn't know any better ;().. Gotta love out babies ❤
      Lenox purraised this.
  10. master tabby
    Thanks for your info. I have a older Tabby. Always wants food and it is wet food. He eats dry as well. But I spent a lot of money trying to figure what he will eat or not. I tried a new brand and he tried to bury,, but there was no dirt to buried it with. But it told me what he thought of it. He refuse's all human food, but everything I make he at my side sniffing like crazy. He won't leave me alone until I cut a bit off. In which he will smell it, take a little taste and then he will bat it around a little bit and walk away. If I give him to little of wet food 1/2 of a three ounce can. He will eat almost of it. and he will beg for me to give him more which he just started doing. But I have been putting it on top of he old stuff, and I can see why he doesn't eat much of it. I am used to cats that will eat anything and everything until there is none left.. I have another cat a Bombay, but he really doesn't bother much about food. The Tabby drives me nuts for it and my Bombay just want's to cause trouble.
      Lenox purraised this.
  11. rascalshadownj2
    This was a good article. I like their realistic approach to leaving out dry and canned food. I leave the dry food out for most of the day, but I pick up the wet food after about 3 or 4 hours. They don't eat it all but they eat most of it. So even if it's not all gone, I still throw it out. Some canned food they like better than others. My cats like anything with gravy. lol And they like mostly chicken and turkey. So I try to buy what they like. Thanks for posting this article. :)
      Lenox purraised this.
    1. mystymaine12
      When I feed my two guys, it is usually out maybe 3 hrs, I haven't really been as observant of the time, but even if they don't eat it all, they have eaten some and still have dry. Great article.
      Lenox purraised this.
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