You probably spent a fair amount of time researching the healthiest cat food, but you may not have given much thought to cat food storage. Should you keep dry cat food in the original packaging or transfer it to an airtight cat food storage container? How long does cat food last and what should you do after opening the package?
Why Cat Food Storage Is Important
Storing your cat food properly is necessary for many reasons, the most important being maintaining its freshness and nutrients.
“Storing food inappropriately can affect nutrient degradation and result in a food that is lower quality than it was when it left the factory,” says Dr. Cailin R. Heinze, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist based in Massachusetts. “Improper storage can also result in pests, or bacterial or mold growth in food. In the worst-case scenario, this could lead to health problems, such as nutrient deficiencies, or even the production of toxins, for example, from mold.”
Correct cat food storage also keeps the food fresh and tasty, something that is especially important to cats, who can be finicky and may turn their nose up at food that is slightly stale. Improperly stored cat food can even go rancid, which is dangerous.
Cat Food Storage: 7 Tips for Safety
Best practices for storing opened and unopened cat food vary depending on the type of food your cat eats. Some key points to know include:
#1 Keep food in the original container/packaging
Cat food storage ideas abound online. Pouring the entire bag of dry cat food into an airtight cat food container might sound like a good idea, but it’s actually better to keep opened food in the original packaging. Those thick bags are carefully designed to keep food fresh.
“Packing products to maintain nutritional quality is a whole industry in itself,” Heinze says. “You can earn a Ph.D. in packaging! Some manufacturers put significant sums of money into producing packaging that reduces nutrient loss and maintains food quality with storage.”
If necessary to protect it from pests, you can place the entire bag into a pet food container. If you need to pour dry cat food into another storage container because the original package has become torn or damaged, make sure the container is clean and perfectly dry, and has an airtight lid, says Dr. Gary Weitzman, CEO of the San Diego Humane Society. “The lid will help to maintain the food’s freshness, in addition to preventing your pet from getting into it,” Weitzman says.
If you have to transfer food to a container, hang on to the original packaging so you can refer to important information, including the UPC code, date and lot codes, plant codes, and the expiration date. This is vital info to have in the case of a cat food recall or other problem with the food.
#2 Seal and store opened food properly
For dry cat food, squeeze out excess air, roll the top of the bag all the way down and secure it with a clip. Some cat food packages even have built-in zipper-locks—squeeze out as much air as you can before zipping it closed.
But how long will that opened bag of cat food last? “This will depend on the ingredients, nutrient levels, how it is stored, and what kind and how much preservatives are used,” Heinze says. “It is a good rule of thumb to purchase bag sizes that will take no more than one to two months to finish.”
Though unopened canned cat food lasts a long time, once opened it is highly perishable. Refrigerate any leftovers within one hour of opening, and use the food within three days of opening.
“Plastic lids specially designed for cat food cans will properly cover the opening,” says Weitzman, who is also author of the book National Geographic Complete Guide to Pet Health, Behavior, and Happiness: The Veterinarian’s Approach to At-Home Animal Care. “If a plastic lid is not available, plastic wrap also provides a good moisture, air and odor barrier. Ziploc bags are good moisture barriers but do not provide good oxygen and odor barriers.”
#3 Store food in a temperature-controlled location
Extreme temperatures (too hot or too cold) and high humidity can cause cat food to degrade or spoil. Store cat food in the house in a cool, dry, dark place like your pantry. Do not store cat food on the porch, in the garage or in the trunk of your car.
#4 Inspect new food before feeding it
Before opening dry food, check the bag for tears, holes, mold, or other signs that the food may have been exposed to air or moisture. Cans of cat food should be sealed tight, and not appear swollen or bulging. After opening it, Weitzman suggests looking at the food and smelling it to ensure it has not spoiled. If something looks or smells off, call the manufacturer for advice (the manufacturer’s phone number will be listed on the package).
#5 Check the expiration date
Unopened cat food does not stay fresh forever. Don’t feed food that is past its expiration date or “best by” date.
“Even if the food is unopened, smells fine and has no signs of spoilage, it may have lost its nutritional value due to the natural breakdown of preservatives and essential fats,” Weitzman says. “Feeding your cat expired food could result in dietary deficiencies. Don’t take the risk.”
#6 Don’t leave canned food in the bowl too long
Once served, canned cat food should not be left for long. Only feed as much wet food as your cat will consume right away. “Your cat’s bowl should be emptied of moist or canned food within one to two hours if left out at room temperature,” Weitzman says. “After a couple of hours, wet cat food will become a breeding ground for bacteria, in addition to becoming less appealing for your cat to eat.”
If your cat likes to graze throughout the day, either split the daily portion into three or four small meals, or consider dry cat food.
#7 Store cat treats properly, too
Like dry cat food, store cat treats in the original packaging in a temperature-controlled environment. Check the expiration or “best by” date before feeding them to your cat.
Other Cat Food Safety Tips
Not only is cat food storage important, but so is safe handling of pet food and proper hygiene. Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling food or treats and wipe down kitchen counters or any surface your cat’s food has come into contact with. You should also wash cat food bowls between feedings. “Putting them in the dishwasher daily is ideal,” Heinze says. “If that is not possible, they should be washed with hot, soapy water regularly.” Wash water bowls at least once a day as well.
After finishing a can of wet cat food, place plastic can lid covers in the dishwasher or hand wash with hot, soapy water. If you use a measuring scoop to portion out your cat’s dry food, wash and dry it at least a few times a week.
Storing your cat’s food properly is the best way to ensure her food stays safe, tasty and nutritious from the time you open the bag or can until she savors the last bite.