How Long Can You Leave Wet Cat Food Out?

Photo: @hank_and_kodi

Ever wondered how long that bowl of wet cat food can safely sit out before it becomes a health risk for your feline friend? Proper cat food storage is more than just a best practice—it’s essential for your pet’s health.

My Maine Coon is picky eater, so sometimes I never know when she’s going to eat the wet food I leave out. These guidelines are something I had to learn real fast!

So join me as we talk about this: the shelf life of different cat foods, the risks of leaving them out, and expert tips to ensure freshness. Dive in to ensure your cat enjoys safe and nutritious meals every time.

How Long Can You Leave Wet Cat Food Out Before It Spoils?

When you serve wet cat food, freshness is paramount. Unlike dry kibble, which may sit out for longer, wet food becomes unpleasant and later, a breeding ground for bacteria if left out for too long.

I advise not leaving it out for more than 4 hours. After this period, it’s best to discard any uneaten portions. Some sources even cite 1-2 hours – it depends on how conservative you want to go.

However, it’s essential to note that specific times may vary based on the brand and ingredients of the cat food. Read the food label to check for specific instructions. 

How Long Can Different Types of Cat Food Sit Out?

A most common questions I get from other cat owners is about the freshness and safety of different types of cat food before it spoils. Here are the specifics of how quickly various pet foods spoil:

Dry Cat Food

Dry cat food, AKA kibble, has a low moisture content, meaning it’s less prone to changing in texture or taste, and bacterial growth than wet foods.

  • Shelf Life: Once opened, a bag of dry cat food can safely last several weeks if stored in a cool, dry place.
  • Serving Tip: While it’s less likely to spoil quickly, it’s still a good practice to refresh the food in your cat’s bowl daily and keep the feeding area clean.
  • Storage: Always reseal the bag or transfer the kibble to an airtight container to maintain its freshness.

Wet/Canned Cat Food

How long can you leave opened wet cat food out before it goes bad? Wet cat food is packed with hydration and cleaner protein, making it a favorite for many cats and cat parents. But, the moisture content definitely affects how long it can be out (or can’t be out).

  • Shelf Life: Not be left out for more than 4 hours. In warmer areas, this time reduces to 2 hours. Basically a couple of hours, depending your specific situation. 
  • Palatability: Wet food dried out and lose its appeal the longer it sits out. So, if your cat is turning their nose up at it, it might be time for a fresh serving.
  • Storage: If your cat hasn’t finished their meal within the 4-hour window, you can refrigerate the leftovers.

Homemade Cooked Food

Homemade pet food may be a treat for your cat, but it comes with its own set of considerations.

  • Shelf Life: Homemade dishes, especially those with meat, should be treated like human food. They shouldn’t be left out for more than 2 hours.
  • Storage: Always refrigerate any leftovers immediately. When serving again, ensure the food is at room temperature or slightly warm.
  • Safety Tip: Always consult with a vet before introducing homemade meals to ensure they meet your cat’s nutritional needs.

Can You Leave Wet Cat Food Overnight?

Can you leave wet cat food out overnight?

It’s a common scenario: you serve your cat some wet food at night, but in the morning morning, there’s still uneaten food in the bowl. I advise against it.

Leaving wet cat food out for extended periods, especially overnight, increases the chances of bacteria or just overall unpleasantness. It’s just not worth the risk. Throw it away and serve a fresh portion, even in places with cold temperatures. 

What Happens to Cat Food Left Sitting Out?

What exactly happens when pet food is left out? Let’s dive into the consequences and signs of food spoilage.  

Checking for Spoiled Food

As wet cat food is particularly susceptible to spoilage, here’s how you identify if it’s gone bad:

  • Unpleasant Odor: A strong, off-putting smell is often the first sign that wet cat food composition has changed. 
  • Change in Texture: Fresh wet cat food has a consistent texture. If it’s dried out or has a slimy feel, it’s past its prime.
  • Visible Mold: Any signs of mold or discoloration on the food should immediately raise concerns.
  • Your Cat’s Reaction: Cats have an innate sense of detecting bad food. If they refuse to eat or approach their food with caution, trust their instincts.

Air Exposure

When cat food, especially dry kibble, is exposed to air for extended periods, the fats within the food may oxidize. This process leads to rancidity, altering the food’s smell and taste. Not only does this make the food unpalatable, but consuming rancid food may also cause digestive issues in cats.

Fungi Growth

Mold is a type of fungi that can grow on both wet and dry cat food if exposed to moisture. Moldy food contains mycotoxins, harmful compounds that lead to symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, and respiratory problems in cats.


The most common bacteria that thrive in spoiled cat food are Salmonella and E. coli. These bacteria lead to gastrointestinal infections, causing symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, and lethargy.

All foods have a certain amount of bacteria present initially. However, when cat food is left out, especially in suboptimal conditions, the bacterial count can multiply rapidly, increasing the risk of foodborne illnesses.

Temperature Plays a Role

Temperature plays a crucial role in how long you can leave cat food out for. Uneaten food left out in warmer temperatures will spoil faster than in cooler environments, just like with any other type of food. 


High humidity levels accelerate the spoilage of dry cat food. Moisture from the environment seep into the kibble, making it damp and promoting mold growth. Always store cat food in a cool, dry place and ensure the packaging or covered container is sealed tightly.

Can Cats Get Sick from Old Wet Food?

Cats can definitely get sick from consuming old or spoiled wet food.

Wet food that’s been left out for extended periods may harbor harmful bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli, leading to gastrointestinal infections characterized by symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, and lethargy common to food poisoning.

Additionally, mold growth on old food may produce toxic compounds called mycotoxins. When ingested, these toxins cause a range of symptoms from vomiting to neurological issues like tremors or seizures.

Beyond the immediate risks of bacteria and mold, the altered texture and taste of old food can upset a cat’s stomach, leading to loss of appetite or stomach pain. Furthermore, spoiled food loses its nutritional value, and consistent consumption may result in nutrient deficiencies.

How to Store Leftover Cat Food

If you find yourself with leftover wet food after mealtime, here’s what you should do:

Firstly, if the canned food has been left out for more than four hours, toss it, especially if you’re in a warmer climate. However, if it’s been a shorter duration, it’s possible save the leftovers for the next meal.

Transfer the leftover cat food to an airtight plastic container. This will help preserve the food’s moisture and prevent it from drying out. If the food came in a can and you haven’t used all of it, place a tight-fitting lid on the can or cover it with plastic wrap.

Once you’ve placed the food in an appropriate container, store it in the refrigerator. This will slow down the growth of bacteria and mold. Most cats prefer their food at room temperature or slightly warm, because it becomes more smelly and pungent. 

So when it’s time to serve the refrigerated leftovers, consider letting the cold food sit out for a short period to reach room temperature. Alternatively, you can warm it slightly in the microwave, but always check the temperature before serving to ensure it’s not too hot.

I recommend feeding the refrigerated cat food within 24 hours to ensure maximum freshness!

Tips to Minimize Wasted or Spoiled Cat Food

Avoiding cat food spoilage and waste is essential for both the health of your feline friend and for economical reasons. Here are some best practices to keep food fresh and is used efficiently:

  1. Buy Appropriate Portions: Purchase cat food in quantities that your cat can consume before it reaches its expiration date according to the pet food manufacturer. For households with a single cat or smaller breeds, consider buying smaller cans or pouches of wet food to reduce leftovers.
  2. Check Expiration Dates: Always check the expiration date when purchasing and before feeding. Rotate your stock, using the oldest food first.
  3. Store Dry Food Properly: Keep dry food in its original bag, but consider placing it inside an airtight container. This preserves the food’s freshness and protects it from pests.
  4. Refrigerate Leftovers: If you open a can of wet cat food and don’t use all of it, transfer the leftovers to an airtight container and refrigerate immediately. 
  5. Serve Smaller Portions: If your cat often leaves food uneaten, consider serving smaller portions more frequently. This reduces waste and ensure your cat always gets fresh food.
  6. Avoid Cross-Contamination: Use separate utensils for different food types and always clean them between uses. This prevents the spread of bacteria.
  7. Maintain Optimal Storage Conditions: Store cat food in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight. For wet food, ensure the storage area’s temperature is consistent or chilled, avoiding extreme temperature fluctuations.
  8. Monitor Your Cat’s Preferences: Cats can totally be finicky eaters. If you notice your cat consistently avoiding a particular brand or flavor, consider switching to something they prefer, reducing the chances of waste.
  9. Seal Food Properly: Whether it’s dry kibble or wet food, always ensure the packaging or container is sealed tightly after each use.
  10. Avoid Mixing Old and New Food: If you’re adding fresh food to a bowl that still has old food, remove the old food first. This mixing of food may cause Fluffy to turn her nose from it altogether!
  11. Stay Informed: Occasionally, manufacturers recall certain batches of cat food. Stay updated with such news to ensure you’re not feeding your cat potentially harmful food.

By implementing these best practices, you minimize waste, save money, and most importantly, ensure your cat is consuming fresh and nutritious meals.

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