One of the joys of having pets is sharing. We share our homes, our families—our entire lives—with them. And sometimes that means we share our food. Truth is, most “people food” is absolutely fine for animals (at least in moderation). But some things we eat just don’t sit well in fuzzier stomachs, and are best avoided entirely.
We’ll start with the big one. The one everybody knows. The one that results in panicked phone calls to my office whenever an Oreo goes missing. Yes, chocolate is toxic to dogs and cats. The good news is that the majority of cases aren’t as bad as you think. Chocolate contains a natural stimulant called theobromine which isn’t all that dissimilar from caffeine. Coffee drinkers will be well-acquainted with the symptoms of minor overdose (upset stomach, restlessness, and increased urination), but dogs aren’t known for their sense of moderation, and aren’t inclined to delicately select two or three chocolates from the box of 50. They’re more likely to eat the whole lot, and chase it down with the packaging. Making matters worse, dogs and cats don’t metabolize theobromine as rapidly as we do, so it has a longer time to linger in the bloodstream and cause trouble. It’s these higher doses of theobromine that can cause muscle tremors, a dangerously accelerated heart rate, seizures, and even death.
So how much is too much? It depends a lot on the size of your pet, the type of chocolate, and the amount they scarf down. A 75-pound Labrador won’t be phased by a two-ounce bar of milk chocolate, but your 20-pound Pug may be in rough shape after indulging. Dark chocolate and unsweetened baking chocolate contain an even higher concentration of theobromine, meaning smaller amounts can be more dangerous. That’s worth keeping in mind with the holiday season coming up—there tends to be a lot more baking chocolate floating around kitchens this time of year.
Chocolate isn’t the only way for animals to exercise their sweet tooth. Perhaps it’s a stretch to call chewing gum a food, but animals have no qualms about swallowing it, and many common brands are a significant danger to pets. Specifically, keep an eye out for an artificial sweetener called xylitol. While no problem for people, dogs and cats don’t quite know what to do with the stuff. Their pancreas confuses xylitol with regular blood sugar, resulting in a massive insulin surge that causes their real blood sugar to bottom out. If it gets low enough, animals may become disoriented, have seizures, or enter a state of hypoglycemic shock.
Lest I be accused of a crusade against the candy industry, I think it’s necessary to point out that nature has a few nasty surprises up its sleeve, too. Raisins may be the healthy stand-in for chocolate chips in our cookie recipes, but they may be even more dangerous to pets. For reasons nobody knows, raisins (and grapes) can push dogs into severe kidney failure within a few hours of ingestion. And they aren’t the only hazard in the produce aisle. Garlic, onions, avocados, and macadamia nuts, though not as life-threatening as raisins, can cause their share of trouble if pets consume enough.
It’s odd to think that foods we eat every day might be dangerous to our pets, but it’s important to know which ones to keep safely out of reach. Unfortunately, even with the best precautions, accidents happen. If you have any reason to think your pet got into something toxic, call your veterinarian right away. Try and get a sense of how much might have been ingested, and provide any relevant packaging if you have it. Treatment decisions are much easier to make when we know exactly what we’re up against. Most cases do fine with proper support, but early intervention is always your best bet, and waiting to see what happens next may cost valuable time.
Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003, and has lived in Charlottesville since. Got a question? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.