They are what you eat: Sharing your dinner with family pets

Pets can enjoy snacks from your gourmet dining experience, but it’s best that it’s in small doses and not a regular part of their diet. Photo: File photo Pets can enjoy snacks from your gourmet dining experience, but it’s best that it’s in small doses and not a regular part of their diet. Photo: File photo

One of the stranger artifacts of working in an animal-centric profession is the need to clarify any time that we’re talking about the human world. We find ourselves saying awkward things like “I’m going to the people doctor” and “I need to pick up some people food.” I’ve always liked the latter. It evokes the image of families returning from Kroger with big sacks of human chow, and creates this artificial distinction between what we eat and what they eat.

It’s not uncommon for clients to include some kind of confession about giving people food to a pet. This is often accompanied by a nervous facial expression, as if my reaction will be to rap them over the head with a rolled up newspaper. “Bad owner! No!”

But that’s not actually how it goes. More often than not, I’m likely to reply with a few of the forbidden things I often give my own dog. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and those hungry hound eyes are fixed on me the entire time. Is there really any question that he’s going to be rewarded for his patience? I’d be a monster not to let a few morsels from the cutting board “accidentally” fall over the edge.

With just a few exceptions, animals can eat nearly anything we can. Raisins and grapes are on the strict no-fly list, causing severe kidney disease in dogs for reasons nobody knows. Onions and garlic can also be a danger in larger amounts (especially to cats), but if you’re giving your pet a small taste of something made with either one as an ingredient—like a sauce or stew—it won’t cause any harm. And that’s good, because nobody should be denied the joys of Italian food. Not even dogs.

There are only two things to keep in mind. One is depending on where and when you offer it, you may be creating a nasty begging habit. It’s best to avoid doling out people food at the dinner table. The other is to keep it in moderation. These extra treats are in addition to your pet’s regular diet, and they add more calories. Even most larger dogs are smaller than a human being, which means everything you give them is proportionally more significant.

I recall one toy-breed dog who should have weighed five pounds but was tipping the scales at ten. That’s dangerously obese for such a diminutive little fellow, and we started talking about the dog’s diet. It came out that he was getting an egg in his food every morning, ostensibly to keep his coat healthy. Nevermind the fact that dogs don’t need eggs to keep their coats healthy (eggs are very nutritious, but they don’t contain anything that isn’t already in your pet’s balanced diet), this tiny little creature was eating a serving size of eggs appropriate for an adult human.

Admonitions to avoid giving any people food to pets are largely intended as a blanket approach to head off these kinds of concerns. While the overstatement is quick and easy, it is also misleading, and doesn’t take into account the way people realistically interact with their animals. So go ahead. Next time you take a doggie bag home from the restaurant, don’t feel too bad about sharing with its namesake. Just don’t let the small treats snowball into big problems.

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.

Onions and garlic can also be a danger in larger amounts (especially to cats), but if you’re giving your pet a small taste of something made with either one as an ingredient—like a sauce or stew—it won’t cause any harm. And that’s good, because nobody should be denied the joys of Italian food.

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