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Are You Contributing to Food Poisoning in Your Pet?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

foods poisonous to dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs can and do get food poisoning, even though their bodies are designed to handle a much heavier bacterial load from food than humans
  • Things your dog might ingest that can potentially cause food poisoning include spoiled meat, dead animals, garbage or compost, feces, recalled pet food, and raw meat contaminated with parasites
  • Food toxicity differs from food poisoning; there are several types of people food that are toxic for dogs, including chocolate, plants containing allium, macadamia nuts, grapes and raisins, products containing the sweetener xylitol, and alcohol

Contrary to what many people believe, dogs (and cats) can and do get food poisoning, but when it occurs in your pet, it isn't usually as straightforward as it is when it happens to a human.

More often than not, when a dog has symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea, he ate something he shouldn't have and not something that caused food poisoning. That's because, as most of us know all too well, our canine family members tend to be indiscriminate eaters, aka dumpster divers, aka garbage guts!

However, with that said, it's important to realize that some things your dog might ingest (or that you might unknowingly offer him) can cause food poisoning.

Things Dogs Eat That Can Potentially Cause Food Poisoning

Rancid (spoiled) meat — Some people mistakenly believe that because dogs can handle a much higher bacterial load from their food than humans, they can eat literally anything and be fine. This is a dangerous assumption.

There's a world of difference between normal opportunistic bacterial loads in fresh healthy meats and spoiled meats loaded with endotoxins, which can kill any mammal if ingested. Please don't feed your pet any type of spoiled food or food that has been in the fridge for several weeks. As the saying goes, "When in doubt, throw it out."

Dead animals — Dead and decaying animal carcasses can carry all kinds of pathogenic bacteria and parasites that can be toxic for your dog if she samples them. Since many dogs are quite intrigued by the scent of dead animals they encounter outdoors, it's important to prevent access.

If you're out in nature and especially if your dog will be off-leash, be sure to train a reliable drop it command beforehand, and stay close enough to see what she's up to. Watch for signs that she smells something enticing on the ground or has actually picked something up in her mouth, and immediately take steps to put an end to her fun.

Garbage and compost — Rotten or moldy food discarded in a trash can has the potential to give your dog food poisoning. Make sure all trash receptacles inside and outside your home have lids, and also ensure your compost pails/piles are inaccessible to your dog.

Feces — Many dogs develop a taste for poop, usually belonging to other animals, but sometimes their own, as well. As disgusting as this tendency is to us humans, dogs often don't see it that way. However, poop eating (technical name, coprophagia) can obviously present a health hazard for your pet.

If your canine companion enjoys the occasional poop snack, you'll need to take steps to prevent him from sampling the goods. This may involve keeping him leashed and closely monitored whenever he's outdoors, along with training a reliable "drop it" cue.

It may also involve relocating your cat's litterbox to a location inaccessible to your dog, ensuring dirty baby diapers are disposed of in a covered container, and even ensuring everyone in the household flushes the toilet after each use.

Recalled dog food or treats — If you feed your pet commercially available dog food and/or treats, be sure to pay attention to recall notices and immediately dispose of any product that has been recalled, regardless of the reason. You can find a continuously updated list at the FDA's Recalls & Withdrawals page, as well as instructions on how to report a pet food complaint.

Raw meat that may contain parasites — Depending on the source, a good rule of thumb to safely feed any species of raw meat or fish to pets is to freeze it first for three weeks. (The length of freezing time necessary varies for different parasites, but three weeks will kill all of them.) If there are any parasites present in freshly caught meat, freezing will kill them and solve the problem.

Obviously, you also don't want to feed the guts — the stomach and small and large intestines — of any animal, either, as these are the organs that harbor most parasites. The exception for many people is tripe, or cow stomach and intestines, because cows usually don't harbor parasites that can infect pets.

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Food Toxicity vs. Food Poisoning

Some people foods are toxic for dogs, which is a different situation from food poisoning. Some of these foods may be safe in small amounts, while others can prove deadly in even tiny amounts. A 2016 Italian study produced a list of human foods that cause the most pet poisonings worldwide.1

"Several foods that are perfectly suitable for human consumption can be toxic to dogs and cats," researchers Cristina Cortinovis and Francesca Caloni told LiveScience. "The poisoning episodes are generally due to lack of public knowledge of the serious health threat to dogs and cats that can be posed by these products."2

The researchers found that over the course of a decade, reported cases of toxicity in pets across the globe most often involved the following food items/categories. Scientists don't know exactly why some of these foods, which are perfectly safe for most humans, can be deadly for dogs and/or cats:

Chocolate and chocolate-based products — Chocolate is made from the roasted seeds of the Theobroma cacao or cocoa tree. The seeds have certain properties that can be toxic for dogs and cats, including caffeine and theobromine, which are naturally occurring stimulants.

Both theobromine and caffeine stimulate the central nervous system and heart muscle. They also relax smooth muscles, especially the bronchial muscles, and increase production of urine by the kidneys.

Studies have shown that dogs are especially sensitive to theobromine compared to other domestic animals. This is because dogs metabolize the substance very slowly, which means it stays in their bloodstream for an unusually long time.

Plants containing allium (onions, chives, garlic and leeks) — Plants of the genus allium make some pets sick (there have even been fatalities), while others don't seem affected. The toxic compounds in allium plants are organosulfoxides, which when chewed, convert to a mixture of sulfur compounds that can damage your pet's red blood cells. According to LiveScience:

"If [a] dog or cat ingests even just a piece of an onion (specifically, 5 grams of onion per kilogram of body weight for cats, or 15 to 30 grams per kg for dogs), it can cause dangerous changes to their blood."3

Reported poisonings resulted from ingestion of a variety of foods and preparation methods, including raw and baked garlic, Catalan spring onions (calcots), onion soufflé, butter-cooked onions, and steamed dumplings seasoned with Chinese chives. The organosulfoxides in allium plants seem to survive both cooking and drying.

Garlic can cause changes in blood parameters when fed in very large quantities (much more than pets would naturally eat) or if it is given in a human garlic supplement (which I never recommend). Dogs can healthfully consume ¼ teaspoon of freshly chopped garlic per 15 pounds of body weight and reap substantial health benefits, just don't go overboard.

Macadamia nuts — Macadamia nuts can cause serious problems for dogs, even in very small amounts. According to the study, more than 80 cases of poisoning were reported over a 5-year period in Queensland, Australia, a major area of macadamia nut cultivation. Fortunately, no deaths were reported.

Vitis vinifera fruits (grapes, raisins, sultanas, and currants) — In an interview in 2016, Melissa Gardner, an intelligence specialist with the FBI and a former military intelligence officer, offered a very interesting and plausible theory to explain why grapes and raisins, once safe to feed pets, are now toxic. She believes that fluoride-based pesticides used on grapevines could be to blame.

According to the Italian study, grapes, raisins, sultanas, and currants — both raw and cooked — can cause kidney failure in dogs. However, not all dogs have the same reaction to these foods. For example, one study examined 180 cases of dogs who ate grapes and related fruits and reported that some dogs showed no symptoms after eating 2 pounds of raisins, while others died after eating just a handful.

This information seems to support Gardner's theory that it's the way the fruits are cultivated, rather than the fruits themselves, that render them toxic. Unfortunately, based on what Gardner uncovered during her investigation, we can't assume organic raisins or grapes are safe, either, so my recommendation is to avoid feeding grapes, raisins, and related fruits to your pet.

Foods and products containing the sweetener xylitol — Xylitol is a sweetener that is highly toxic to dogs. It's used to sweeten a wide range of products, including sugar-free gum and mints, nicotine gum, chewable vitamins, certain prescription drugs, dental hygiene products and baked goods.

Sadly, xylitol poisoning in dogs is reaching epidemic proportions. Until fairly recently, it was found primarily in products not normally given to dogs. Poisonings were usually the result of dogs sampling human foods, candy or gum on the sly. However, this sweetener is now in certain peanut and nut butters.

Ethanol in alcoholic beverages — Alcohol (ethanol) poisoning in pets typically occurs when a dog samples an alcoholic beverage. Toxicity has also occurred in dogs who ate rotten apples, sloe berries, and uncooked bread and pizza dough, all of which contain alcohol.

Other potential sources of ethanol include paint and varnish, certain medications, perfume/cologne, mouthwash, and certain types of antifreeze. Just as with humans, when a pet ingests alcohol, it is quickly absorbed from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and reaches the brain.

If you suspect your pet has ingested a poison and you have questions or need guidance, you can call the ASPCA's Poison Control Center hotline at 1-888-426-4435, or the Pet Poison Helpline at 1-855-764-7661. Both hotlines can be reached 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

If you're sure your pet has been exposed to a toxin, get her to your veterinarian or an animal emergency hospital immediately. If you know or suspect the substance your animal got into, bring it along.