A comprehensive look at the most concerning food-related dangers during the holidays

Family is gathering, feelings of nostalgia and sentiments are flowing, and the last thing you want to do is disclude your four-legged family members. You love making them happy — it makes you feel happy — and food seems to make them happy so why not let them lick the gravy and leftovers from the plates or let Grandma sneak a giblet under the table to little Tobin?

Though we have the best intentions, the plain and simple fact is that foods, (and the containers they come in) that are fine for us are often toxic or dangerous for our dogs. Our daily behavior with our canines in the kitchen can become an exponential hazard to their health during the holidays. Skip the bones, giblets and gravy and stick to making your pet “happy” and “included” in safer ways such as a new toy or pet-friendly foods straight to their bowl.

If you are that person reading this right now thinking, “well, I’ve fed my dogs leftovers, bones, table scraps, etc. and I’ve never had a problem, I don’t need to keep reading”, three things for you:

You’ve been lucky so far. You are also that person to walk into the emergency room completely surprised and distressed that your dog or cat needs a week of hospitalization or life-saving surgery because “that’s never happened before”. You may also be the person who will complain about the high cost it will take to save the life of your pet, (if they can) and possibly accuse the veterinarian of being out to make a quick buck trying to reverse the mistake that you made that landed your pet in the hospital to begin with (see high suicide rates among veterinarians).
Diabetes, gastrointestinal issues, and toxicities from improper nutrition can take years off of the life of your pet. Your pit bull that might naturally live to be 15 or 16 may only live to be 13 or 14. Your Golden Retriever that is already genetically prone to certain cancers may acquire cancer from the foods you are feeding, (and sometimes not feeding) them. Nutrition can make the difference of life in both pets and people. Not all consequences, nutritional included, show up immediately.
Please keep reading, I know you love your pet too.
Top 5 Immediate dangers, (life-threatening):

Toxicities — Some foods are simply toxic to canines and cause fatal or severe illness such as kidney and liver failure. A few examples include garlic, onions, raisins, and chocolate. Speaking from personal experience, (though only one of many toxicity examples), I was the nurse on a case of salt toxicity that resulted from a dog eating most of a ham the owner had given him as a holiday treat. The otherwise healthy dog sadly had to be euthanized due to one holiday meal. Dr. Heather Meyers, a veterinarian at Carolina Pets Animal Hospital gives us a few others to steer your pets clear of:
“Xylitol is one that not many are aware of and as a sugar substitute can be found in a lot of holiday candy, baked goods, and sweets. It can cause liver failure and severe hypoglycemia to the point of developing seizures. We recently had a case where a maltese ingested nicorette gum. The effects of the nicotine were bad enough but the xylitol used to sweeten the gum was enough to kill her. Fortunately her owner acted quickly and was at our office in minutes. Family and out of town guests may be unfamiliar with food that may be potentially harmful to your furry loved ones.
Macadamia nuts is another serious toxin. While all nuts have the potential to cause gastrointestinal upset and pancreatitis due to their high fat and oil content macadamia nuts in particular can cause weakness, tremors and hyperthermia.
And let’s not forget about alcohol. Festive and sweet holiday drinks are particularly appealing to our furry friends and guests partaking in the holiday spirit may not be careful about where they put down their drink. Depending on the amount consumed and the size of the pet alcohol can cause central nervous system depression, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, tremors, coma, and even death. I distinctly remember a Boston Terrier who helped himself to a coffee drink with Baileys and Cream. Boy that vomit had a memorable smell. Between the coffee stimulant and alcohol depressant his nervous system was going haywire. Fortunately he made a full recovery but it took two days in the ICU and could have easily been an unhappy holiday”.
2. High fatty foods such as trimmed fat, gravy, skins, butter, etc. can lead to pancreatitis, as well as long term dangers such as obesity and diabetes. Pancreatitis can be temporary pain in the stomach with vomiting and diarrhea, or, in severe cases can lead to extended hospitalization and/or death. With most people not ingesting the fat that they trim off of their meat, the questions presents itself — why then would we give that to our pets to eat when we don’t even consume it?

3. Food Obstructions — Corn cobs are a common obstruction that typically have to be removed by surgery. Feeding your dog the corn directly from the corn cob, (though not giving them the actual cob) can lead your dog to believe that it’s okay to eat the cob as well, (they don’t understand that it is harmful) which may cause them to trash or counter surf later to find the leftovers leading to a dangerous ingestion.

Poultry bones splinter and can perforate, (tear) intestines as well as cause obstructions. I read a very helpful post from one pet owner to other pet owners earlier meant to help people make safe decisions about what they give their dog over Thanksgiving. One of the photos contained bones and read of the splintering dangers. A woman responding in the comments carried on that bones are perfectly safe because she puts ground bone, which is good for the dogs, in their food. Her comment offers a great reminder to be open and non-defensive of others offering helpful information, (though always check sources) — it’s not an indication or finger point at anyone as being a bad pet owner. Being on the defense can cause you to miss important factors, such as, in this specific case, it is not ground bones that are of concern as they can’t splinter and cause an obstruction or perforation in powder form. Sometimes it is about the form that the food comes in, not just the chemical composition of the food. Sometimes it’s the chemical composition, not the form. Different foods are dangerous for different reasons.

4. Non-food Obstructions — Plastic bags that food is stored in or comes in can lead to what is termed “snack bag suffocation”. Recently, I was incredibly disheartened to learn that a happy-go-lucky Therapy Dog that came from my organization, the American Pit Bull Foundation, tragically died at just five years of age from getting a cereal bag stuck over his head while his owners were out. Cesar was a frequenter and favorite of the local nursing homes and his owners loved him very much. They didn’t know that his counter-surfing behavior could lead to his untimely death.

5. Burns — Dr. Lori Pennea, an Urgent Care and Emergency Veterinarian, warns of severe burns that commonly occur from hot flat top stoves. Dr. Pennea just recently treated a Great Dane who put both paws on top of a hot stove looking for food and has treated cats for the same injury. “Flat stove tops burn a lot of feet. Cat’s don’t realize that they are hot at first”.

Prevention is Key

Be aware that the above mentioned dangers can occur not only from you giving something to your pet, but also serious accidents even more so can result from counter-surfing, (taking items off of the countertops or tables and ingesting them). What can you do to prevent the behavior and who is at higher risk?

Often because canines comprehend that correction comes from the human, not from the counter, they may sneak items off when you aren’t paying attention or are in another room. **They do not understand what can hurt them** The easiest way to prevent this is training from the start. Don’t make eye contact with your pet while you are eating. Have them in a “place” away from the table and kitchen when you are cooking and eating. Meal time for you should be boring for them. Dogs that hang out under the table or in the kitchen while you are cooking are at a much higher risk of counter-surfing, or dumpster diving, (raiding the trash can) for something obstructive or toxic. A dog that will leave a steak on a plate easily in reach when an owner leaves the room is not an anomaly — it’s a well trained dog with an owner who wants to avoid a tragic accident because their dogs can’t distinguish for themselves what is okay to ingest and what is not.

The safest thing that you can do for your pet is simply not to feed them people food and train them that their food isn’t the same as yours, nor does it come from the same place. Period. Purchase high-quality pet food and treats. However…since so many of the pet-owning population simply can’t help themselves or say no to those puppy eyes — especially during the holidays — be safe and know what you are giving your pets. Don’t just assume that because you haven’t noticed an issue before that there won’t be one. Talk to your veterinarian about what is safe to put in their bowl, (not feed them from the counter or table). If you have been in the habit of allowing them to be around the food under the table, in the kitchen, and you feed from the table and/or the countertops, be extra cautious during the holidays when additional foods/containers are out and available under the high-distraction of having family/guests, (especially kids) visiting. Put all food items away and make sure trash cans have a very secure lid. Now may be a great time to reconsider kitchen and table behaviors to keep them safe from preventable accidents in the future. Breaking the association of food from the stove/counter/table to the dog (or cat) can prevent future pain and hassle.

A happy and safe holiday season to you and your family, four-leggers included!