Dogs love food, but food doesn’t always love dogs

Most dogs love to eat, and most dogs will try to eat anything, including some things that aren’t technically food.  As an example, our houseguest, Rocket, just ate my used Breathe Right nose strip yesterday morning.  I noticed that he was chewing determinedly on something, but he didn’t have a toy or anything else suitable for chewing in front of him.

When I investigated by swiping my finger around the inside of his mouth, I found a portion of the plastic bands and some of the chewy adhesive ‘cloth’ that binds the strips to the nose.  Since they’re small and flexible, I retrieved what he hadn’t swallowed, and knew that I’d have to watch him to make sure he could get rid of the rest of it.

It’s accepted (hopefully for obvious reasons!) that dogs shouldn’t eat non-food items like socks and furniture and nose strips, but actual food is a little trickier.  Because dogs are willing to eat pretty much anything people have the misconception that it’s safe to feed them anything, including spoiled food and stuff that we eat regularly.

With regard to ‘dog food’, food that is prepared specifically for the consumption of dogs, we must think about two properties:  The QUALITY of the prepared dog food, and the INGREDIENTS.  We as American consumers have an inordinate amount of trust in commercial manufacturers, believing that capitalistic companies motivated by profit (greed) would never sell us a product which contains less-than-wholesome ingredients.  For human food and products, we rely somewhat on governmental agencies to evaluate and police products (peanut-butter-flavored salmonella, anyone?) but the agencies established to control the quality of animal feed isn’t as comprehensive.

If you’d like to learn more about dog food and what goes into it, go to Sabine Contreras’ website and prepare to be shocked and horrified about what you may have been feeding your dog. The pretty pictures of happy dogs eating nutritious-looking food on the bag often belies what’s inside each and every piece of kibble.

After you’ve learned more about evaluating the ingredients of your dog’s prepared food, there’s more to consider in terms of your dog’s tolerance for those ingredients.  Some ingredients like BHA/BHT are a no-brainer–we wouldn’t want to eat an unstable chemical used to preserve food, so we wouldn’t want to put that in our dog’s dish, either.  But something like corn is pretty harmless, right?  Not to some dogs.  Corn in any form is difficult, if not impossible, for dogs to digest, and many forms offer no nutritional value at all.  At best, it’s a cheap filler and binder in dog foods that increases the bulk of the dog’s stool.  In other words, feed your dog a food with corn as one of the main ingredients, and you’ll be picking up way bigger poops because the dog will just excrete whatever it can’t ‘use.’

At worst, your dog may be allergic to corn, and feeding your dog a food with corn in any form (whole-grain corn, corn meal, corn siftings, corn syrup, corn gluten meal, etc.) can cause him to suffer allergy symptoms like ear infections, skin irritation and hair loss, or more severe symptoms like diarrhea.

I had never encountered a problem with food allergies until our English springer spaniel, Riley Newton, joined the family in October 2006.  He seemed to be a very hairy dog with ‘gooey’ ears who shed an amazing amount of hair and made constant soft-serve-type poops.  As it turns out, the high-quality kibble that he and Belle were eating contained chicken and wheat, which are on the list of common food allergens for dogs.  Changing Rye’s food to a limited-ingredient diet containing only duck meat and potato cleared up his ears, his incredible shedding, and firmed up his stool.  Now I’m very careful to feed Rye things like vegetables and fruits as treats, and I avoid heavily processed foods and treats which may contain common allergens.

Since I’m a lazyass and a terrible dog mother, I haven’t done any real analysis to determine what exactly Rye is allergic to.  Instead I avoid anything which may contain the four common allergens:  Wheat, corn, beef and chicken.  Since our other three don’t display any symptoms of food allergies, they eat a less-expensive but still high-quality kibble.  And no one gets table scraps!

So that’s dog food, in particular.  But what about giving your dogs bits and pieces of foods from your own kitchen as a treat?  My kids like to gather around me when I’m chopping veggies, just in case I drop something or feel generous enough to treat them with a sample.  But there are some foods that dogs should never have, even though we humans can tolerate them without a problem.  Recently I learned quite a lot about foods which can harm dogs while I was researching an article for a rescue group’s newsletter.  I’m going to copy and paste it in here.  Please bear in mind that I’m not a nutritionist, and that I’m not a doctor, and I don’t even play one on TV, so if you see something with which you disagree, remember that this is not a comprehensive list and that I’m not always right.  I’m just a concerned dog mother who wants to share this info with everyone.

“Human Food No-Nos,” by Kara DuLac-Shields  Copyright 2008-2009

We love our dogs, and as a way to express our love for them, sometimes we give them bits of food as treats.  However, “food does not equal love,” especially for dogs.  Many foods that we as humans eat without even a second thought can be toxic for dogs, for a number of different reasons.

We need to remember that our dogs are very different from humans physiologically.  Dogs are generally smaller than us, they have different teeth, different body chemistry, and far shorter digestive systems from us, which make some human foods dangerous for dogs.

For example, you and I could go to the bar and choose to have a beer–or several beers, and some chicken wings, and cheese sticks, maybe smoke a few cigarettes, and then we could take some aspirin when we get home.  One beer, or even several beers, might make us feel bad the next morning, but it’s unlikely that a healthy adult could die from drinking a beer.  Likewise, the chicken wings and cheese sticks wouldn’t kill us immediately, although we would be healthier if we avoided them.

But for dogs, even a small amount of alcohol could prove fatal, by depressing their central nervous system and putting them into a coma.  Likewise for tobacco–although dogs don’t often smoke, they may eat your cigarettes or chewing tobacco, and the nicotine is out-and-out poisonous.

And the bones in the chicken wings could splinter and cut your dog’s digestive system, or even become lodged in their intestines, which are much smaller in diameter than our own.  The cheese sticks have a high fat content, which can precipitate a disease in dogs called pancreatitis, which can cause death.  And then there’s the aspirin–while it might relieve pain for a short time, it could also eat a hole through the delicate lining of the dog’s stomach.

Not many people would take their dog to the bar and set it up with a pitcher, the munchie sampler and a Tiparillo, but consider what you toss to your dog as a treat in your own kitchen.  Be diligent in even reading the ingredient labels of the food you give your dog–even harmless-looking stuff like baby food can contain onion powder, which is toxic for dogs.  We are two very different species, and therefore have different dietary needs.  So in order to show our love to our four-legged kids with tails, we do need to say ‘no’ occasionally, just like any responsible parent.  Check the list below for some doggie dietary no-nos.

Fruit, Vegetables & Nuts:

Avocadoes: The avocado fruit, pit, and plant/tree are all toxic to dogs.  Hopefully you don’t have a guacamole fan.

Broccoli: Although your dog would have to eat a wagon load of broccoli to experience problems, it can be toxic in large quantities due to a compound called isothiocyanate, which can cause gastrointestinal irritation.  Just make sure broccoli makes up no more than 10% of your dog’s diet.

Grapes & raisins:  Have an unknown toxin which causes kidney failure in dogs.

Onions & garlic:  Contain thiosulfate (garlic in far lower amounts than onions) which destroys red blood cells & causes anemia.  This also builds up in the dog’s system, so even if they only eat a little bit at a time, repeated ingestion can result in toxic levels.  Humans have the necessary enzymes to break down thiosulfates–dogs don’t.

Tomatoes: The stems and leaves of the tomato plant are especially toxic, containing a lot of oxalates, which cause bladder stones.  Some have also attributed cardiac problems to the tomato itself, which is a member of the nightshade family.

Pits/seeds:  Most fruit pits contain a form of cyanide, although the flesh of fruits like apples, cherries, and peaches themselves are great snacks for dogs.  Pits can also cause intestinal blockages.

Mold/Spoiled food:  Mold and food-poisoning pathogens can be harmful to your dog.  Even though they don’t often suffer with food poisoning symptoms because their digestive systems are so much shorter than ours, it’s best not to take chances.  Don’t give your dog spoiled food–in short, if you won’t eat it, your dog shouldn’t, either.

Mushrooms: Wild and domestic mushrooms can be toxic for your dog.  There are very few types that are completely safe, so it’s best just to avoid them.

Nuts:  Macadamia and walnuts can cause weakness, muscle tremors and paralysis, so avoid them.  However, other nuts like peanuts (which is actually a legume and not a ‘tree nut’) and Brazil nuts can be healthy for your dog, in moderation.  Brazil nuts actually contain selenium, which is a vital nutrient for both your dog and you.

Persimmons:  Can cause intestinal blockage.

Potato peelings, green potatoes, green tomatoes, and rhubarb leaves: Contain oxalates, which can harm the nervous, digestive, and urinary systems, causing bladder stones.  And  by the way, rhubarb leaves are toxic no matter to which species you belong!

From the Spice Cupboard:

Nutmeg: Affects the nervous system and can cause hallucinations, seizures and death.

Salt, Baking Soda, & Baking Powder: Too much salt can damage your dog’s kidneys.  And in large amounts, they all can unbalance your dog’s electrolytes, leading to muscle spasm and congestive heart failure.

Xylitol: Damages the liver and kidneys and even a tiny bit can cause liver failure, resulting in death.  Keep your dog out of your purse and away from your sugar-free mints and chewing gum!

Yeast dough:  Can ‘rise’ in your dog’s digestive system and obstruct or actually rupture the stomach or intestines.  Fermenting yeast also produces alcohol, which can lead to alcohol poisoning.

Meat, Fish, Dairy:

Eggs:  Raw eggs can cause Salmonella poisoning.

Fish: Some raw fish can also cause salmonella poisoning;  raw salmon can cause “salmon poisoning.”  It can contain a parasite which hosts rickettsia, a bacterial pathogen that can sicken or kill your dog if the infection isn’t treated with antibiotics in time; tuna fish contains a lot of mercury, a heavy metal that also accumulates in fatty tissue, so large amounts of tuna should be avoided.

Bones:  Most bones should NOT be given (especially chicken or ‘spare rib’ bones) because they all can splinter and lacerate the digestive tract, or pose a choking hazard by becoming stuck in your dog’s throat.  They’re not all bad, though.  Appropriately-sized bones do offer valuable minerals and nutrients, and chewing on a hard object like a bone will clean your dog’s teeth and strengthen their jaw muscles, as well as provide entertainment for your dog.  If you do want to give your dog a bone, make sure that you have a large-enough bone like a beef knuckle that your dog can’t swallow whole, and always supervise your dog’s chewing, because there’s always a possibility that a piece of bone could splinter.  Also be aware that raw bones can harbor bacteria like salmonella, which is more a threat to humans than to dogs.  If you want to cook your dog’s bones to reduce the possibility of culturing bacteria, do so by boiling them rather than baking them, which tends to make them brittle.

Dairy Products:  Beware of fatty dairy products like butter and cream, which can precipitate pancreatitis.  In a less-serious vein, some dogs can also be lactose intolerant, which leads to gas and diarrhea, but for  50% of dogs, small amounts of yogurt, cheese or cottage cheese can be nourishing.

Fatty Meats:  Again, fatty meats have the capacity to induce pancreatitis.  Avoid them.

“The Finer Things in Life:”

Alcohol:  Wine, beer, tequila, Nyquil, doesn’t matter what kind–any form of alcohol can lead to coma or death.

Hops plugs:  Used in beer making, hops plugs contain whole-leaf hops which bear resins, essential oils, phenols, and nitrogenous compounds which can cause abdominal distension and pain, tachycardia and death.

Chocolate:  Although your dog may tell you he LOVES chocolate, it doesn’t love him.  Chocolate contains caffeine and an alkaloid compound called theobromine, which act as a cardiac stimulant and diuretic.  That is, they speed up your dog’s heart and make him whiz too much.  In large-enough amounts, chocolate can lead to dehydration, seizures, and death.  White and milk chocolate have the lowest amounts of theobromine, and baker’s semisweet chocolate has the highest.

Coffee/tea/soft drinks:  Are all hazardous due to their caffeine content.  Remember to dispose of your coffee grounds and tea bags properly, too–dogs can sometimes have a strange attraction to stuff like this.

Cigarettes/Cigars/Chewing Tobacco/Nicotine Patches/Nicotine Gum: Nicotine is an alkaloid poison, toxic enough that it’s used as a pesticide.  It’s poisonous to everyone, not just dogs–when humans get a dizzy rush and faint nausea on smoking their first cigarette, that’s a mild case of nicotine poisoning.  In dogs that have ingested enough nicotine, the poison can paralyze their diaphragm (breathing) muscle and cause cardiac problems, up to heart failure.

NSAIDs/Aspirin/Ibuprofen:  In large doses, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can cause ulcers, and damage kidneys by reducing blood flow to vital organs.  Administer these to your dog only on the advice of your veterinarian.

Tylenol/Acetaminophen:  Should NEVER be given to dogs or cats.  Causes severe tissue damage to cells, and dogs and cats don’t have enough of the liver enzymes necessary to effectively break this chemical down into its harmless components.

Human Vitamin Supplements: Many vitamins manufactured for human use contain levels of nutrients and minerals, particularly iron, which are too concentrated for dogs to digest safely.  They can cause kidney failure and liver damage.

If you’re ever in doubt about a food treat, don’t give it to your dog.  And if your dog gets hold of something bad, call the ASPCA’s Poison Hotline at (888) 426.4435.


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