Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Holiday Treats Are Not Always a Treat For Your Pet

Pet Column for the week of November 5, 2001

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

The holidays are a time when people gather to enjoy eating food and spending time with family. People tend to consume fatty foods and treats, such as chocolate, in greater amounts during the holidays than at any other time of the year. This is a prime opportunity for four-legged beggars to get their share of treats as well, but if the treats are given excessively, or Fido raids the fridge or the table when no one is looking, too much holiday cheer can lead to a sick animal and possibly a trip to the veterinarian.

Dr. Kent Davis, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, says, "The majority of holiday-related cases that veterinarians see are food related. The leading problem is probably chocolate toxicity."

Chocolate contains a substance called theobromine that causes severe heart problems and is toxic to almost all animals. There is more theobromine in baking chocolate (about 400 mg per ounce) than there is in milk chocolate (about 45 mg per ounce), and the lethal dose for a dog is about 45 mg per pound of body weight. This means that a lethal dose for a 20-pound dog would be only about six pieces of kiss-sized baking chocolate.

If the dog has just recently eaten the chocolate, then the best treatment is to induce vomiting; however, if it has been some time since the chocolate was eaten, and the contents of the stomach have already moved to the intestine, then the only treatment available is supportive care. Dr. Davis says, "This is a serious problem. Unfortunately once the chocolate has been digested, the only thing that we can do is to give supportive treatment."

Other foods that are toxic to animals are onions and garlic. Even foods spiced with garlic or onion salts should be avoided. These foods contain sulfides, which can cause hemolytic anemia (destruction of red blood cells).

Another gastrointestinal problem associated with the holidays is gastroenteritis, which is just fancy term for an upset stomach. Dr. Davis says, "Animals usually get this from foods that they are not used to eating, such as high-fat or high-sugar foods."

Many pet owners want to include their pets in the festivities of the holidays, so they give the pets a little of whatever they are having. Unfortunately, this can often cause vomiting and diarrhea. Occasionally, eating inappropriate foods can also lead to pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas produces digestive enzymes and insulin, which are necessary for the utilization of nutrients by the body. Inflammation of the pancreas can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, and a whole host of other problems that can be life threatening.

It may seem from all of this information that there are no foods that you can share with your pet during the holidays. Do not despair, however! Dr. Davis says, "There are many things that are perfectly fine to share with your animals friends. In fact, almost anything that is healthy for us to eat is okay for them to have. Vegetables make especially good treats."

In the end, the best solution to this whole dilemma may be to avoid table food of any kind and stick to treats that are made just for your animal companions. If you have any questions or concerns about what foods are safe for your pet, please contact your local veterinarian.