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

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Holiday 'Treats' May Treat Your Pet to a Veterinary Visit

Pet Column for the week of November 18, 2002

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

There is a crash and clatter, and you look up just in time to see the holiday turkey disappearing down the hall! By the time you have caught up with the culprit, a large portion of the meal has disappeared. What should you do? (Other than call for Chinese.) Unfortunately, you could have a food-related medical problem on your hands.

Dr. Kent Davis, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, says, "Sometimes pets sneak treats that they shouldn't, but many pet owners also give the pets a little of whatever they are having because they want to include their pets in the festivities of the holidays. While these pet owners have good intentions, feeding pets foods that they are unaccustomed to can lead to gastrointestinal upset and food-related veterinarian visits."

Feeding inappropriate "treats" can often cause vomiting and diarrhea.
Occasionally, eating these foods can also lead to pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas produces digestive enzymes and insulin, which the body needs to use the nutrients in food. Inflammation of the pancreas can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, and a whole host of other problems that can be life threatening.

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."

Dr. Davis says, "One of the major problems that we see during the holidays is 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, then the contents of the stomach have probably moved to the intestine. 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).

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 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.