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

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Holiday Foods Can Upset Your Pet


Pet Column for the week of November 21, 2005


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

The time for celebrating the holiday with our friends and family is here, and the center of many celebrations is food. We consider pets part of our family, so we naturally want them to share in the celebration.

"People want to share their holiday dinners with their pets because they love their pets," explains Dr. Marcella Ridgway, veterinary internal medicine specialist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

Unfortunately, rich foods that are common during the holidays can trigger gastrointestinal problems for a dog or cat, and too many treats from the dinner table can ruin the party.

Dr. Ridgway explains that there are several reasons that table foods can cause problems. "Holiday foods are often high in fats, sugar and unusual spices or other ingredients and are not always healthy for people. They are certainly not the types of foods most pets are used to getting."

Gastritis, which is an irritation of the stomach lining, and enteritis, which is an intestinal inflammation, can be triggered when an animal eats food it's not accustomed to.

"With these conditions," Dr. Ridgway explains, "a pet will feel lousy, and may have vomiting and diarrhea, which makes everyone else unhappy--especially if you just had the carpets cleaned for your holiday guests." Also, these conditions can sometimes become quite serious, requiring hospitalization and intensive care therapy.

Foods high in fat can also trigger a serious condition in dogs known as pancreatitis, or an inflammation of the pancreas. Pancreatitis may be triggered after a fatty meal because the body releases a substance called cholecystokinin, or CCK, in response to ingested fat. CCK signals the pancreas cells to release enzymes that can digest fats and other nutrients, such as proteins.

Normally, the pancreas cells release their digestive enzymes in a very systematic, orderly fashion, to protect itself and surrounding organs from the destructive properties of the enzymes.

When bombarded with high levels of CCK after a high fat meal, pancreas cells may release their enzymes more haphazardly, and these digestive enzymes can go where they are not supposed to, self-digesting the pancreas and causing intense inflammation.

"We do seem to see more pancreatitis cases around the holidays," says Dr. Ridgway. "Pancreatitis can be triggered by as little as one fatty meal, even in pets that have previously been fed table scraps without developing problems."

Since pancreatitis can be life threatening, it's crucial to avoid foods which may trigger pancreatitis and to seek early medical care if it occurs. You should consult a veterinarian if your pet is vomiting, has diarrhea or abdominal pain. Pets may show signs of gastrointestinal upset or pancreatitis several hours to several days after the offending meal.

Dr. Ridgway recommends feeding treats specially made for pets, rather than table foods, when making your pet a part of holiday festivities. However, if you really feel the need to share your food, she recommends sharing less fatty foods, such as a lean morsel of turkey or ham.

"Another key is portion size," she points out. "Dogs and cats don't notice the size of the treat they get; they are more interested in the fact they are getting a treat and interacting with their owner." Even a piece of food the size of a thumbnail will be appreciated by a pet as a special treat.

There are other holiday food hazards to watch for beside gastrointestinal inflammation. Small sharp bones, especially those found in poultry, can pose a choking hazard or may puncture the gastrointestinal tract.

Strings that are used to tie roasts and birds are soaked with tasty juices and can be especially attractive to cats. When swallowed, these strings pose a serious hazard, and may require surgical removal if they become lodged in the intestines.

Don't give your animal food that has been sitting out for a while. Meats, poultry and egg- or mayonnaise-based foods left at room temperature over 40 minutes can harbor bacteria, and neither people nor pets should eat these foods.

Also, if pets get into the garbage they can get in to fat, bones, strings and other things that can make them sick, so Dr. Ridgway recommends that a household with pets have a pet-proof garbage can with a secure lid.

For more information on gastritis, enteritis, pancreatitis or other gastrointestinal conditions, consult your veterinarian.