Canine & Feline Food Safety During the Holidays

Having worked in veterinary practice for many years, it’s a very common trend for pets to visit the veterinarian for evaluation a few days after Thanksgiving.

Digestive tract upset, including vomiting, diarrhea, and anorexia (decreased appetite) are the typical reasons motivating owners to bring their pet in for veterinary examination, diagnostic testing, and treatment.  This observation stems from the trend for pets to receive table foods that they otherwise may not be used to eating on Thanksgiving Day.

I must state that I’m an advocate of pets eating human food year round and not just on Thanksgiving.  Generally, if your canine or feline companion consumes meals and snacks made from foods just like nature creates there’s less of a potential for digestive tract upset when food changes are made.  When pets primarily eat kibble-based diets and processed treats (meat simulations, biscuits, etc.), the exposure to whole foods like we humans eat can cause digestive tract upset.

So, I recommend your pet eats white meat turkey, sweet potatoes, and steamed vegetables (cauliflower, green beans, spinach, etc.) and other foods commonly eaten on Thanksgiving on a regular basis.  This way, there’s less likelihood digestive tract upset will occur if a few bites of food from the table are served.

Yet, there are many foods traditionally associated with Thanksgiving that pets should avoid both on the festive day and the other 364 making up the year.

Fats and Proteins

Holiday foods, including animal skin, meats, and cheese are dense in calories, fat, and protein. These foods aren’t inherently bad in themselves and aren’t considered toxic for pets, but the fat and protein content per volume can be too rich for some pets’ digestive tracts and lead to vomit, diarrhea, anorexia, pancreatitis (pancreatic inflammation), and other undesirable clinical signs.

Besides potentially making your pet sick in the short term, feeding a portion of animal skins, fatty meats, and cheeses that look small for a person can quickly exceed your pet’s daily caloric requirements.  According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) 2014 National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Survey, 52.7% of dogs and 57.9% of cats are overweight or obese.  That’s an astounding 100,000,000 corpulent canines and felines that shouldn’t eat extra calories just because it’s Thanksgiving.


Bones and the nutrient-dense marrow contained inside are understandably appealing to many pets.  Unfortunately, bones harbor many dangers for pets and thereby fall into my list of foods to avoid.

The exuberant manner that your pooch chomps on a cooked bone can cause splintering, which mechanically irritates the lining of the stomach and intestines. Large bones or multiple pieces of bone can potentially cause esophageal, gastric, or intestinal obstruction or lacerating (tearing) when ingested.

Although raw bones are softer than their cooked counterparts, there’s potential that pathogenic bacteria could be harbored in or on the surface of a raw bone.  The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) discourages feeding Raw or Undercooked Animal-Source Protein in Cat and Dog Diets as bacteria or parasites that would otherwise be killed in the cooking process can infect pets and human household members.  Children, geriatric and immunocompromised people (pregnant, taking chemotherapy, etc.) are more prone to opportunistic infections from pathogenic microorganisms.

Dried Fruits

Raisins and currants have an unknown toxic mechanism that damages the canine kidney.  The amount needed to be consumed to cause toxicity is also unknown, so always prevent your dog from eating raisins and currants.  Additionally, grapes, non-dried currants, and the juices of both fruits can have toxic effects.

Store bought dried fruits often contain preservatives (sulfur dioxide, etc.), so it’s best to skip sharing Grandma’s special fruitcake with Fido this holiday season.

Allium Members

Allium is the genus of plants that includes onions, garlic, leeks, shallots, chives and others.  Although such plants aren’t toxic in small quantities, there’s a fine line between consuming a safe quantity and a volume that potentially causes health problems.

Allium members contain thiosulphate which damages red blood cell membranes and causes hemolytic anemia (low red blood cell numbers).  Additionally, the fibrous nature of Allium plants can cause digestive tract upset.

Chocolate and sweets

Chocolate contains chemicals called methylzanthines (caffeine and theobromine) which have dangerous stimulating effects for dogs, including hyperexcitability, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, and seizures.

Dark chocolate has a higher percentage of cocoa and is more toxic in smaller amounts than milk chocolate and chocolate baked goods.  White chocolate and non-chocolate sweets are stimulant-free, but can cause serious gastrointestinal upset due their sugar and fat content.

If you suspect your pet consumed chocolate, reference VSPN’s Chocolate Toxicity Table to determine if a toxic amount has been ingested.


Some owners don’t consider the toxic affects alcohol can have on a pet and find amusement in watching Fido or Fluffy lap some sips of beer or other adult beverages.  Clinical signs of alcohol toxicity include ataxia (stumbling), vocalizing, digestive tract upset, and others. Additionally, alcohol affect pets in a quicker and more-severe manner than commonly experienced by most people due to pets’ smaller body size and lack of tolerance to booze.

The drinkable form of alcohol isn’t the exclusive manner by which pets can suffer toxicity.  Yeast used to prepare homemade breads and other baked goods exudes alcohol as dough rises.  There’s also the potential for rising dough to continue to expand in your pet’s stomach and cause gastric distention (gastric dilatation or “bloat” with or without torsion), reduced rate of intestinal contraction (peristalsis), abdominal pain, vomiting, lethargy, inappetence, and other signs.

Always plan ahead to prevent your pet from suffering the health-damaging effects of dietary indiscretion (eating things one should not).  Keep all Thanksgiving foods elevated and out of reach of your canine and feline companions.  Immediately put leftovers into sealed containers.  Be aware of your pets’ location at all times and prevent them from having access to locations where food is being served.

If your pet suffers a suspected or known exposure to toxic foods, contact the ASPCA Animal Poison Control (888-426-4435) or Pet Poison Helpline (800-213-6680) to start a case file and determine if a trip to the veterinary hospital is merited.

Meet the Author: Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).

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