Inviting pets to holiday feast? Know foods you can and can't share

Lindsey Bever
Washington Post

You see those wide eyes - innocent, endearing, yet secretly conniving - peering up at you from beneath the dinner table. Before you know it, the family dog or cat practically has its own place setting, and you're serving bits of turkey and all the trimmings.

Opinions vary, but the consensus from veterinarians who spoke to The Washington Post is that small bites of many festive foods are fine to share with pets that are healthy, as long as you follow one rule: Everything in moderation.

For healthy pets, small bites of many festive foods are fine. But use caution with pets that have allergies or any underlying health conditions.

"Holiday treats are fine for healthy dogs," said Lori Teller, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. But, she said, caution should be applied with pets that have allergies, intolerances, sensitivities or any underlying health conditions.

Q: Which foods should I avoid giving my pet?

A: First, there are some definite no's when it comes to feeding from the holiday table.

Joseph Wakshlag, a professor of clinical nutrition at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, urged pet parents not to share grapes or raisins, which have been associated with kidney failure in dogs, or garlic or onions, as these can damage red blood cells in both dogs and cats.

Certain tree nuts are not good for dogs.

Steer clear of chocolate, which contains theobromine, a toxin that can cause vomiting, diarrhea, heart arrhythmias and seizures, Wakshlag said. And, he added, stay away from treats containing xylitol, a sweetener that can lead to liver damage in dogs and has the potential to harm cats, as well.

Finally, never give your pet a sip of coffee or a nip of the eggnog or other alcoholic beverages.

If you have specific questions about whether it is safe to let your pet partake in the holiday feast, consult your veterinarian.

Q: Can I give meat to my dog or cat?

A few bites of white meat from your roasted chicken or turkey can be a tasty treat. But avoid the skin, which is fatty, and may also be coated in seasonings such as garlic or onions that can be dangerous for pets.

Also, do not give them the bones. Bones can splinter, causing perforations or ulcerations in the gastrointestinal tract. Some dogs may simply swallow a bone whole, which can result in an intestinal blockage requiring surgery.

Brisket is trickier. Veterinarians are split, but assuming the marinade does not contain ingredients that are dangerous for pets and assuming you avoid the fat and bones, it may be okay to give them a nibble.

The problem is that too much fat "can lead to gastrointestinal upset or even pancreatitis," in which the organ becomes inflamed, often leading to abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea, said Ashley Navarrette, clinical assistant professor of primary care at Texas A&M University. The condition can be life-threatening, she added.

Q: What about fruits and vegetables?

A: Apples (without the seeds) and fresh pumpkin or canned pumpkin puree are healthy treats your pets can eat. Just ignore the urge to feed them the pies as these desserts can have a lot of sugar, butter and seasonings that are not healthy for them. A small amount of sugar should not hurt a pet, but in larger quantities, it can cause spikes in blood glucose levels and then spikes in insulin, said Teller, a clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.

"They're not used to metabolizing it the way we are, and it can make them feel sick," she said.

Instead, set aside some fruit for your dog or cat before you start baking those holiday pies. Stay away from fruitcakes because those often contain raisins, which can be harmful to dogs.

Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, collard greens (as long as they are not cooked in too much fat or seasoning), cauliflower, peas, squash and zucchini are also yummy choices. So are green beans. In fact, veterinarians say green beans are actually nutritious - just not when smothered in cream of mushroom soup and fried onions. So save some green beans for your pet, then start making that casserole.

Russet potatoes and sweet potatoes are also fine, but veterinarians say to try to avoid the toppings, including butter, garlic and other seasonings. Latkes - which are fried potatoes - should be avoided, too, because of the grease and ingredients that pets are not supposed to eat such as onions. And don't serve the accompanying sour cream since many dogs tend to be lactose intolerant. The unsweetened applesauce is just fine.

Q: Is bread safe to share?

A: Small bites of bread - whether it be cornbread, challah or dinner roles - are generally acceptable. But do not let your pets have any raw dough because the yeast will rise in their stomachs and that can lead to bloat, which is a life-threatening condition, Navarrette said.

Q: How much holiday food is too much?

A: Veterinarians advise limiting pets' holiday treats to 10 to 20 percent of their typical daily food intake.

"Just don't overdo it," Wakshlag said.

And remember: All pets are different - what is okay for one may not be okay for another. "Some dogs have an iron gut. Some dogs don't," he said.

The ASPCA has a more complete list of the foods you should not feed your pets. If your pet does ingest something toxic this holiday season, you can call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435, or take your pet to the nearest animal hospital.