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Dogs are opportunistic omnivores: Given half a chance and ready access, they can and will ingest anything. I would never give my dog a sock or loose change to eat, but these things and stranger ones have turned up in a dog’s stomach. And, by the time my favorite foods reach the table, they hold about as much nutritional value for my dog as a sock.
I compiled a list of common American food favorites, hoping to determine what consequences they might have for our dogs. I spoke with David Walker, D.V.M., chief of staff at Armadale Animal Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Diana Laverdure, a canine nutrition expert and co-author of Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health, to offer an informed but common-sense guide.
A nice steak — medium-rare, thanks — allows me to experience the thrill of humanity’s hunter-gatherer days. Imagine how happy our ancestors would have been with spices, marinades, and a nice bottle of steak sauce! The ingredients in the rubs applied during preparation and the sauces poured on afterward are what make a typical steak inappropriate for dogs. Trimming the fat from a steak and throwing it to the dog? Feeding my dog bits of fat can lead to occasional vomiting and loose bowels. Repeatedly doing so can inflame her pancreas and inhibit her body from processing even normal foods as she ages.
Honey-glazed, cured, salted, or otherwise processed: All the typical methods of preparation for ham are the very things that make it not so good for my dog. Walker advises dog owners not to feed “any food that is high in fat, extremely spicy, or extremely sweet” to dogs. Because contemporary table foods tend to meet one or more of these criteria, dogs who eat them regularly are not only at higher risk for obesity, but also for attendant physical problems like ligament damage in joints overstressed by years of bearing excess weight.
Pliable, with a nice strip of fat running down the side or crispy to the point of blackening, bacon is an essential breakfast food. Chances are it’ll all be in my stomach before my dog even catches the scent, which is for the best. The fat and grease from bacon contribute to clogged arteries as she grows older. I’d rather give my dog any number of bacon-flavored treats, which are readily available.
Salmon are known carriers of an intestinal parasite, a flatworm that is itself host to a potentially fatal bacterium. Should a dog get hold of raw or undercooked salmon, you should book a trip to the vet immediately. Dogs who contract salmon poisoning disease can die from the infection in less than two weeks. Laverdure says that salmon which is properly prepared, on the other hand, “is not only good, but wonderful” for dogs.
Is there a more touching holiday tradition than dropping an entire turkey into the deep fryer? We stuff and season these lovely birds beyond recognition and turn an otherwise healthy food into a font of acute digestive upset. I need to stop giving my dog the skin or other parts that are too greasy and too rich, as they offer her nothing but excess calories, diarrhea, and heart problems.
The same goes for any kind of blended, cylindrical meat product I buy from a street vendor for the sake of convenience. Hot dogs contain artificial ingredients, nitrates, chemicals, and preservatives, none of which can be adequately broken down or eliminated by a dog’s digestive system.
The sources of meat may be individually healthy for my dog, but, in Laverdure’s words, they are “bad because of the process” by which they’re created.
Breading mixtures, salts, and seasonings drown out a chicken’s customary nutrients long before it’s dropped into the fryer. Feeding our dogs fried chicken exposes them to wholly unnecessary digestive upset in the short term, and, over the course of their lives, to long-term first-world dog problems like obesity and pancreatitis. What about the bones? Bones from turkeys and chickens are made brittle as a result of the cooking processes and are more likely to splinter and wreak havoc as they wend their way through my dog’s digestive tract.
As a source of vitamin A and appropriate dietary fiber, carrots present no problems to my dog as an occasional treat. Carrots are also a safe alternative to animal bones of any kind as completely edible chew toys.
Brown rice is preferable to white, since it retains all its native nutrients, including vegetable proteins. I’ve given my dog unseasoned rice and boiled chicken to treat an upset stomach, and at times like these, rice gets top marks.
Pickles wouldn’t exist without vinegar and salt. Others are steeped in high-fructose corn syrup and onion flakes, neither of which I would feed my dog under any circumstances. The corn syrup offers nothing but empty calories, and onions can disrupt the normal functioning of my dog’s red blood cells, depriving them of oxygen.
Walker told me that repeated ingestion of fatty, high-sodium, or high-sugar human foods eventually “causes many pets to be reluctant to eat their well-balanced dog food diet.” In other words, give your dogs heavily processed foods on a regular basis, and our dogs not only eat them willingly, but learn to anticipate and favor them. The individually wrapped, vacuum-sealed, oily sticks of jerky that I grab at the gas station may satisfy my own need to gnaw and occupy me for a few minutes. But when the ingredient list of any food contains a host of 20 unpronounceable additives before I reach anything that is technically meat, it’s not healthy for me or my dog.
Deep-fried or kettle-cooked, tater tots, french fries, and potato chips are treats I’ve loved since childhood, and none do my dog any favors. For her, these processed potato treats have no real nutritional value. Their outrageous sodium content alone leads to dehydration and high blood pressure. Of course, it can be difficult to prevent my dog from nibbling a chip that’s fallen to the floor while I’m binge-watching British period dramas, but that’s not something I do all the time anyway. Nope.
Air-popped and unseasoned popcorn is OK for dogs, but honestly, the only popcorn I eat is microwaved and slathered in all the butter and salt that comes with it. Not good for me and not good for my dog.
Just because my dog will eat anything doesn’t mean that she can extract nutrients from everything. The plant-based proteins found in the soybeans that comprise the tofu brick in my fridge do very little for my dog.
The pasta itself isn’t bad for either of us, but the way I make macaroni and cheese, with sour cream, cottage cheese, and all manner of sharp cheeses, means its lactose content is certainly too high and too varied for my dog to handle. It must be said, however, that beyond the temporary digestive inconvenience — diarrhea from too much ice cream or constipation from too much cheese — dairy is neither dangerous nor toxic to my dog.
Lactose intolerance is common in dogs as they transition out of puppyhood and no longer rely on milk as a primary source of nourishment. In small amounts, ice cream shouldn’t cause any substantive problems. Too much, though, and excess lactose will resurface as vomit, gas, or diarrhea. In the summer, I may pick up an ice cream treat formulated for dogs, which has such limited amounts of dairy that I needn’t fear a bowel-related disaster in my living room.
I like a hamburger topped with some kind of salty cheese, pickles, onions, tomatoes, and lettuce, all on a seasoned bun, with mayo and mustard on the side. As far as my dog goes, it became unfit for her consumption shortly after the word “hamburger.” A bit of a plain, unseasoned, cooked hamburger patty will not harm my dog. I don’t eat plain, unadorned burgers, and if you don’t either, it’s the mounting issues for our dogs’ weight and digestive health that should give us pause.
Were I to make a very simple pizza, without tomato sauce, little in the way of cheese, and some garden-fresh toppings, perhaps I’d make a limited exception for my dog. With the sort of pizza that appeals to me, the cheese will make her constipated, onions or garlic — even powdered or cooked — can be toxic, and any meats will probably contain additives and preservatives. Pizza isn’t the worst food for dogs, but I’m not about to leave the box unattended when my dog is around.
The prize for worst table food, at least where dogs are concerned, goes to sushi. Raw seafood always carries the threat of deadly parasites and bacteria, including salmonella. Salmonellosis may not be as dire for dogs as salmon poisoning disease, but the risk of infection is not worth letting my dog near sushi. I’ve seen many cute pictures of dogs dressed up in sushi costumes, but that’s as close to sushi as I’d ever let my own dog get.
How the foods we eat are prepared is a far more substantial problem for dogs than the constituent meats, veggies, or dairy products themselves. As Laverdure correctly observed, contemporary America is “the land of big portions, for pets and people.”
The greatest risk to my dog isn’t a few tater tots, but the cumulative effect of a lifetime of rich, fatty, processed table scraps, along with a sedentary way of life. Walker’s experience leads him to concur, and he suggested that, “If we could all provide adequate exercise for our pets, we would see more lean-body conditioned pets and probably fewer obesity-related and orthopedic issues.”
Maybe the time has come to stop thinking about whether the things I eat most frequently are OK for my dog and to start thinking about whether they’re any good for me!
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About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a one-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Idris, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.