Since ancient times, the question of what constitutes the best food for dogs has been a point of discussion among dog lovers, scholars, and even poets. In his four-part poem, The Georgics, the Roman poet Virgil wrote about canine nutrition and what to feed dogs:
Nor be thy dogs last cared for; but alike
Swift Spartan hounds and fierce Molossian feed
On fattening whey (Georgics, Book III)
Today, a dog’s total nutritional requirements are conveniently met by any number of high-quality commercial dog food brands, both dry and wet. Still, as dog owners sate their gustatory desires upon a range of foods, we naturally return to wondering if human foods are safe for dogs.
Virgil understood the importance of protein to the diet of working dogs. In “Food,” a modern poet, to wit, Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan, asserts that his audience should “eat fish, that brain food will get you smart.” Is it equally wise for dogs to eat fish? What about other kinds of seafood? Are any of them particularly bad for dogs? Our survey will include:
The term “shellfish” is mostly one of convenience, since it covers a wide assortment of water-dwelling creatures including crustaceans and mollusks. Not all of them even have shells. The ones we’re covering here do, and whether it’s the thin, but resilient, covering of the shrimp or the tough outer husk of the lobster, the basic rule of thumb when it comes to dogs and shellfish is to completely remove any shell and to cook the meat thoroughly. Let’s look at each in turn.
The tentative answer is yes. It’s only provisional, though, because it is only safe under the following conditions: The shrimp must be fully cooked, unseasoned, and have the legs, shell, and tail completely removed. The shell and tail are of particular concern, since the thin but tough covering can lacerate a dog’s digestive system on its way through.
The warnings for shrimp apply equally to crabs; cook a crab thoroughly and offer a dog only a small bit to start. Crustaceans, like crab, shrimp, and lobster are responsible for the majority of shellfish allergies, along with playing host to dangerous parasites. If your dog has never tried a food before, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and gauge any allergic or gastrointestinal upset before offering them seconds.
Another provisional “yes,” with the same warnings that go for shrimp and crab. To wit, the clam should be well cooked, removed from its shell entirely, and served in very small portions. At most, one or two clams may be given to a dog on occasion once you know your dog has no adverse reaction to the meat.
Scallops are very similar to clams, though clams can grow to be much larger. Both are bivalve mollusks, and the same cautions apply to scallops and clams. Fully cooked and divested of its shell, a few scallops should be safe for dogs in general, though individual dogs’ tolerance for and reaction to them may vary widely.
As with each of the shellfish on the list, you’ll want to make certain that any seafood you give a dog is fresh and thoroughly cooked. Humans tend to enjoy shellfish with any number of additives, including hot butter, which is no good for dogs. Simply prepared and in very small portions, a dog should be okay to try a bit of lobster.
There are just too many risk factors, including a variety of means by which a dog might be affected by shellfish poisoning. Raw oysters for dogs are, of course, totally out of the question; at any time a raw oyster may be carrying bacteria, algae, or viruses which can affect digestion, motor skills, or brain function. Toxins in algae cannot be fully purged even through cooking. If you choose to give a dog an oyster, do so with great care.
Finfish — as opposed to shellfish — are much more commonly found in homes than their shellfish counterparts, and thus, much more frequently asked about with regard to dogs. Any kind of finned fish you might think of offering to a dog as a treat should be fresh, cleaned, deboned, and cooked through before feeding any to a dog.
Canned fish, salmon and tuna in particular, that grace the shelves in grocery stores, should be avoided. Salt, oils, and other preservatives used in commercial canning are simply not appropriate for dogs. Fish canned in water, and water only, may be a possible exception.
When it’s well cooked and unseasoned, small portions of any kind of fish meat can be appropriate for a dog. Raw fish of any kind should be avoided at all costs. Raw salmon, salamanders, and trout are potentially hazardous to dogs due to the presence of flatworm eggs inside the fish.
These flukes are not infectious themselves, but carry within them Neorickettsia helminthoeca, an intestinal parasite responsible for Salmon Poisoning Disease. This parasitic disorder is fast acting and deadly; untreated, it can kill a dog within two weeks of infection.
Tuna is not prone to hosting the same kinds of parasites as salmon, but they are known for having high levels of mercury, which can be a health hazard to dogs. Fresh, with all bones removed, and well-cooked, very small portions of tuna may appeal to your dog with no ill effects.
Where your dog’s digestive health is concerned, introducing a new food source into their diet as a full meal at random is almost always asking for some stomach upset. With seafood in particular, proceed with caution. If you do not know the source of the fish — shellfish or otherwise — that you’re serving, play it safe and avoid giving any to your dog.
Fresh seafood, on the other hand, with any bones, shells, or any potentially sharp bits removed may be attempted as a treat in small portions. It is difficult to make blanket judgements on seafood in general, since different dogs, even within a single litter, may have different reactions to it. If your dog seems to love a certain kind of finfish or shellfish, that does not mean that it is safe for every other dog. Use your best judgement.
Seafood prepared for humans gets a universal “No” when it comes to dogs. Tinned sardines, slathered as they are in salt, are also bad for dogs. Fish sticks, a staple of after-school snacking for kids, should also be kept from dogs. Fried foods are no good for dogs on the whole, and when there’s a bowl of tartar sauce near to hand, it increases the risk of temporary digestive upset. Finally, while many of us love sushi, but for dogs, raw seafood of any kind should be avoided.