Table scraps have defined our species’ close bond with dogs for millennia. I’d comfortably go so far as to suggest that handouts from early humans might have attracted those first curious canines to our encampments. In short order, they learned we’re messy eaters as well as hopeless suckers for the unmistakable look of self-pity and suffering from a dog that would really like a bite of your sandwich.
If sharing food with our canine companions has been woven into the fabric of our collective DNA over generations, why does the act continue to fuel such controversy among pet owners and condemnation from veterinarians?
The answer lies primarily in canine physiology, and to a certain extent, anthropology. But first, let’s start with a confession: I feed my dogs table scraps. Often it occurs as an inevitable byproduct of raising small children with pets in the house. Other times I engage in the act voluntarily, either for the satisfaction of seeing them ascend to what seems like gastronomical Shangri-La or for the convenience of not having to make room in the fridge for leftovers.
None of my dogs have ever been hospitalized, obstructed, constipated, speared by a chicken bone, or gained extra luster to their coats as a result of this practice. I expect my personal experience as a dog owner likely mirrors yours. In moderation and with some caveats, the canine gastrointestinal tract is built to tackle your table scraps. But though I still do it, in good faith I can’t condone it.
While their highly acidic stomach and specialized intestinal reflexes evolved to assist in the gorging and fasting of the hunter-scavenger lifestyle, dogs’ guts are far from perfect. As a profession, we vets frequently encounter situations in which overindulgence, toxicity, or even simple changes in feeding routine have contributed to GI distress and death. So you have to understand—and hopefully appreciate—the painful origins of a vet’s bias.
It’s true that fats are a primary source of energy, especially for working dogs. Delivered in moderation within a commercial diet optimized for digestibility, fats take on critical roles in brain function, cellular integrity, and immune response. We also share an appreciation for fat’s high palatability with our canine companions, which can lead to trouble.
Not all breeds, nor all individuals within a breed, are blessed with iron stomachs. Bella the golden retriever may have counter surfed and engulfed an entire rotisserie chicken without so much as an errant fart, but Bella the Yorkie succumbed to severe, necrotizing pancreatitis after sharing a side order of bacon with her owner (both are true stories). Fat bombs like these are risky, and I can show you a giant stack of medical records where they’ve dealt a lot of destruction.
The organ of concern here is the pancreas, which contributes enzymes to help us break down these large fat molecules. These powerful enzymes are so efficient at digestion, they can be easily coaxed out of their physiological lane when challenged with a fat-laden meal and begin digesting the surrounding tissue, including the pancreas itself.
The resulting inflammation leads to a dreadfully painful, if not deadly, scenario for your dog and the accumulation of a hefty vet bill. If you can’t resist the urge to feed your dog from your plate, err on the side of sharing your green beans instead of the steak trimmings.
The sensitive and occasionally moody pancreas also serves to produce insulin, an evolutionary facepalm that seems to me like installing the larder next to the armory. From those dogs that recover from severe cases of pancreatitis emerges a new graduating class of lifelong diabetics. Somewhere in there is a joke about adding insulin to injury, but I doubt those of you that have been down this path would find it funny.
Is it likely? Statistically, no, given the sheer number of fatty morsels consumed in a pet-centric culture that fostered the idea of the doggie bag. But we vets see the bad ones, and believe me, they are cases we won’t soon forget.
Bones are a point of head-scratching, as they seem to affect some dogs differently than others. My current canine crew exemplifies this perfectly: The older male will vomit up any bit of bone he encounters, while the same nugget would safely pass through the smaller female.
While most dogs handle raw bones quite well, I keep them on my “use with caution” list. Clients that insist on feeding bones to their dogs I try to steer towards those bones found in the forelimbs of large ruminants (the bovine humerus is perfect). Most dogs slowly grind these down instead of quickly crushing them into potentially dangerous shards.
Unilaterally, sharing cooked bones is rarely condoned by medical professionals due to their tendency to break into pointy fragments. These pieces usually make it through the GI tract without a problem, but if the dog vomits during the process, the forceful expulsion of a sharp bone shard can cause damage to the esophagus and throat.
While dogs likely co-evolved to handle our leftovers, relatively recent advancements in food technology and global trade have greatly expanded our menu options. With that culinary diversity comes a larger list of dangerous food items for our pets. For some of these, we understand the subtle biochemical peculiarities in canines that make seemingly benign ingredients dangerous for dogs. Others we are still trying to figure out after learning the hard way.
Raisins, chocolate, and foods with xylitol sweeteners rank highest on my list of common offenders. Years of veterinary PSAs about the first two have gained traction with pet owners, while the dangers of xylitol for dogs is less well known by the public. I make sure my kids are well versed in what’s safe to eat, as they’re my dogs’ most likely hookup for something on the contraband list.
With my bird dogs, a little conscientious dishing of scraps goes a long way to solidifying the bond we share in the field. If they’ve logged an ultramarathon after a limit of prairie grouse, I feel almost obligated to drop a few morsels of our hard-earned bounty into their bowls. Like any cheat day indulgence, moderation along with some awareness of dangerous foods will keep your dogs out of trouble, as well as the emergency clinic.
Feature image via John Hafner.