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"People Foods" That Can Sicken Your Pets & Other Safety Tips

by Ellen Lovinger Eller

While baking oatmeal-raisin cookies, you drop some dough on the floor—where your puppy has been hoping for just such an accident…

Your cat is playing with a cherry tomato that fell off its vine, and watching him is so much fun, you never consider that he might bite into it and fall deathly ill…

We humans are omnivores, adaptable when it comes to what we eat. And because we love our pets and tend to express that love by giving them tasty tidbits, either occasionally or habitually, we forget that their bodies are not quite so adaptable. Many common, ordinary things that people eat can be harmful, even deadly, for dogs and cats. For example:

Chocolate: The theobromine in cocoa products diminishes blood flow to the brain and may lead to heart attacks in cats and dogs. Ingesting small amounts can result in gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea; consuming large amounts can lead to coma and death. The degree of toxicity depends on the animal’s weight and the amount and type of chocolate eaten: the darker the chocolate, the more theobromine it contains. That makes semi-sweet and bakers chocolate particularly dangerous. Consider how resourceful dogs can be when it comes to finding and tearing into baked goods or candy—and keep chocolate in all forms out of reach.

Grapes & Raisins: Aside from the possibility that a quickly bolted-down little fruit can choke a small pet, grapes and raisins are highly toxic to both cats and dogs. Scientists and veterinarians aren’t sure why, but they are sure that it doesn’t take much to damage an animal’s kidneys irreparably. So no matter how much Fido may beg for some of your late-summer grapes or that raisin cookie you’re munching on, even if he tolerated the fruit in the past, a repeat "treat" is not worth the risk.

Milk & Other Dairy Products: On a hot summer day, you may be tempted to share your ice cream cone with your dog. Or perhaps you’ve gotten into the habit of giving your grown cat a saucer of milk. Unfortunately, pets do not tolerate milk and milk-based products very well. Dairy foods can cause diarrhea and other digestive upsets, as well as food allergies that are often first manifested as itchiness.

Mushrooms: There are people who can identify mushrooms that are edible and those that are poisonous. Most of us simply don’t eat fungi we don’t know. But your dog might nibble on the mushrooms that sometimes pop up in your lawn or a mushroom in the woods that’s surrounded by intriguing wild scents, and that could lead to shock and death. The severity of the reaction depends on the type of mushroom and amount eaten as well as the animal’s size and sensitivity. Figure that it’s better to be safe than sorry: Don’t feed mushrooms to dogs and cats (even the "tame" varieties you eat), keep an eye out for potentially deadly mushrooms in the wild, and get rid of those "backyard mushrooms" as soon as you see them.

Onions: The sulfoxides and disulfides in onions are known to damage red blood cells, causing severe anemia. And it should be noted that cats are more susceptible to onion poisoning than dogs. The fact that many prepared foods’ ingredients include onions is one excellent reason to avoid giving such "people food" to pets, aside from basic nutritional considerations, of course. (FYI, garlic contains those compounds, too, but less of them. That’s why it may be given as a dietary supplement to help repel fleas, unless an individual animal is sensitive to it.)

Pits & Seeds: Choking on pits and seeds is a real hazard for pets, but not the only one. Apple seeds, cherry pits, peach pits, pear pips, plum pits and apricot pits contain cyanide, a deadly poison. While chomping an apple core with seeds may not cause an immediate problem, the effects can accumulate over time, and if a dog chewing playfully on a fruit pit happens to swallow it, his exposure to cyanide is likely to be continuous.

Raw Eggs: Sure, eggs can be a nice change of protein in your pet’s diet. But raw egg whites contain avidin, which depletes biotin in a dog’s system. Biotin is one of the B vitamins essential for a healthy coat and normal growth, and deficiency can result in hair loss, weakness, bone deformities and stunted growth. Raw egg yolks contain enough biotin to prevent the lack, so you might feed raw whole eggs—but don’t ignore the possibility that they could be contaminated with salmonella. Your best bet is to just cook the eggs.

Sugar, Etc.: Too much sugar can lead to obesity, dental problems and diabetes in dogs, just as it does with humans. But don’t even think about giving your pet any of the "diet" treats you may enjoy. Sugar substitutes such as xylitol, often used to sweeten candies, baked goods and even toothpaste, can increase the insulin in your dog’s body, causing his blood sugar to drop drastically. Symptoms are likely to include vomiting, lethargy and coordination loss, followed by seizures and, within a few days, liver failure.

Similarly, too much salt can cause excessive thirst and urination and lead to sodium ion poisoning. Symptoms of too much salt include vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, elevated body temperature, seizures and, sometimes, death. So if you feel like snacking on salty chips or pretzels, be a little greedy—and don’t share them with your dog.

Tomatoes & Potatoes: Tomatoes are toxic to cats, and so are the other parts of the tomato plant (which, by the way, are harmful for humans, too). Victims suffer severe, potentially fatal gastrointestinal distress. So if you see your cat playing with a cherry tomato as if it were a ball, or a mouse, get it away from him before his claws puncture the skin and he takes a taste.

Interestingly, tomatoes don’t seem to have that adverse effect on dogs. But potatoes have been blamed for poisoning some canines (and people). It only happens rarely, and the potatoes aren’t really the culprit. Sprouts and green patches on potato skins contain solanine which, eaten in quantity, can cause major neurological and respiratory crises. Fortunately, there’s not enough solanine in a single potato to do your dog (or you) real harm. Peeled and cooked—with sprouts and green spots removed—potatoes are easily digested by dogs and quite nutritious.

Walnuts: The seed hulls of walnuts sometimes contain a fungus or mold that is extremely toxic for dogs. It may take several days for signs of walnut poisoning to appear—vomiting and drooling, trembling, lack of coordination, lethargy, loss of appetite, yellowing of the eyes and gums—but if you notice any of these symptoms, get your dog to the vet right away.

And Then There’s Alcohol: Beer, liquor, wine and foods that contain alcohol affect a dog’s brain, and liver, the same way they affect a person—except it takes far less to do its damage. Just a little can cause vomiting, diarrhea, central nervous system dysfunction, coordination problems, difficulty breathing, coma and death. The smaller the dog, the greater the effects, but large dogs are also at risk.

Non-Foods Pose Risks, Too

Just as parents child-proof their home, pet owners need to pet-proof. Some of the greatest potential dangers to cats and dogs are obvious; others may surprise you:

1) Rat and mouse poisons—tasty enough to attract dogs as well as rodents.

2) Gardening supplies—including weed killers, insecticides and slug bait.

3) Household supplies—oven cleaners, furniture and floor polish, detergent, etc.

4) Paint and paint solvents—and, of course, brushes, rollers and mixing sticks.

5) Antifreeze and windshield wiper fluid—both dogs and cats find the taste appealing, but even a small amount can be fatal.

6) Human medication—they may ease your pain, but products like Tylenol can cause serious illness and death in pets.

7) Plants—hundreds of garden and house plants produce toxic substances that can cause reactions ranging from mild nausea to death in animals. Daffodil and hyacinth bulbs are on the list; so are buttercups, foxglove and English ivy; philodendron, dumbcane and poinsettia. Visit the American Humane Society website for a comprehensive list of harmful species so you can plan your garden and home décor around pet safety.

How Can You Tell If Your Pet Is Sick?

Unlike humans, pets don’t complain about what troubles them. They may simply lay low, out of the way, making it hard to know there’s a problem. So here are signs of sickness or distress to watch for:

· Diarrhea

· Vomiting

· Unexplained or sudden weight loss

· Significant loss of or increase in appetite

· Pawing at ears or shaking head

· Lumps on the body

· Major fur loss (beyond normal shedding) or a dull, patchy coat

· Persistent sneezing or coughing

· Abnormal discharge from the eyes or nose

· Stiffness or weakness in the joints; difficulty moving

· Straining to urinate or defecate (a cat’s inability to urinate is an emergency; get him to the vet immediately)

· Cuts, wounds or other injuries

If you notice any of these signals, or if you know your pet has eaten a dangerous food or substance, contact your veterinarian immediately. Also, keep the name and number of the closest emergency vet clinic handy for after-hours pet care.

Ellen Eller is a freelance writer and editor based in western Massachusetts, and a regular contributor to Wisdom magazine.

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