The dan­gers of feed­ing left-over food to pets


The Christmas feast is over: if ever there is an ex­ces­sive sur­plus of left-over food in Ir­ish house­holds, it must surely be at this time of year. Many Ir­ish homes cook mega-tur­keys, even though we may only have half a dozen peo­ple eat­ing on Christmas Day. We rus­tle up stuff­ing, we boil huge hams, we cook ki­los of spuds, we cre­ate lash­ings of gravy, yet we can only eat so much food our­selves. So it’s com­mon to find our fridges full to the brim over the fes­tive pe­riod, and we are some­times left with food that risks soon go­ing past its “best by” date.

It’s not sur­pris­ing that peo­ple of­ten turn to their pets for help in this mat­ter. The poor old dog only gets a rat­tle of dry old bis­cuits, day in, day out, all year long. Yet he loves it when he’s thrown an oc­ca­sional morsel of fresh food. So wouldn’t it be a kind and gen­er­ous ges­ture to share some of this post- Christmas sur­plus with our an­i­mal friends? And at the same time, the is­sue of what to do with the moun­tain of ex­tra food would be sorted out.

But wait. This isn’t al­ways as sim­ple as you might think. If you don’t want to rush up to the emer­gency vet with a sick pet over the hol­i­day break, you’d be wise to pause be­fore fill­ing your pet’s bowl with treats and tid­bits.

The di­ges­tive sys­tem of dogs and cats can be sur­pris­ingly sen­si­tive. Of course, some dogs are able to cope with eat­ing all sorts of dif­fer­ent food­stuffs, and we’ve all known pooches who hap­pily fin­ish off the rem­nants of fam­ily meals with no is­sues at all. But as a vet, I know far more animals who have de­vel­oped se­ri­ous gas­troin­testi­nal up­sets af­ter be­ing fed food­stuffs that don’t agree with them.

This is a par­tic­u­lar is­sue over the Christmas hol­i­day pe­riod: the most com­mon rea­son for pets hav­ing to go to the vet at this time of year is a di­ges­tive dis­tur­bance brought on by over-in­dul­gence.

The prob­lem is that animals’ di­ges­tive sys­tems adapt to the diet that is fed on a day to day ba­sis. So if your dog has dry kib­ble bis­cuits day in, day out, week in, week out, your dog’s stom­ach and in­testines will adapt to di­gest­ing and pro­cess­ing those kib­ble bis­cuits. If you sud­denly throw in a mix of meat, gravy and spuds, the sys­tem just won’t be able to cope. The di­ges­tive sys­tem re­acts in one of two ways: if the stom­ach gets ir­ri­tated, vom­it­ing fol­lows, and if it’s the in­testines that can’t cope with a food­stuff, the re­sult­ing ir­ri­ta­tion causes di­ar­rhoea. If both stom­ach and in­testines re­act badly, you can end up with the worst of both worlds: vom­it­ing and di­ar­rhoea at the same time.

Left-overs can have other, spe­cific is­sues that pet own­ers should know about: in par­tic­u­lar, there’s a risk of feed­ing pets highly fatty morsels. We hu­mans have learned that we shouldn’t eat too much fat. It’s bad for our choles­terol lev­els, bad for our waist­line, and in gen­eral, low fat is our aim. So we tend to trim off what we see as ex­cess fat: ba­con rinds, turkey skin, the edges around the ham. And while we are do­ing this, we may no­tice our pet dogs sali­vat­ing at our feet: they of­ten love eat­ing fatty foods. The prob­lem is that their di­ges­tive sys­tems can’t cope with the fat that they want to eat.

Some­times the re­sult of too much fat is sim­ply in­di­ges­tion, but it can be far worse than that. The pan­creas is the par­tic­u­lar or­gan that’s sen­si­tive to too much fat. A highly fatty meal is of­ten the pre­cip­i­tat­ing fac­tor that sets off a se­ri­ous in­flam­ma­tory dis­ease called Pan­cre­ati­tis. The back­ground to this is sim­ple: the pan­creas pro­duces the en­zymes that are needed to di­gest fatty food. So when a load of fatty food enters the stom­ach, the pan­creas pro­duces a surge of di­ges­tive en­zymes. Un­for­tu­nately, some­times this surge of en­zymes is too much for the pan­creas to process ef­fec­tively: the en­zymes start to leak into the pan­creas it­self, ac­tu­ally be­gin­ning to di­gest the or­gan that has pro­duced them. This causes se­vere and dan­ger­ous con­se­quences: the pan­creas be­comes swollen, painful and can even be de­stroyed by its own en­zymes. Pan­cre­ati­tis is a life-threat­en­ing con­di­tion which can­not al­ways be cured.

The out­ward signs that will be no­ticed by an owner can be vague: of­ten the dog will just look un­com­fort­able. They some­times adopt a “praying” po­si­tion, with their front legs down low, and their rear end in the air. Of­ten se­vere and re­peated vom­it­ing is seen, and af­fected animals be­come dull and quiet, suf­fer­ing from acute ab­dom­i­nal pain. If any of these signs are seen, espe­cially if a fatty meal has been eaten, af­fected animals should be taken at once to the emer­gency vet. Treat­ment in­cludes in­tra­venous fluid ther­apy (putting the dog “on a drip), as well as pain relief and an­tibi­otic cover. Most animals re­spond well to treat­ment, but there is a tragic small num­ber who don’t sur­vive. Early treat­ment is es­sen­tial to give af­fected animals the best pos­si­ble chance.

Some dogs re­cover, but then go on to de­velop “chronic pan­cre­ati­tis”: a low-grade, long term form of the dis­ease. If they are even given tiny morsels of fat (such as a piece of ba­con rind), they have a re­peat episode of pan­cre­ati­tis, with all the signs again. Their own­ers soon learn that the only an­swer is a strict low-fat diet, for­ever.

Avoid a post- Christmas cri­sis: don’t give your pet more than 10% of left-overs mixed with their daily food ra­tions.

Dogs of­ten want treats that may not be good for them

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