Printable, high-resolution PDF guide available below
With the holiday season quickly approaching, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss some human foods that pose a danger to cats (and dogs). As we're cooking up feasts for family gatherings, most of us rarely think that a grape or two can seriously harm our furry pals. Before you give your dog a cookie or your cat a piece of fried turkey skin, read our article and enjoy our printable and educational visual guide on which foods are dangerous and why.
1. Anything Grilled/Charred: During the grilling/charring process, carcinogenic heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form, damaging DNA and leading to mutations when consumed. PAHs also form when fat drips onto charcoal and smoke carries and deposits the chemicals directly onto the meat. Over time, ingestion of these carcinogens leads to cancer of the stomach, the colon, and the pancreas. Cats and dogs shouldn't be eating cooked foods in the first place.
2. Garlic and Onions: Healthy for us, potentially deadly for them. Garlic, onions, leeks, chives, shallows, and scallions all belong to the Allium family. When ingested, these will cause oxidative damage and rupturing of red blood cells (RBCs). RBCs are responsible for carrying adequate oxygen throughout the body and when they cannot do this, internal organ damage and failure will result. Species in the Allium family are responsible for anemia, a condition in which the RBC or hemoglobin count is below normal. And don't just assume we're talking about fresh onions and garlic---cooked, pickled, and dried powdered forms are dangerous too. Gastrointestinal irritation may also result and will present itself as nausea, drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.
3. Mushrooms: While it's true that not all mushrooms are toxic when ingested, there is no reason for cats and dogs to eat them. Some cause gastrointestinal upsets and some result in hallucinations; others are poisonous enough to cause shock and death. Make sure cats and dogs stay away from all mushroom types and varieties.
4. Vegetables: Vegetables are not a part of a natural diet for cats. Cats are carnivores and cannot digest grains, fruits, or vegetables. Commonly added to processed foods and fed as snacks, vegetables result in gastrointestinal upsets, bloating, gassiness, diarrhea, and constipation. Over time, the use of non-proteins in a cat's diet will lead to intestinal inflammation and concurrently, IBS/IBD, leaky gut syndrome, and nutrient malabsorption. Click here for a discussion on cats and their carnivorous nature.
5. Grapes and Raisins: Most pet parents know that raisins are very dangerous to cats and dogs, but fresh grapes and currants are also toxic. While it is still unknown which compound is directly responsible for the toxicity, grapes and raisins can cause acute renal (kidney) failure. Raisins are in foods you may overlook---cinnamon and raisin toast, trail mixes, and cookies; if your cat or dog ingested grapes, currants, or raisins, call the local ER or animal poison control center (contact information below).
6. Cooked Bones: Once raw bones are cooked, their structure and composition complete change. They harden and become indigestible. Furthermore, cooked bones split and crack into sharp, almost razor-like fragments that can cause gastrointestinal lacerations, pancreatitis, intestinal obstructions, and choking. Cats and dogs fully transitioned to a raw diet should only be fed raw SUITABLE bones. If teeth are missing/broken, a ground raw diet is the only way to go. Feral and rescue cats commonly have broken and missing teeth (from a rough outdoors life), so they must stay on a GROUND raw diet. Large dogs should be fed large whole parts (whole chicken, meaty non-weight bearing bones)---small and round pieces of raw bone can easily be swallowed and choked on. Don't give a large dog small raw chicken wings---he will just swallow them whole and possibly choke or become obstructed. NEVER feed cooked bones.
7. Coffee/Caffeine: Caffeine is a toxic stimulant to animals---especially to the nervous system and the heart. Found in coffee, tea, sodas, medications, and energy drinks, caffeine will cause vomiting, diarrhea, increased thirst, and increased heart rate when ingested by animals. Be careful to store coffee where cats and dogs will not reach it.
8. Uncooked Dough: When raw dough is ingested, the warm environment of the stomach allows it to expand, potentially causing life-threatening blockages or twisting of the stomach around itself (requiring emergency surgery and costly post-op care). Consuming uncooked dough may result in gastroenteritis, inflammation of the stomach and small intestines, and concurrently, diarrhea, vomiting, bloating, and abdominal pain. Another way that raw dough is dangerous is through its fermentation process---producing carbon dioxide (responsible for bloating) and alcohol (see 'Alcohol' below). Yes, alcohol poisoning can occur in animals that ingest uncooked dough.
9. Nuts: As with other non-raw-meat foods, there is no reason that cats and dogs should be feeding on nuts. These have no place in their diets. While some nuts can be gastrointestinally irritating, others can cause serious and potentially irreversible damage. Walnuts and macadamias affect the nervous system and lead to muscle damage, lethargy, tremors, and joint stiffness.
10. Fat/Lard, Drippings: Saturated fat in cooked and raw meats is not healthy for animals. When we make our homemade raw food, I remove most skin off the whole chickens (leaving a little on the wings and drumsticks). We all need cholesterol and some fat in our diets for proper cellular membranes and brain functions, but allowing cats and dogs to eat lard, fried turkey/chicken skins, or Thanksgiving drippings is dangerous. Consuming too fatty of foods overwhelms the gallbladder and pancreas. This can lead to life-threatening pancreatitis or flare up/worsen triaditis (syndrome of concurrent inflammation of the liver, pancreas, and small intestines) with or without cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder). At the very least, drippings and poultry skin can cause diarrhea, gassiness, bloating, and cramping.
11. Alcohol: It's common sense not to give dogs and cats beer, vodka, and other alcoholic drinks. Animals are extremely sensitive to alcohol and it will poison them. Around the holidays, you can find alcohol in chocolate-gin truffles, rum-soaked fruit breads and other desserts, and of course, eggnog. Animals can become intoxicated with alcohol by eating uncooked dough (see 'Uncooked Dough' above). When ingested, alcohol wreaks havoc on the body---low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), low body temperature, low blood pressure (hypotension), seizures, coma, and death. As a side note, make sure that all natural and homeopathic medications you make/buy for your dogs and cats are ALCOHOL-FREE.
12. Spices: Spices are dangerous to cats and dogs. Some may not be as toxic as others, but as a rule, you should keep all spices away from them. Nutmeg, for example, contains the toxin myristicin, an organic phenylpropene compound that has psychoactive, anticholinergic-like properties. This compound is also present, in smaller quantities, in dill and parsley. Nutmeg is used in desserts and sweets, drinks, and various foods, so intoxication is quite probable. Nutmeg intoxication produces excitement and confusion in people, with signs and symptoms ranging from nausea and tachycardia to dizziness and paranoia-like hallucinations. Cinnamon can cause a drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and this CAN be life-threatening. Inhaling cinnamon powder can lead to vomiting, increased heart rate, coughing, bronchospasms, and choking. If you grow spice herbs and bushes in or around your home, be careful---dogs can chew on cinnamon bark, munch on avocado trees, or get a dose of potent essential oils. Animals require much smaller doses for intoxication and poisoning, so keep all spices out of their reach!
13. Chocolate: Everyone should know that chocolate is toxic to cats and dogs! Chocolate and cocoa contain the xanthine compound, theobromine (related to caffeine) that, when ingested, causes vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, seizures, pancreatitis, stomach/intestinal obstruction, heart toxicity, nervous system toxicity, and death. The less sweet and the darker the chocolate, the more toxic it is to them.
14. Milk and Dairy: Contrary to popular belief, pasteurized cow milk is NOT good for cats and dogs. Cats and dogs cannot digest and utilize it properly and ingesting dairy commonly results in diarrhea, bloating, gassiness, and gastrointestinal upsets. Unpasteurized milk contains probiotics and enzymes that are killed and denatured by pasteurization. Our cats drink unpasteurized, raw goat's milk as a snack once in a while---goat's milk IS the universal milk, NOT cow's milk.
15. Raw Fish: To feed raw fish to cats, there are a few guidelines to familiarize yourself with. Feed only small raw fish---sardines and anchovies are perfect. Fish must be gutted and frozen for at least 21-28 days before feeding. This will ensure that parasites are killed. The freezing recommendations vary greatly. The FDA states "24 hours is sufficient to kill parasites [in small fish]"; others say 4-7 days is enough. Personally, I freeze for 21-28 days before feeding. Fish is high in mercury, so don't overdo it on feeding. Too much fish consumption depletes nutrients and vitamins in cats. Raw fish should be fed rarely as a snack (I feed fish every two to four weeks and supplement with omega-3 DHA/EPA) and must be small. The smaller/younger the fish, the less mercury accumulation. Do NOT feed tuna. Tuna is over-farmed and over-fished. Some species live for many years and can grow up to 15ft in length; mercury levels are dangerously high in these. Don't feed cats cooked fish either---the bones harden and become sharper, potentially causing choking.
16. Medications: As patients, we get bottles, childproof caps, and a bolded, all-capital letter warning that states "KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN AND PETS". Yet, every year, animals are seriously harmed or killed by ingesting medications. Please, keep your meds closed, locked away, and in areas that dogs and cats cannot reach them. These can cause anything from vomiting to acute renal and liver failure or death.
17. Candy/Gum: Sugar-free gum, candy, and toothpaste contain xylitol, a natural sugar substitute that is very dangerous to cats and dogs. When ingested, it causes a dangerous drop in blood glucose (hypoglycemia) and potentially acute liver necrosis. Xylitol toxicity will present itself as weakness, lethargy, jaundice, vomiting, malaise, black tarry stools, and collapse.
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WHAT TO DO IF YOUR CAT/DOG ATE SOMETHING DANGEROUS OR TOXIC:
Be careful leaving food unattended or the trashcan overfilled and opened for picking. You may want to cat-proof the house if you have a wanderer that likes to eat trash or climb countertops. A few suggestions may be to get a lid for the trashcan (or storing it away/outside), keeping medications locked up, and storing all dangerous foods where cats and dogs cannot reach them.