Q: Is it OK to feed a dog human foods and, if so, what are the safest foods?
A: The reason this issue is an issue at all is because human foods can be detrimental, even dangerous, to our companions, especially if there are underlying diseases that may be at work. I do want to discuss this issue in reference to other companions as well.
The digestive system, the structures and substances responsible for turning food into energy, is extremely complex and very different from species to species. The digestive system of a feline is totally different from that of a dog, which is totally different from that of a parrot, which is totally different from that of an iguana … well, you get the picture. Each has adapted to a specific diet that in the case of non-domestic species is provided in the specific environments in which they live. In the case of companion species, we provide their diets.
The development of diets for companions of various species is a dynamic process that has evolved over time through trial and error as well as, most currently, extensive research into animal nutrition. And this research continues.
To understand more about proper nutrition in companions, study of their non-domestic counterparts in their habitats has been revealing. In the case of cats, we have learned much about their nutritional requirements by observing lions, tigers, jaguars and other wild cats. Wolves provide a non-domestic model for dogs, as unlikely as that may sound looking at some of the breeds of dogs we have created. It’s hard to believe a Chihuahua is related to a timber wolf, but metabolically they are brothers.
From these observations, we know that dogs and many avian companion species are what we term omnivores. This means they are designed to eat a variety of foods of plant and animal origin. Humans fall into this category, too. Do not infer from this, however, that humans and dogs are identical in their nutritional needs. Cats, we know, are true carnivores designed only to eat meat-sourced foods. Through proper processing, diets can be formulated to mimic protein from meat sources using proper blending of proteins from plant sources, but this blending must be very exacting to provide their nutritional balance. Rabbits, guinea pigs, iguanas, horses and chinchillas, among others, fall into the group we call herbivores. These creatures are designed to eat plant material.
What does all this mean? Especially in the case of dogs and cats, it means we as caretakers should pay close attention to their diets and stick to foods specifically formulated for them. It is especially important to use specific diets for our companions with certain digestive problems. These diets are specifically formulated to provide proper nutrition while dealing with a digestive problem. This is something you and your veterinarian can decide based on your companion’s condition.
Having said this, I realize that for some of us it is impossible to keep from feeding our companions from our plates. I know how hard it is to resist them when they give you “that look”– you know the one: the anxious eyes, anticipating, hoping. How can you resist? I know that’s what my dog counts on. My bird is much more brazen. He flies right up to the plate and tries to snatch whatever he fancies. To avoid inappropriate supplementation of your companion’s diet, I suggest a solution that has worked well for me. I do not eat in front of my dog and my bird is not within eye contact.
If avoiding your companion(s) during mealtime is not an option and you find it impossible to resist feeding them your food, please show discretion. At all cost, avoid foods that are high in fat. Meat and meat scraps can be especially dangerous and in my opinion should absolutely be avoided.
Not all is doom and gloom. There are human foods that can be used as treats, although I personally prefer to stick to treats specifically formulated for your companion. That said, I have been known to recommend “baby” carrots as a treat. They have no fat and are helpful in scrubbing a bit of plaque from the teeth. The key in my opinion is always to avoid foods that are laden with fat. Too many times, I have seen dogs become very ill, even fatally so, when treated with high-fat human food items.
Perhaps it is best to avoid all human foods for our canine companions, lest we begin to slide down that slippery slope to the point where we are being trained by our dogs to feed them what they want from our table rather than what is best for them.
Jeff Kahler is a veterinarian in Modesto, California.