By Maura McAndrew
With the holiday season comes the urge to throw caution to the wind and indulge in comfort foods—baked goods, stuffing, turkey and other traditional dishes. Our pets often try to get in on the fun, begging unsuspecting relatives for table scraps or nosing around the pantry.
While you’re distracted by the holiday fuss, you might not realize that they may be eating dangerous foods for dogs and cats. But it’s important to remember that our pets are not just like us—they often have a lower tolerance for certain spices and ingredients that are often used in holiday meals, and we need to be careful about potential toxicity.
Dr. Charlotte Flint, senior consulting veterinarian at the Pet Poison Helpline, has seen her share of pets who’ve consumed things they shouldn’t around the holidays. “Fortunately,” she says, “it is uncommon for pets to consume large amounts of spices.”
But still, she adds, “determined pets can get onto counters and will readily consume entire pies, cakes and loaves of bread.” As we begin our holiday cooking frenzy, it’s important to know which spices and ingredients can be dangerous to our pets.
Chocolate—from cocoa powder to chocolate chips and candy—is the most obvious entry on this list, but it remains one of the most toxic foods for pets. According to Dr. John Otto, DVM, of the University Animal Hospital in Norman, Oklahoma, chocolate is the number one toxicity issue his practice treats. “We do not see much spice toxicity, [but] more common is eating chocolate, which causes gastrointestinal issues and is toxic to the liver,” he says.
According to the Pet Poison Helpline, baker’s, semisweet and other dark varieties of chocolate are the most toxic types for dogs and cats. Chocolate causes vomiting, hypertension, abnormal heartbeat and seizures, even in moderate amounts.
Even though most of us are aware of the dangers of chocolate, pet owners need to be vigilant. Don’t leave dishes or mugs with chocolate remnants lying around, and keep chocolate treats and powders locked away in pet-proof containers.
If you think your pet ate chocolate, call your veterinarian or the emergency clinic right away. Save the bag or container so that you can tell the clinic exactly what was consumed. This will help in determining the next step for treatment.
Nutmeg is one of our most beloved fall spices, used in pumpkin pie and baked squash recipes and sprinkled on the top of lattes and ciders. However, it is made from a seed called Myristica fragrans, which can be toxic to pets.
According to Dr. Flint, small amounts of nutmeg in food are unlikely to affect a pet, but large quantities can result in issues ranging from mildly upset stomach to hallucinations, disorientation, increased heart rate, high blood pressure, dry mouth, abdominal pain, and seizures.
But don’t panic: Dr. Flint notes that “a pet would need to ingest a large amount of nutmeg, and this is very unlikely to occur if a dog or cat ingests food like pie or other baked goods.” To ensure pet safety and avoid the risk of a nutmeg overdose, it’s best to keep the spice stowed away and capped tightly.
The holiday season usually comes with desserts galore, and cinnamon is one of the most common dessert ingredients, found in pies, cakes, donuts, cookies and beverages like apple cider. Like nutmeg, a small amount of cinnamon in food is extremely unlikely to cause problems, but cinnamon essential oil—a common ingredient in holiday items like candles, soaps, wreaths and ornaments—can be an issue.
Dr. Otto states that if ingested by pets in any of these forms, cinnamon oil can cause “blisters in the mouth, vomiting and diarrhea.” And pet owners should be careful with cinnamon powder as well.
“If dogs chew into a container of the powdered spice, they can inhale the spice,” Dr. Flint says, “which is very irritating to the lungs” and causes breathing issues. Concerned pet owners should avoid decorations infused with cinnamon essential oil and keep cinnamon containers secured and properly stored.
Though they are two separate spices, garlic and onions often go hand-in-hand and cause similar issues in pets. Onions and garlic are found in a great many holiday foods, ranging from stuffing and mashed potatoes to gravy and countless other savory dishes.
“This is really a situation where the amount ingested makes a big difference,” Dr. Flint says. “A small bite of food flavored with onion or garlic usually will not be a concern in most pets, but ingestion of an onion or cloves of garlic can be dangerous.”
Cats are especially sensitive to garlic. According to Dr. Otto, red blood cell damage is a particular concern, as it can lead to anemia. Other dangerous side effects include vomiting, diarrhea, increased heart rate and lethargy.
If you have a lot of garlic and onions in the house, Dr. Flint’s pet safety advice is the same as with other dangerous spices: “I would recommend keeping the pantry, secured so that pets are unable to access it.”
Yes, simple table salt, a spice found in most households and added to a majority of American dishes, can be dangerous to pets. As with the other ingredients on this list, it’s all about quantity. Dr. Flint says, “Pets that ingest large amounts of salt, salt water or dough made from salt can develop dangerous electrolyte abnormalities.”
One sign that your pet has had too much salt is increased thirst, though more severe symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, a lack of coordination, lethargy, confusion and seizures can result, according to Dr. Flint.
Pets are more sensitive to salt than people are. Keep salty foods away from your pets. If you need to include your pet in the holiday meal, cook the meat or vegetables separately for your pet without adding salt and spices.
Xylitol is a sugar substitute that’s used in sugar-free products such as chewing gum, candy, peanut butter, energy bars and other foods. Occasionally, xylitol will be present in baked goods and is often used as a sweetener for those with diabetes.
According to the Pet Poison Helpline, it’s particularly toxic to dogs, and it can be difficult to tell how much xylitol is in a particular product. “Xylitol can cause low blood sugar and liver toxicity when consumed by dogs,” Dr. Flint says.
Symptoms that your dog has ingested xylitol include weakness, seizures and vomiting. To prevent xylitol poisoning, pet owners need to examine labels closely, particularly on sugar-free products, and keep those foods far away from canine companions. Xylitol is showing up in unexpected places so be sure to read the ingredient labels on your food.