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Medically Reviewed by Veterinarian Angela Dwywer, DVM on November 12, 2018
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The holidays are upon us, and with all of the activities and events, it is tough to keep up with the regular routine. This wreaks havoc on our bodies, bank accounts and sense of well-being, and though most of us really look forward to the holidays, we also approach them with a sense of dread about things like weight gain, poor sleep, overspending and all the rest. And if we dislike these changes, just imagine how our dogs feel about them! And one of the biggest issues to cause trouble around the holidays is the way we change what we eat, and the way we feed our dogs.
While I’ve written about the dangers of dogs and coffee or chocolate, and lots of other foods, I think the holidays are a great time to remind you of everything a dog should NOT eat. In a bit, I’m going to review that immense list of foods to consider absolutely off limits, but first I want to sort of remind you of just how easily dogs might be given or snitch a bit of dangerous food from the days before Thanksgiving to well after the New Year.
The Holidays Can Be Dangerous for Dogs
While we are going to focus on things like the fact that chocolate and coffee are poisonous to dogs, remember that dogs eat more than just food. If you recall my rather chilling story of the “dark and stormy night” that Leroy consumed a battery, you’ll realize how the holidays present more than food hazards where dog digestion is concerned.
Just to remind you of the seasonal things that could end up causing a veterinary emergency, consider the following items:
Batteries – An intact battery may not be a crisis, but most dogs are likely to give the battery at least one good crunch before swallowing it, meaning toxins are going to flood the body. While every toy and gadget seems to need them, and you might have a mega package of batteries on hand, you must be very mindful of them as they can take up to 12 hours to cause trouble, and then lead to everything from vomiting and passing blood to a fever and death.
Energy drinks or supplements – Coffee and dogs don’t mix, nor do caffeine pills or drinks that are incredibly lethal to dogs, but something you might use during the holidays when your energy levels are low. They cause high blood pressure, rapid heart rate, tremors, seizures and even death
House plants – From Sago palms and aloe vera plants to garlic and mistletoe, there are many plants that are lethal or hazardous to a dog, and which might be easily eaten when your back is turned. Keep a list of the risky plants on hand, and if you are given any plants as gifts, double check them against the list before letting them come into the house or to remain in rooms where dogs (or cats) spend time and/or nibble things.
Supplements – There are lots of issues that can occur if a dog overdoses on vitamins (just like they can when humans take too many supplements, as well). Vitamin D is particularly risky, but in general you want to ensure that you don’t start using supplements during the holidays only to have your puppo end up ill or hospitalized because he or she couldn’t resist these new “treats”.
Anti-freeze – While most dog owners know that you can find pet safe options, not everyone actually uses them. No matter where you are, be it the parking lot of the store, a neighbor’s driveway, your family’s home…don’t assume that they use pet safe fluids in the car. Never ever let a dog or cat lick up anything that has pooled in a driveway or near vehicles. Ethylene glycol is deadly and causes kidney failure, but it is also very sweet in flavor and dogs love to lap it up. If you even think they might have gotten some, head to the vet!
Medications – Ingredients in many common medications can cause dogs to suffer digestive upset, vomiting, seizures and even death. Aspirin and pain killers, cough and cold medicines and most prescription medications should be kept far out of reach of your dogs.
Plant fertilizers and pesticides – The ingredients in almost all of these compounds (which many people use on houseplants or which are found in plants received as gifts) are highly toxic to a dog. They will irritate the digestive tract, but can even degrade it, causing horrific pain and suffering that can lead to death. Be aware of every new plant, and try to use pet safe fertilizers and natural pest control methods (we have great success with ½ cup apple cider vinegar, a dash of sugar and a dash of liquid soap whenever we have gnats and fruit flies, and there are a lot of other safe, DIY solutions)
Toys –Be aware that there are good dog toys and there are unsafe dog toys, and then there are all of the other toys. The Lego toys, the cars with millions of small pieces, the dolls…those kids’ toys can also present everything from choking hazards to toxicity, and from Thanksgiving onward, they pose extra risks. Sure, stepping barefoot on a Lego is bad enough, but if your dog is swallowing and choking on one, it can become a medical nightmare.
Candy wrappers – Growing up we had a Great Dane who ate some astonishing things before anyone could catch her. For such a giant, she was light of foot and quiet as a mouse when she felt like it! Though she survived eating a bag of M&Ms, we did panic one year when she ingested a bunch of mini candy canes. She ended up spitting out a lot of them, but we couldn’t find many of the plastic wrappers. Plastic, cellophane, foil and waxed papers can lead to bowel obstruction and surgery. If a dog suddenly stops eating or pooping, vomits and seems exhausted, and it occurs with a sudden emptying of a candy dish, it’s time for a visit to the vet!
Holiday décor – From live and fake trees to tinsel and decorations, there are many holiday-specific hazards to a dog. There is a lot to unpack here, and the problems with holiday décor can be even worse than the problems of dogs and coffee or other forbidden foods. There is the water in the live tree that might grow bacteria and make a dog ill if they sip it, the needles that stick into soft pads or even gums or eyes, and the risk of a tree falling on the dog who is too nosey about it. Tinsel, strands of light, glass ornaments, metal hooks…the list goes on and on. Try to consider what a dog might be attracted to and eliminate the temptations.
Packages and wrapping – I never leave presents under the tree until guests receiving said gifts arrive. Leroy just can’t help himself and is the nosiest dog I’ve ever met. He wants to sniff every package, tug and chew on the bows and just get in trouble. With wired ribbons, yarn, foil paper and the various contents of packages, it is best to never leave a dog unsupervised around the tree loaded with gifts. Choking hazards are in abundance, as well as the frustrations of a gift demolished by the overly curious puppo.
Tobacco and marijuana – I group them together, but I know they are not both legal in all states. Just remember that tobacco contains nicotine, and this is actually the most lethal poison around. If eaten, a dog may reach the point of death in as little as 15 minutes. If your dog is suddenly extremely irritated or excited, salivating and begins vomiting or having diarrhea, and you think they ate a tobacco product – get them to the vet immediately – I mean get in the car at that very moment. The compound can cause serious seizures, but also full cardiac arrest. Also empty ashtrays to avoid any risks.
Marijuana whether as leaf or in an edible can cause your dog to get just as high as a human, if not even more so.It will cause blood pressure problems, heart issues, an inability to walk or remain balanced, and upsets them to an extreme level. While it is unknown about fatality levels, don’t ever risk it and just keep any tobacco, marijuana and edibles far out of reach.
Household garbage – We compost in our household and keep a big covered bucket of scraps and leftovers (no meat, bones or dairy) under the sink. So, there are no temptations to Leroy and Janice where the garbage is concerned. However, not all households use that same model, and because of that, the holidays pose a serious risk where garbage cans and their contents are concerned. From moldy and spoiled food, to fat trimmings and bones, there are lots of potential hazards. And just as dogs and coffee are a lethal combination, coffee grounds and dogs are, as well. So, be hyper-vigilant about the garbage since a single hour of time grubbing around the garbage can could foil all of your efforts at protecting a dog’s health during the holidays!
Potpourri and scented candles – These are in great abundance in most households, and yet they are also a serious hazard. The flickering flames present a burn hazard to a dog’s nose and fur, and most potpourri blends are loaded with artificial and some natural ingredients (like citrus oil extracts) that are poisonous or irritating if consumed. Keep these things far out of reach of a dog or a cat who might knock it within the dog’s reach.
Clearly, there are far more eating hazards than dogs and coffee, chocolate and all of the other foods.
Chocolate, Raisins and Coffee are Poisonous to Dogs…But What Else Is?
The holidays are, obviously, not the only time of year when there is an increased risk for your dog to ingest potentially hazardous materials and foods. Super Bowl Sunday, as a prime example, is a day when alcohol, chicken bones, chocolate, coffee and tea, fatty foods, onions and other potentially hazard foods appear in great abundance.
Yet, the holidays are a time when such risks are really amped up. From the bags of cookies and candies you receive from family, friends, neighbors and co-workers, to the foods you are preparing yourself, it can be oh-so-easy to have harmful foods almost everywhere.
Janice and Leroy are pretty sheltered from the usual holiday food risks because I do not bring them to any family meals (my father thinks dogs are like trash disposals that can safely consume anything), parties or events. We have a tree and some annual traditions that we enjoy at home, but my two puppos are not really exposed to the risks of toxic or harmful foods.
While I do a lot of holiday baking, I also make a bunch of treats for the dogs (more on that later) and that seems to be a great way to balance out the risks. I spend a day or two making foods that smell fabulous to the dogs, and then I start the holiday cooking. That way, I can give them their special cookies, meals and treats and continue cooking human-safe stuff without feeling uber-guilty as they stare and drool. Satisfied with their snacks, they just sit in the doorway and give me those Boxer-only looks of adoration mixed with bouts of boredom.
Because coffee is poisonous to dogs, we can’t sit down together for a coffee and cake, but I do something like that with their biscuits, a special “tea” I make for them. I sip my cup of “General Foods International Coffee” (it is a serious hold over from my youth) and nibble a few butter cookies, they have their tea and cookies, and we have our holiday tradition without any risks of poison or tummy aches!
And with mention of poison and tummy aches, let’s take a deep dive into the full and most comprehensive list of foods and ingredients you must keep out of a dog’s (or cat’s) reach as the holidays get into full swing. And note that even when cooked or mixed with safe foods, most potentially toxic or irritating foods will still work their evil ways on a dog’s system. So, that slice of pizza with extra garlic or onions is full of harmful ingredients that are as much of a risk as dogs and coffee or chocolate.
Start with Basic Ideas
I like to help my friends and readers confused by what dogs can and cannot eat by starting with a list of general concepts to keep in mind and then going over the specific ingredients. The concepts apply to a dog’s diet all year round, but as I have said, there are some fairly specific risks that appear because of holiday food traditions. These include:
Fatty and Rich Foods – Dogs can get the same pancreatitis, dehydration, bloating and major digestive upset (including vomiting and diarrhea) from a lot of foods high in fat or with a lot of rich ingredients. As a simple example, your dog is not used to something like prime rib with gravy or a yeasty bread roll slathered in gobs of butter. Just a few fatty or rich foods on a single day can cause days and days of mess, sickness and unhappiness, not to mention jeopardizing a dog’s long-term health.
Salty Foods – Just like us, our dogs need a bit of dietary salt, but that amounts to 0.25g/100g and 1.5g/100g at the very most each day. This helps with fluid balance, nerve function and digestion. Just a bit too much salt or sodium, however, and your dog could end up dehydrated, but to more serious issues like sodium ion poisoning and electrolyte imbalances. This can lead to tremors, seizures and death. So, skip the pretzels and chips, the table food that has been salted, the processed meats and certain types of cheese as most of them are so full of sodium as to be a risk to the dog’s health.
Sugary Foods – I won’t lie – Janice and Leroy have sweet teeth! I like my sugar, but those too really love things with a sweet taste. I am not sure how it happened because we don’t have a lot of sweet and sugary foods around the house. They do love fresh fruit, and maybe that’s what started it, but either way, I have to watch them when there are baked treats, candies and holiday sweets around. While there are no health risks generally from eating sugar (apart from an upset stomach if too much is eaten at once), the long term dental issues and risks of obesity and diabetes are real enough to make it important to steer a dog away from sweet foods. (NOTE: Xylitol is a fake sweetener that is extremely dangerous to dogs and highly toxic. Avoid any sugar-free foods as you never know if the fake sugar is going to cause serious risks to a dog’s health).
Raw Foods – Here is where we are going to run into a few debates and issues. A lot of experts advocate for a “raw” diet. I think there are a lot of merits to it and suggest you read about it to determine if it is right for your dogs. Where I suggest everyone exercise caution is with foods like raw eggs that could be full of E. coli or salmonella. Keep in mind that raw eggs are also high in the enzyme known as avidin, which blocks vitamin absorption rates, and this can harm your dog’s skin and coat while also posing risks of neurological issues.
I also say no raw fish because they can have parasites that are treatable but which can cause your dog to feel extraordinarily poorly until the issue is diagnosed and treated. If you are going the raw diet route, I always say to explore the sources of the meat, buy local and as high-quality as possible, and do your research about the ingredients best for your puppo. If a meal of raw meat is followed by vomiting or diarrhea, head to the vet and cease feeding the raw food.
Alcohol –Just like a dog likes anything with a sweet taste, they will be attracted to many kinds of alcohol or liquor. Unfortunately, this has the same harmful effects on their brains and livers that it does to a human’s, but it takes only a small amount to harm the dog. Whether we are talking beer, liquor or wine (which is doubly bad because of its use of grapes which are toxic to dogs), it can take a shot glass serving to lead to diarrhea, vomiting, respiratory issues, coordination problems and even death. And just as with humans, the smaller the body size the worse the effects can be. And if you think beer, with a lower alcohol content, is less risky, think again. Made with hops, it can cause your dog to have an elevated temperature, heart rate, panting, seizures and even death.
So, just as I repeat that dogs and coffee are a bad mix, dogs and beer are, too. If you want to raise a glass of Christmas or holiday cheer with your puppo, try some of the “dog beers” I recommended in an article on the subject.
Table Scraps and Trimmings – The fat from your slice of prime rib or a roast, the skin of the chicken, the bones from anything, and most table scraps have to be considered a health hazards. Bones can puncture the throat and intestinal tract of a dog, leading to surgery or even death. Fats can lead to pancreatitis and digestive upset, including vomiting and diarrhea. And any extra foods can upset your dog’s nutritional balance, digestive routine and health in general.
So, steer your puppos away from the rich and fatty, salty and sugary, raw and alcohol laden dishes, foods and meals, generally. If you are worried about specific ingredients, below is what you should think of as a master list of things you cannot feed your dog, and it goes well beyond a reiteration that alcoholic beverages, certain fruits, and coffee are poisonous to dogs! In fact, a lot of readers are pretty surprised at some of the foods that they should not give a dog; often because they have shared them with a dog in the past.
On that point, even if you have seen your dog eat something listed on the “no eat” list, and without any bad side effects, I’d say to count yourself lucky. As I mentioned, our Great Dane gobbled up a pound of M&Ms without ill effects. Did that mean we started to let her have chocolate? No! We know we got lucky because it was a lower quality milk chocolate and she was born with the digestion of a teenage boy. If it has been a pound of dark and expensive chocolate, I doubt I would have a happy ending to the story of her holiday raid on the candy dish.
The MUST NOT EAT Foods for Dogs Over the Holidays and All Year Long
I am starting to feel like a real bummer by this point, but as I said earlier, I am going to talk a bit about treats you can feed your dogs, so keep reading and we’ll soon be looking at tasty holiday treats you can make and they CAN eat!
Until then, though, here’s that refresher list of foods you need to always and forever keep off the menu for your dogs:
Avocado – Anything with persin is bad because it is a common allergen that triggers serious reactions and digestive upset. This is true if it is the soft flesh of the fruit, the skin or even an avocado plant. Plus, the oversized pits easily block a dog’s throat or digestive tract.
Xanthines – This is what makes dogs and coffee such a bad mix, but it is also the reason that tea, chocolate and all related foods with caffeine (which also theobromine, or theophylline that are bad for the nervous system and heart) are absolutely forbidden. Baking chocolate, particularly the unsweetened types, cocoa powders…these, too need to be kept away from a dog as they can cause everything from vomiting and diarrhea to death.
Grapes – Also consider currants and raisins on the list too. They are toxic to dogs and cause kidney problems. Wine is made from grapes and also has alcohol, so it has to be avoided, but so too is fruitcake (I know, who eats the stuff anyway, but it is a holiday food that has to be entirely forbidden, hidden and kept away from dogs).
Nuts – While Macadamias are the worst because they so negatively affect a dog’s digestive and nervous system, we just skip all nuts and any foods with nuts because of their high amounts of oil and fat. A peanut butter treat is the only “nut” allowed.
Onions – Chives, garlic and other similar foods and ingredients must be avoided because of their disulfide and sulfoxide compounds that can lead to anemia and red blood cell damage. That is why tomato sauces, traditional meat loaf, and other ingredients that feature onions/garlic/etc. must be avoided.
Bacon, Ham and Pork – Again, this is a tricky one. These meats have high amounts of fat that can cause pancreatitis. It can be tempting to give in and give a dog a lot of bacon as a holiday treat, but it is better to look for treats with a bacon flavor or limit the amount of bacon to a single slice or tiny nibble.
Dairy – If your dog is sensitive to dairy, such as becoming very gassy or having diarrhea after a dairy food (cheese, cream cheese, milk or ice cream), the holidays can be very challenging.
Pit fruits – Peaches, persimmons, plums and any fruit with a large pit is an absolute no around the holidays and the rest of the year.
Yeasty dough – I make bread all of the time, and also do a lot of specialty goodies at the holidays. The dogs seem to be magnetically attracted to the dough, and so I actually train them to sit at the threshold of the kitchen when I am working. This prevents them from nibbling even a tiny bit. Why the fuss? Well, a yeast dough that is uncooked is going to expand and build up gas in the dogs’ bellies, causing a lot of pain and discomfort, but also posing the risk of bloat and even rupture.
Holiday specialties – Eggnog is a triple threat with fat, raw eggs, dairy (plus sugar and alcohol), making it a big NO. Candy canes, cookies, cranberry garlands, gingerbread houses, huge beef roasts, whole turkeys…these are foods that are super challenging. Be aware of them and find ways of keeping your dogs distracted or uninterested. Also note that some holiday spices are a threat, especially nutmeg, cinnamon, and coco powder.
So, we’ve gone well beyond dogs and coffee, chocolate and other treats. We now see that food is a huge risk to a dog, and even basic ingredients can become a medical issue. Because of that, and because it is so nice to have holiday traditions with your pets, I have a few of our favorite holiday recipes. As I said, I make these first up as the season begins. The dogs sit and watch, enjoying the amazing aromas, and whenever I cook after that, I start by giving them a few treats or a little snack. They are not all that interested in eating anything else, and so I don’t have to by so paranoid as I cook!
Recipes to Soothe Your Savage Beasts
Tea and coffee are poisonous to dogs, and so you cannot enjoy an afternoon tea or some coffee and cakes. You can brew up a dog-safe herbal drink and then serve it alongside some of these seasonal treats that our household enjoys every year, too!
Breath Freshening Winter Delights
Leroy has the breath of a dragon (while Janice has the gas of one), and so I give them these wintery, minty treats beginning in the autumn and right through the winter. It keeps them happy and gives me the chance to serve up a green, seasonal “cookie” just for dogs.
1 cup flour
1/2 cup old fashioned rolled oats
1½ cups whole wheat flour
1/3 cup oat bran
2 tablespoons dry milk
1 ½ teaspoons dry yeast
1/2 cup applesauce
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, minced fine
2 teaspoons dried spinach leaves (powdered)
1 cup water
Preheat oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit and line backing pan with parchment
Put all of the dry ingredients in the bowl of your standing mixer, making a well in the middle
Add the remaining ingredients
Slowly mix (with dough hook) until everything is moistened, and then knead until dough forms a ball and is tender
Roll out on a floured surface to ¼” thickness
Use a bone shaped cookie cutter, transferring to the prepared sheet
Bake for an hour (checking often to prevent over-cooking)
Turn off the heat, and allow the bones to dry out in the oven
These keep well when stored in an air-tight container
A Dog’s Holiday Dinner
I like to make homemade meals for the dogs a few times a week, and this is a recipe that lets me actually use up a few leftovers, too! I add salt and pepper to a serving for myself, and the three of us sit down to share a jolly, holiday feast! Often, I put a dollop of cranberry sauce alongside (which the dogs love).
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
1/4 ounce peas, thawed
1/2 cup cooked brown rice
1/4 cup cooked chicken meat, shredded
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Combine all but the olive oil in a large bowl.
Form into patties
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and cook the patties one at a time, browning before flipping
Remove, cool slightly and serve
Makes four generous patties
It looks disgusting and has a pretty wild smell, but this pureed treat is like the canine equivalent of eggnog or a Starbucks Mocha Frappucino. It is a drinkable delight that your dogs will slurp and slop up happily. Just be aware that less finicky eaters may need a towel beneath their bowl to prevent a big mess!
1 ½ cups water or chicken broth
1 small chicken breast, cooked and cubed
15 oz plain, Greek yogurt
¼ cup EAG cooked green beans and carrots
½ cup pumpkin puree
Put everything in a large blender and pulse a few times before blending on medium.
Puree until smooth
Pour into bowls and watch your dogs delight at the marvel of this milkshake alternative!
The Closest to Christmas Cookies Your Dog Will Get
The holidays are about unique baked goods and meals, and these cookies are sure to satisfy your dog’s desire for something special and seasonal. Be sure you are using carob chips and source the best quality you can for that true to chocolate flavor that dogs will appreciate.
½ cup dry powdered milk
6 cups rice flour (you can make this by blending rice in a food processor until it is a fine powder, though you can also find it in most grocery stores)
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 cup water
1/8 cup peanut oil AND 1/8 cup safflower oil
¼ cup molasses
2 ounces carob chips melted (a double boiler is best)
Heat your oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit
Line two cookie sheets with parchment
Combine all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl.
Add the moist ingredients all at once and blend well. This is a very stiff dough.
Chill for at least an hour
Roll out on a floured surface to ½” thick and cut into dog bone shapes or other seasonal shapes
Transfer to prepared sheets and bake for one hour
Remove and allow to cool
These can be stored in an air-tight container or frozen and defrosted for 24 hours before serving
Another Christmas Cookie for the Dogs
Fruity treats are also nice for the holidays, and this one lets you use up some overripe banana along the way!
1 ½ cups whole wheat flour
1 cup flour
½ cup oatmeal
2 tbsp EACH oat bran and soy flour
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup water
1 large banana
1 ½ tsp dry yeast
Combine all of the ingredients in a large mixer bowl and using the dough hook, blend until a soft ball of dough
Set aside and allow to proof until double in size
Divide into three portions to make working with the dough easier
Roll each to ½” thick and cut with traditional cookie cutter shapes
Transfer to cookie sheets lined with parchment
Cover with dry towels and allow to rise for an hour
Heat the oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for an hour
Leave cookies in the oven and turn off the heat
They can sit overnight to get the right level of hardness
Store in an airtight tin or freeze
So, you now have plenty of ways to avoid worrying about you dogs and coffee, chocolate, raisins and the other potentially harmful ingredients or foods so common to the holidays. You can begin to form new traditions with your puppos and find ways to keep the dogs safe, such as doing what we do in our house. Training dogs to stay out of the kitchen while you are at work is a good idea, but you can keep them happy and satisfied by also giving them some tasty treats to take the edge off their curiosity or tendency to steal harmful foods that might ruin their holiday season!