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.