What not to feed: unsafe foods for pets
There are many foods that are perfectly safe for humans, but they can be life-threatening to our furry companions when eaten. Many pet parents are unaware that some food products can cause digestive upset, serious illness, or even death when consumed by pets. It is very important for pet owners to know what common foods and household items can poison their pets, how to recognize signs of poisoning, and what to do if they suspect their pet has eaten something it shouldn't have.
Foods that cause digestive problems
Avocado is not poisonous to dogs and cats, but it can cause some digestive issues. It is very high in fat, which can cause pancreatitis or diarrhea. This fruit also has a very large pit, which can cause choking or a foreign body obstruction in a dog’s digestive system if they swallow it.
Bread dough, or any type of dough made with yeast, is not safe to feed pets. Yeast rises and ferments in the stomach, creating a lot of gas. This can cause discomfort or pain, and can even cause rupture of the stomach and intestines if your pet eats enough of it.
Fruits like oranges, lemons, and limes contain citric acid, especially in the peels. The very acidic nature of these fruits can cause digestive upset and vomiting.
Coconut & coconut oil
Coconuts contain high amounts of oils that are not easily digested by pets. This high oil content can cause digestive upset, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Milk & dairy products
Dogs and cats are “lactose intolerant.” They do not have very much of the enzyme lactase, which helps break down lactose, the sugar found in milk. Therefore, consuming too much dairy can cause digestive upset, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Nuts contain high amounts of fat. Pets who consume too many nuts can have vomiting, diarrhea, and pancreatitis.
Raw or undercooked meat
The biggest concern when feeding raw meat products is bacterial contamination. Raw meat, eggs, and bones can contain high amounts of bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli. These bacteria can cause illness in pets as well as family members in the home, especially children.
Raw eggs contain an enzyme that prevents absorption of biotin, a B-vitamin. Decreased absorption of this vitamin can lead to skin and coat problems.
Raw fish contain enzymes that destroy a nutrient called thiamine, another B-vitamin. Eating raw fish can cause pets to become deficient in thiamine, which can lead to severe problems in the nervous, cardiovascular, and immune systems.
Raw bones can cause choking, fractured teeth, or a foreign body obstruction in the digestive tract.
Foods that can be life-threatening
Alcohol is never safe to feed pets. It affects the digestive system by causing vomiting and diarrhea. It also causes nervous system issues like depression, difficulty breathing, stumbling, tremors, coma, and even death.
Cooking grease, fat trimmings, & poultry skin
These table scraps are extremely high in fat and can cause a condition called pancreatitis. Pancreatitis may lead to loss of appetite, vomiting, weakness, lethargy, and even death. It is best to avoid feeding fatty table scraps to pets.
Visit Treats, table scraps, and food toppers for more information
Chocolate, coffee, & caffeine
These products contain chemicals called methylxanthines. Dark chocolate contains more methylxanthines than milk chocolate. Methylxanthines can cause digestive problems like vomiting and diarrhea. They can also cause panting, excessive thirst and urination, tremors, seizures, and even death. It is never safe to feed chocolate, coffee, or caffeine to dogs and cats.
Garlic, onion, chives, & leeks
These vegetables are all related. They contain oxidants that can damage pets’ red blood cells. They can cause digestive upset, depression, weakness, yellow gums, red-brown urine, and kidney failure.
Grapes & raisins
Grapes and raisins (dried grapes) are poisonous to dogs. They contain an unidentified toxin which causes kidney damage. Dogs who consume grapes can have vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, dehydration, abdominal pain, increased drooling, lethargy, increased thirst and urination, trembling, and weakness.
Macadamia nuts are poisonous to dogs. They can cause vomiting, weakness, depression, tremors, and fever. Since they are a nut which is high in fat, they can also cause diarrhea or pancreatitis.
Seeds or pits of fruits
The seeds or pits of certain fruits (apples, apricots, cherries, and peaches) can also be poisonous. They contain a chemical called cyanide. Eating even just a few of these seeds can cause difficulty breathing, excessive panting, brick red gums, and shock, which is life-threatening.
Xylitol is a sweetener found in many human food products like sugar-free gum, some types of peanut butter, toothpaste, and candy. Xylitol causes massive insulin release which can lead to liver failure. Pets who consume xylitol-containing products will have vomiting, lethargy, loss of coordination, and seizures, which can be life-threatening. Make sure that you check the ingredients of any human food you use as a treat for your pets, especially peanut butter.
Other household items that can poison pets
Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol, a chemical which affects the nervous system and kidneys. Drinking ethylene glycol can cause vomiting, depression, increased thirst and urination, loss of appetite, and seizures. It is very important to keep all car products out of reach of pets and wildlife. Never dispose of any car products outside, and ensure that if you spill something in your yard or driveway, it is cleaned up properly according to the directions on the label.
Feeding vitamin and mineral supplements to pets can cause nutrient imbalances that could be potentially fatal. Other types of supplements can poison pets as well, depending on their ingredients. Some human supplements contain xylitol, which is toxic to pets. Always keep supplements out of reach of pets.
Visit Supplements for much more information.
Not much is known about essential oil safety. Essential oils are not regulated by the FDA, so manufacturers do not have to back up any claims they make. Many essential oil manufacturers and distributors claim that oils can cure, prevent or treat disease. These claims have not been evaluated by the FDA, and therefore essential oils should never be used as medication. Additionally, as safety studies have not been performed for the majority of essential oils, they should never be ingested by anyone, human or animal. Various different essential oils can be toxic to pets, whether they are applied to the skin, inhaled, or ingested. Essential oil poisoning can cause skin and digestive irritation as well as nervous system depression. It is safest to not use essential oils on or around your pet.
Various chemicals found in home cleaning products can be dangerous if your pet accidentally ingests them. Make sure all household cleaners are stored safely where your pets can’t access them.
Holly berries contain many toxins that can act on the heart and digestive system. Ingestion of even a few holly berries can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.
Lilies are toxic to cats when they are eaten or even chewed on. Lilies contain an unidentified toxin which causes kidney failure. Cats who eat or chew on lily leaves or flowers can have vomiting, lethargy, loss of appetite, depression, excessive salivation, stumbling, tremors, excessive meowing, abnormal urination, and seizures. Lilies should always be kept out of reach of cats.
Mistletoe contains several toxins, both known and unknown. It can cause vomiting, diarrhea, pupillary dilation, rapid breathing and heart rate, shock, and death within hours of ingestion.
Poinsettia contains toxic principles in its sap. It can cause salivation and vomiting, but is not known to cause death.
Sago palm contains a compound that converts to a toxin in the intestines, producing free radicals and causing severe vomiting, liver damage, and liver failure. Ultimately, this can lead to death.
All drugs, whether over-the-counter, prescription, or recreational, contain different chemicals which cause varying symptoms and illnesses in our animal companions. Always keep drugs (even animal drugs) out of reach of pets, and never give pets any medications unless their veterinarian instructs you to do so.
Aspirin – Aspirin is especially toxic to cats, but can cause issues for dogs as well. This medication can cause clotting disorders, which can be fatal. Pets who consume aspirin can have internal bleeding, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, lethargy, weakness, fever, fast breathing, and dehydration. Illness can lead to seizures, coma, and death. Never give aspirin to pets (unless prescribed by a veterinarian), and keep all medications out or your pets’ reach.
Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) – Like aspirin, cats are especially susceptible to ibuprofen toxicity. Pets who consume ibuprofen can have digestive upset (vomiting, ulcers, and bleeding), kidney failure (low body temperature and diarrhea), and neurological signs (weakness, tremors, and seizure). This condition can be life-threatening. Make sure you never give ibuprofen to dogs or cats, and keep all medications out or your pets’ reach.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) – Cats are especially sensitive to acetaminophen toxicity, but dogs are also affected by this medication. Pets who consume acetaminophen can have vomiting, depression, weakness, difficulty breathing, blue or yellow gums, and swollen face or paws. Pets can rapidly decline and potentially die. Do not give pets acetaminophen, or allow them to have access to this medication.
Cats and dogs are very sensitive to THC. THC is a chemical found in marijuana, and it can even be found in over-the-counter “CBD oil” products. CBD oil and other marijuana products are not approved by the FDA to prevent, treat, or cure any disease (with only three human drug exceptions). Therefore, CBD-containing products are not regulated, and there is no guarantee of their purity or safety. (See Supplements for additional information.)
Pets who consume marijuana or other marijuana-containing products can have many symptoms such as increased salivation, depression, stumbling, swaying, aggression, difficulty swallowing, and dribbling urine. Signs can lead to coma, which can be life-threatening. It is safest to never allow your pets access to marijuana or products containing THC or CBD.
Tobacco can cause panting, drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle twitching, depression, and fast heart rate when consumed by dogs or cats. Pets can also collapse, fall into a coma, have a heart attack, or stop breathing, leading to death. Always keep tobacco products out of pets’ reach.
US pennies minted after 1982, or Canadian pennies minted between 1997 and 2001, contain a metal called zinc. Zinc can damage the liver and kidneys of dogs when ingested. Dogs who eat pennies or zinc-containing products can develop brown urine, yellow gums, vomiting, and lethargy. Always keep small objects like coins out of reach of dogs.
Herbicides (like organophosphates & carbamates) can be toxic when they touch the skin or if they are ingested. Exposure can cause muscle tremors, increased urination and defecation, difficulty breathing, vomiting, and excessive drooling. Always store lawn products safely out of the reach of animals.
Many rodenticides contain anticoagulant, which causes internal bleeding. Animals that eat mouse or rat baits can have weakness, lethargy, depression, fast heart rate, fast breathing, and sudden death. If you use rodenticides, ensure they are well out of reach of your pets.
What to do if your pet has ingested any of these products
Call your pet’s usual veterinarian immediately if your pet has consumed any of these products or is showing any of the symptoms described above. If the regular veterinarian is not available, call a nearby 24-hour emergency hospital. If the emergency hospital is not available, call Pet Poison Control at (888) 426-4435, or Pet Poison Helpline at (855) 764-7661.
Always have the packaging of the product your pet ingested with you when you call poison control or the veterinarian, and when you go to the hospital. Having the ingredients list can help the veterinarian save your pet!
ASPCA: Articles about toxins
ASPCA: “People Foods Pets Should Never Eat”
ASPCA: “The Toxins Pets Most Often Ingest”
Merck Veterinary Manual: “Chocolate”
Merck Veterinary Manual: “Plants Poisonous to Animals”
Pet Poison Helpline: “For Owners: A guide to pet safety”
VIN: “Cats – Toxicities”
VIN: “Dogs – Toxicities”
Tufts University: “Does an Apple a Day Keep the Vet Away? Harmful vs Healthy Foods for Pets”