‘Table’ food: is it ever safe to share?

Dear Dr. Evans,

My boyfriend just read me the riot act because I gave his dog half of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He says grape jelly can kill a dog. Seriously? Pepper seems fine.

—Just Trying to be Nice

Dear Trying (or should I call you Nice?),

Only the lord and Welch’s know how much actual grape goes into grape jelly, so your boyfriend’s dog is probably going to be fine. But he IS right in principle. Grapes, and especially raisins, are genuinely toxic to dogs. No one has discovered the hows and whys of grape/raisin toxicity, but some dogs — not every dog, suggesting that individual sensitivity plays a role — develop serious, potentially fatal kidney disease after ingesting grapes or raisins. Signs begin with vomiting and can progress to lethargy, lack of appetite, and inability to produce urine as the kidneys shut down. This is a true veterinary emergency that demands hospitalization, IV fluid therapy, and intense medication.

A lot of seemingly innocuous household elements can be toxic to dogs and cats. A huge culprit is the owner’s medications. Many an ailing cat has been poisoned by a well-intentioned owner giving a dose of acetominophen (Tylenol). If anyone in the house is on medication of any kind, he or she should be careful about storing it safely away from pets. If you drop a pill or tablet, search until you find it; puppies especially will scarf anything that comes their way, even if it’s meant to cure your cold or lower your blood pressure. Even if a medication is intended for a pet, such as meat-flavored tablets for canine osteoarthritis, store them out of reach of a pet — a motivated dog will happily swallow a delicious overdose.

And then there’s chocolate — how could there ever be any harm in chocolate? Well, if you’re a dog or cat, there’s a lot of harm. Chocolate causes one of the most common poisonings. Every Halloween, I guarantee your vet’s phone rings off the hook because Rusty couldn’t resist those mini-Milky Ways. The toxic principle, theobromine, acts like a mega-dose of caffeine on a dog. Initial signs include restlessness, vomiting, and diarrhea, which can progress to agitation, irregular heartbeat, seizures, and death. Effects are dose-related, with dark chocolate posing a more serious threat than milk chocolate, and baking chocolate the worst of all. So keep your Toll House cookies to yourself.

If you’re more of a sugar-free type, your pet is still not out of the woods. Xylitol, an artificial sweetener common in sugar-free gum, baked goods, and candies, can cause vomiting, seizures, and liver damage in dogs. Also, because xylitol causes massive insulin release, dangerously low blood sugar can occur.

So what’s safe? Surely vegetables are ok, right? Well, mostly. But stay away from the onion family, which can damage a dog’s blood’s ability to carry oxygen. Avocado and garlic are implicated in toxicity to some species and are better in your guacamole than in your Golden. But carrots, green beans and the like make great snacks for dogs who demand table food (I’m trying, without any success whatsoever, to imagine a cat snacking on a carrot).

The best rule, of course, is not to feed table food, but I don’t know a single human being who doesn’t love treating a best friend to something uber-yummy. So please use these guidelines to do it safely.

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