OK, we’ll take off the white coat and admit it—we love spoiling our pets as much as anyone else. This may mean that we indulge them in the occasional healthy treat—or two. But, like parenting, showing love and affection for our pets also means knowing when to say “No” to things that could harm them, including toxic foods.

Here’s a brief overview of toxic foods you should never feed your pet.

Chocolate toxicity and pets

Chocolate is perhaps the most widely known pet toxin, yet its ubiquitous presence in our everyday lives means we continually see pets with chocolate toxicity at Neighborhood Veterinary Centers—especially around the holidays. 

Chocolate contains theobromine, which is a chemical compound that stimulates the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, central nervous system, and muscle tissue, including the heart. Theobromine concentrations are highest in dark and bitter chocolate used for baking. Chocolate toxicity is rarely fatal, but can cause dangerous heart arrhythmias and seizures.  

  • Toxicity signs — Chocolate ingestion signs generally appear 6 to 12 hours after consumption and may include GI signs (e.g., vomiting, diarrhea), excitability or nervousness, high heart rate, panting, increased urination and thirst, tremors, and seizures.
  • Common sources — Cocoa powder, baking chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate chips, and dark chocolate or milk chocolate candy are the most common culprits. Although milk chocolate ingestion is rarely dangerous, the high sugar and fat quantity can trigger GI upset or pancreatitis.

Xylitol toxicity and pets

Xylitol, which sometimes is labeled as birch sugar or birch bark extract, is a popular sugar substitute found in sugar-free foods, candy, and gum. Xylitol toxicity most frequently occurs in dogs and causes a significant blood glucose decrease (i.e., hypoglycemia), and also can lead to acute liver failure in some dogs. The exact reason is unknown, but signs and sources include:

  • Toxicity signs — Hypoglycemic pets may appear weak, lethargic, depressed, or unresponsive. Vomiting and seizures are possible.
  • Common sources — Xylitol is found in an ever-increasing number of products, including sugar-free gum, candy, and mints, as well as flavored medications, gummy vitamins, snack foods (e.g., pudding, peanut butter), cosmetics, and oral hygiene products (e.g., toothpaste, mouth wash).

Grapes and raisin toxicity and pets 

Grapes—and raisins (i.e., their dehydrated form)—are extremely toxic to dogs, although the exact cause is unknown. Equally perplexing is the fact that only some dogs experience toxicosis after ingestion and suffer from acute (i.e., sudden) kidney failure. Because knowing which dogs are sensitive to these foods is impossible, dog owners are encouraged to keep any foods that contain grapes or raisins away from their four-legged friends. 

  • Toxicity signs — Affected dogs may experience vomiting and diarrhea 6 to 12 hours after ingestion. Other signs include lethargy, increased thirst, appetite loss, and abdominal pain.
  • Common sources — Foods that contain raisin paste, cereals, granola, trail mix, energy bars, candy, baked goods, holiday stuffing, and fruit baskets and displays are common sources.

Onion and garlic toxicity and pets

Onions, garlic, leeks, and chives are all Allium family plants that cause red blood cell (RBC) destruction in dogs and cats. Ingested plant compounds damage the hemoglobin (i.e., oxygen-transporting molecules) inside the RBCs and deprive the pet’s body of oxygen. As the cells die off, pets experience acute hemolytic anemia, a drop in red blood cells that can be life-threatening. 

  • Toxicity signs — Anemic pets may appear weak and lethargic and refuse to eat, and their heart and respiratory rate will increase in response to low blood oxygen. The pet’s skin, gums, and eyelids may appear blue, purple, or yellow. 
  • Common sources — Powdered and dehydrated forms used for seasoning or soups are the most frequently consumed versions, and the most toxic, followed by the cooked version (e.g., in casseroles and side dishes), and raw (e.g., toppers on hamburgers or hot dogs).

Alcohol toxicity and pets

Cats and dogs most often encounter alcohol when they lick from an abandoned glass, lap up a spilled drink, or consume bread dough. Alcohol consumption causes hypoglycemia, low blood pressure, and low body temperature, and sometimes seizures and respiratory arrest. 

  • Toxicity signs — Like people, intoxicated pets may be weak, lethargic, and ataxic (i.e., uncoordinated). Pets may vomit or excessively drool.  
  • Common sources — The most common sources are alcoholic drinks or desserts, and bread dough, which ferments and rises in the stomach, creating alcohol, and a potentially lethal blockage.

Macadamia nut toxicity and pets

Macadamia nuts are another poorly understood toxin that affects dogs. Toxicity causes pancreatitis because of the macadamia’s high-fat content, and also affects the pet’s neuromuscular system, which can result in a frightening, but temporary, inability to walk or use the hind legs.

  • Toxicity signs — Signs may appear up to 12 hours after ingestion and include vomiting, muscle weakness and tremors, fever, joint stiffness, and hind limb mobility loss.
  • Common sources — Macadamia nuts are commonly found in cookies, candy, assorted chocolates, trail mix, and mixed nuts.

What to do if your pet ingests something toxic

If you know or suspect that your pet has consumed a known toxin, do not wait for clinical signs to appear, because rapid veterinary intervention will increase your pet’s treatment success and may reduce or prevent complications. Act fast and follow these steps:

  • Remove your pet from the area.
  • Pick up any wrappers or food remnants and estimate how much your pet may have consumed.
  • Call Neighborhood Veterinary Centers or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center.
  • Do not induce vomiting or give your pet anything by mouth until a veterinarian directs you to do so.

The best way to spoil your pet is to check out veterinary-approved goodies from your local NVC or pet store.

If you’re concerned that your pet is experiencing a food or household toxicity, immediately contact your nearest Neighborhood Veterinary Center location, so we can intervene quickly and help reduce any complications.