Why Your Christmas Dinner Could Poison Your Pets

22/12/2011 22:45 GMT | Updated 21/02/2012 10:12 GMT

Our four-legged friends have become as much a part of the family as any human member, so it's understandable that we like to include them in the festivities. Many owners even admit feeding them a Christmas dinner. So what harm can it do?

Well as it turns out, quite a lot. By giving into the desire to treat our pets with human food, we may well be putting their lives in danger. This may all sound a bit 'Bah humbug' but several ingredients in our annual turkey-stuffing ritual can actually do serious damage to pets.

The first problem is onions and garlic, often present in the stuffing, gravy and possibly as a flavour or garnish in other components of the dinner. Cats appear to be more sensitive than dogs, but both species can be seriously affected.

Signs of poisoning may develop within 24 hours, but it is more likely that it will be over a few days and can include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, weakness or lack of appetite. The toxin destroys pets' red blood cells, leading to anaemia.

Turkey bones can also cause problems for our pets as they can be easily swallowed. The bones can get stuck inside them or penetrate the pet's intestines - especially so with brittle chicken and turkey bones that have very sharp ends when they break. A recent case treated by PDSA vets was Milo, a six-month-old Jack Russell Terrier puppy from Birmingham. He had to undergo complex surgery after a wishbone from a discarded chicken carcass got stuck in his throat, but luckily he made a full recovery.

When discussing the toxic elements of Christmas dinners, it's also worth mentioning several other festive favourites that can be toxic to pets.

Grapes (and therefore raisins and sultanas) have been known to be toxic to dogs, although the exact reasons for this are not yet known. Some anecdotal evidence also suggests cats can be affected as well. Therefore mince pies, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake should all be strictly off the menu for your pets. Signs of poisoning usually appear within 24 hours, and can include vomiting, lack of appetite, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and lethargy.

Peanuts have been reported to cause adverse affects in some pets. Signs include muscle spasm, twitching, hallucinations and agitation. Macadamia nuts are also toxic, and have been associated with lethargy, weakness and collapse.

Too much fatty food can cause pancreatitis - inflammation of the pancreas. Signs include abdominal pain and sickness and in severe cases it can lead to kidney failure, heart problems and diabetes. In extreme cases it can even lead to the pancreas digesting itself, which is often fatal.

All in all, this can make for pretty grim reading.

But the simple conclusion is don't risk a costly (and potentially fatal) emergency trip to the vet by 'treating' your pet with a Christmas dinner. Instead, treat pets with a new toy, or extra attention and playtime. Our pets (and their waistlines) will thank you!

Pets should only be fed foods appropriate to their breed and age, and the correct portion size is really important. Obviously our pets are much smaller than we are, and require much smaller amounts of food. In fact, if a medium-sized dog were to eat a full turkey dinner like ours, it would be the equivalent of a human eating three dinners in one go! Clearly not a good idea.

Another problem with feeding pets big portions is gastric torsion, which is when the stomach dilates due to excess food and gas, either from swallowing air whilst eating or from the meal fermenting. The stomach then twists around on itself, blocking digestion and restricting blood flow, affecting the internal organs.

Gastric torsion is a life or death situation - even with treatment it can be fatal. Affected dogs get sick very quickly, will retch yet not bring anything up, and salivate a lot. Their stomach will swell up feeling hard like a drum, they will have difficulty breathing and may collapse. As the condition progresses, toxins will accumulate and the dog will go into shock, eventually dying.

The condition can affect any dogs of all ages and types, but a number of risk factors have been identified. These include older dogs over the age of seven, larger dogs with a deep and narrow chest such as Great Danes, Weimeraners and Setters, eating too quickly, overeating, and exercising immediately after a meal.

Dog owners often ask if there is anything they can do to prevent this condition. Feeding several small meals a day rather than one large one, and ensuring a minimum of one hours rest after feeding can help to reduce the risk.

For more Christmas pet health advice, please visit