Sneaky Pets and Harmful Foods: Keep Pets Safe This Thanksgiving

Cats can jump up high to grab food, and dogs can gobble down the giblet bag in a flash. Here’s what you need to know about Thanksgiving food and pets.

By: Justin Snow
Let guests know not to feed your pets. By: Justin Snow

It’s time for that fun holiday again! You know. The one where you work all week, get home on Wednesday night, start cooking like a lunatic and continue slaving for the next 24 hours.

Then you watch your relatives take a break from TV and games to gobble your food in 5 minutes flat.

By 5 o’clock on Thanksgiving Day, you are standing amid what resembles a test kitchen for Breaking Bad after a meth explosion. Oh, and you have relatives staying for the weekend who need clean beds and breakfast. By Friday morning you need to go back to work to get some rest!

Maybe your Thanksgiving is nothing like that. With any luck, the modern American November nightmare has turned into a post-modern Americana weekend of football and friends for whom you are thankful, helping out at every corner, enjoying warm, meaningful conversations by an international fire.

Whatever the case, Thanksgiving weekend is often full of food and visitors. You are often busy cooking and hosting, and your pets may get a little lost in the hullabaloo. Your furry Drumsticks and Cranberry-heads need to be kept safe and happy too. Here are a few tips.

No Leftovers From the Hands of Guests or Babes!

Kindly explain to family and friends that you and only you control the feeding of the pets. No feeding from plates or licking of dishes.

Toddlers, in particular, are notorious for their “trails of turkey.” They are the Marie Antoinettes of the pet world. “Let them eat cake!” the tiny tots are screaming, as they run through your house throwing tidbits to the peasant dogs.

Older kids can find it funny to feed pets weird things. It’s not funny. Tell the young adults that snacks are off limits for Frito and Puddin’ Head.

And tell them to pick up after themselves when they go to bed at 3 am! Plates of party food, rich leftovers, and, dare I say, alcoholic beverages, on the low tables in the living room are an invitation to your pet. You will be the one to wake up to the vomiting and diarrhea.

There’s a dishwasher and a trash can in your kitchen, most likely. Show the kids where these mod cons live and how to use them. (I’m sounding too much like a ranting mom. Time to stop, breathe and wish that all your children will be model citizens during the holidays.)

A Pet-Friendly Thanksgiving Dinner

If your pets are used to eating healthy, pet-appropriate human food, they should not be denied at holiday time — but common sense must prevail.

Check out these posts about safe turkey day food for the furries: Top 10 Foods That Can Harm Your Pet and Creating a Safe Thanksgiving Dinner for Your Pets.

Keep in mind:

  • Cats: Lean turkey meat without bones and skin can be a treat if your kitty is used to eating meats other than cat food.
  • Dogs: If your dogs are used to eating home-cooked meats, grains and vegetables, be aware that all the extra goodies in holiday food may be too much for them. Think about the French fried potato strings on top of the green bean casserole and the walnuts in the squash. And do you know how much butter, cream and cheese is in Aunt Sophie’s spinach bake? These foods can be too rich, too fatty and too irritating to an animal’s GI tract, and your veterinarian might be closed during the holiday weekend. You don’t want to break up a game of Pictionary for an emergency vet trip.

Keep a Lid on It

Your pets can’t tell the difference from a leftover on a plate to dumped food in a trash can. For them, trash cans are the ultimate pantry! Be super vigilant about getting over-stuffed trash out the door and into the outside garbage can. Even a few shrimp ends or a nut-encrusted cheese ball can cause stomach upset.

Pets can clean up a table faster than you or your guests. Just think of the leftover turkey platter on the kitchen counter with your cat standing in it munching away. And we know most large breed dogs are great at counter surfing while the little guys are great at counter jumping! Get out all those mismatched plastic containers, and put the food away.

Pets Are Fast and Sneaky

No Thanksgiving went smoothly when my kids were little. We had more than 10 animals in the house and lots of commotion.

The best was when I saw Bitsy, my 110-pound redbone coonhound, walking in the field Thanksgiving weekend sniffing the frost on the bittersweet with something protruding from her derrière!

She had eaten the turkey giblets, still wrapped in their plastic bag(!), and they were coming out the other end. The bag was large enough to have caused an intestinal obstruction in a dog. She was lucky.

Yes, this happened. No, I have no idea when, where or how she got the bag with the turkey innards, but she swallowed the darn thing whole.

Boy, was I embarrassed about complaining to my Stop & Shop that my turkey came without the giblet bag. Good ol’ Bitsy was known for her cast-iron stomach, but this could have been a nightmare.

I carefully pulled the bag from her pooper, and she was quite upset that I didn’t let her eat it. Bitsy wanted to take “recycling” to a new height. Yuck.

Baking and Cooking

Clearly, Bitsy got my giblets because I left them unattended where she could snarf them up. I probably left them on the kitchen table for a moment while I ran to do 3,000 other things that morning.

Pets eating bricks of baking chocolate and entire pumpkin pies is common at this time of year. Consuming a toxic amount of chocolate (baking chocolate and dark chocolates being the worst kind) is a common emergency phone call. Small amounts of pumpkin can keep a pet “regular,” for instance, but a whole pie can cause diarrhea.

The amount of foods your pets consume at Thanksgiving is also a cause for concern. One cookie may be fine, but a tray of cookies your neighbor dropped off, flimsily wrapped with a little plastic wrap, is too much.

And yes, people still send fruitcakes. An entire fruitcake might have been enough to make even Bitsy ill. Nuts, raisins, and dense sweet foods can all cause GI havoc. I think fruitcakes should be outlawed — for humans and furries. I never met a fruitcake I didn’t find disgusting.

Enjoy the Festivities Without Stressing Your Pet

Well, I’ve run out of time, and I didn’t address how stressed your pets can get from just the big change in their daily routine brought on by the holidays.

We all know that as much as we love to see visiting relatives or to visit friends or family ourselves, our furries can be sensitive to changes in their daily expectations. Try to keep some calmness and regularity in the 4-legged world as well as your own this holiday season.

Happy Thanksgiving and happy first day of Hanukkah! That makes it a “Thanksgivukkah.” Put away those latkes and jelly doughnuts too! You want your pets to enjoy all 8 nights of the Festival of Lights — without the Festival of Diarrhea.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Nov. 26, 2014.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.


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