As most people with dogs (and some people with cats) know, pets begging under the table for scraps of breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks can be a very real thing. And if you love your animal, the temptation to give in to their pleas – those cries that sound like they’re actually starving right in front of you – is strong. Whether it’s meowing, barking or just plain staring, it’s a real thing, and it’s hard to resist.
However, expert veterinarians want you to know you’re putting your pets long-term health at risk when you give them people food and table scraps.
It’s the calories and fat
While a small bite of burger can seem like a small amount of food for an adult human, when you compare our size to most animals, it can be a huge amount of their daily caloric intake.
“People don't understand that they're feeding them their normal rations, they're getting as many calories as they need. And then they give him a little piece of ground beef or something like that, not realizing that that's basically one seventh of their daily calorie intake in that one bite of food,” explains Mark Verdino, DVM, vice president and chief veterinary staff of North Shore Animal League America. “And you do a couple of those, then your multiple family members are doing it, it adds up. You can end up with animals that are significantly overweight or obese.”
Beyond not having the proper nutrients for your companion animals, some people food can actually be quite harmful.
“There are people foods that are toxic. And when I say toxic, some of them are very severe, like grapes and raisins can have a very severe toxicity, can cause kidney failure, which can be life-threatening,” explains Dr. Verdino. “And it's unfortunately very variable on how dogs in particular are affected by it. Some dogs can eat up a bunch of raisins and have no problems. Other dogs eat one raisin and they die.”
And while all people food might not be life-threatening, it’s not always going to agree with digestive systems in animals.
“Many of the other toxicities tend to be gastrointestinal in nature. They can cause an upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea, that type of stuff. But just be careful with it.”
Don’t even try to hide treats from your dog. His nose knows you have them. Just don’t let him get his paws on any foods dogs can’t eat. Dogs’ sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than that of humans. Just how powerful is that? As James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, told PBS, "If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well."
Internal storm tracker
There are some weather myths you shouldn’t believe, like lightning never strikes the same place twice. But here’s one you should never doubt: Dogs can sense when bad weather is coming. Researchers don’t have an exact explanation—maybe your pet actually is a superhero!—but they have some theories. Dogs are sensitive to drops in barometric pressure that come with severe storms, and they can hear low frequencies that humans can’t, like far-off thunder and earthquake rumbles. You shouldn’t solely rely on your pet over meteorologists, but don’t let their weird behavior go unnoticed. It could save your life.
Secret tail code
As if having an extra extremity wasn’t cool to begin with, dogs can also use their tails to communicate. (This is what your pet secretly wants you to know.) They lower their tails when they feel scared or nervous. When they’re alert or aroused, the tails wag higher. If a pooch is aggressive or feeling threatened, that tail will stick straight up in the air. Plus, dogs can tell how other canines are feeling based on what direction they wag in. Italian researchers discovered that dogs became more anxious when they saw others wag their tails to the left, as opposed to the right side or not at all. Previous studies showed that left-leaning tail wagging was a result of a dog having a negative experience, like facing a nasty dog.
Dogs and humans know how to take care of each other. You look out for the signs that your dog is sick, and dogs can tell when you’re not 100 percent healthy, sometimes even before you know it. Thanks to their powerful sense of smell, dogs can pick up on volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in human bodies, which include diseases like cancer. In 2006, dogs trained at the In Situ Foundation were able to detect lung cancer with 97 percent accuracy and breast cancer with 88 percent accuracy, just by sniffing breath samples from patients. Those are better results than needle biopsies.
Well, kind of. Dogs can’t exactly read your mind, but they do know how you’re feeling. In a study published in Biology Letters, researchers showed dogs photos faces displaying different emotions while also playing an audio clip that showed a distinct emotion. What’s interesting is that the dogs looked at the face that corresponded to the type of voice that was being played, like a mad face when the audio clip was an angry voice. So your pet may not be able to process the words “You ate all of my cereal?!” like humans can, but she can definitely use your facial expressions and tone to pick up that you’re not in a great mood.
Yes, empathy is a superpower (one that humans can harness with a few exercises!). Not only do dogs and pups understand your feelings, but they can also empathize with you, according to a report from Psychology Today. Psychologists from Goldsmiths College in London conducted the same study on 18 dogs: Each dog would watch while their owner sat across from a stranger. The two individuals would take turns talking normally, humming in an unusual pattern, and pretending to cry. The psychologists reasoned that when their owners cried, the pets would lay on them, nuzzle, lick, or otherwise try to comfort them. But the dogs ended up also comforting the crying strangers, even though they had no emotional connection, just because they saw that they were distressed. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all empathized like dogs?
You’ve probably heard stories about pets that found their way home despite terrible odds and long distances. For instance, this cat broke out of a shelter to go back to his rescuer. But once again, dogs’ noses are a crucial part of their uncanny sense of direction. They are able to follow their own scent trails for miles to retrace their steps, and if the wind is right, they can even use their owners’ scent as well, TIME reported.
While we meager humans can only hear sounds up to 20,000 Hz (vibrations per second), dogs can hear up to 60,000 Hz. Dogs’ large ears are on the top of their heads, prime real estate to pick up noises humans miss. Plus, they have about 18 ear muscles, which allow them to rotate, tilt, and raise their ears to get an amplified sound. If you thought these household noises were annoying, just think of how much they bother your pooch!
Our eyes get more accustomed to darkness the longer we’re exposed to it. (That’s why you should never turn on the lights if you hear an intruder.) Dogs, on the other hand, have eyes that are made to automatically see well in the dark. Their large pupils let more light in, and the rods in their eyes work better in dim light. But the biggest factor is the tapetum, which reflects light at the back of the eye. That helps them see in light that’s five times dimmer than what humans need to see clearly.
Take it from us: You don’t want to challenge your dog to a race. On average, canines clock in at about 19 miles per hour, but many can go over 35 mph if they’re running in short spurts. The fastest dog breed is the greyhound, which can reach 45 mph. To compare, the fastest humans can only run 28 mph. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run, though. It can make you live longer.
The best prescription ever
Just being in the presence of a dog can make you healthier. Petting dogs can reduce stress, help your body release a relaxation hormone, and lower blood pressure (which, in turn, reduces your risk for heart disease.) Studies have also shown that pet owners are generally happier and more trusting. Plus, they go to the doctor less frequently for minor problems.
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The long-term risks of obesity
While chubby animals are cute, a diet of table scraps (or just some table food) can lead to obesity, which is as much of a health crisis for animals as it is for humans. Both cats and dogs can suffer myriad health problems from being overweight, which can lead to illness, pain, discomfort, and potentially, an early death.
“With dogs I would say the main thing is kind of stress on their various organ systems and also on their joints, especially that added weight is definitely going to, as they get older, increase pressure on the joints, lead to worse arthritis than your average lean animal,” said Dr. Kim, “And it can also cause other heart problems as well because even though they don't get a chronic disease like people do, they still can have that fatty build-up in their blood vessels.”
“Overweight cats, their number one problem is diabetes, and also the pressure on their joints,” explained Dr. Kim, “So overweight cats, they're going to have more arthritis than their lean counterparts and they're also unable to groom. They can even get skin infections from not being able to clean themselves.”
What’s the solution?
The experts we spoke with both agreed that people or table food, as long as it is not toxic, can be fine for a very rare treat. However, if you’ve been feeding your pet table scraps and they are overweight, it’s best to steer the animal toward an appropriate diet as soon as possible. While you should consult your own vet, there are some simple steps you can take on your own.
“The easiest way for people to start is if they have a brand of food that they regularly feed their animals, they can look up the recommended feeding on the back or on the can,” said Dr. Kim.
Following those guidelines, and cutting out the table food should get your pet back on the right track. If you’re not seeing any changes in weight, take your pet to the vet for further evaluation.