When I was growing up, my dad’s dog, Mabel, and her brother Samson and their mom Elsa, who belonged to my uncle, ate everything we did. To be more precise: they ate everything we didn’t eat. I’d often watch them lick clean our plates; I remember being very impressed with their usefulness.
I also remember thinking that this wouldn’t happen if we were at my grandmother’s house.
My dad and my Uncle David came from a pretty traditional 1950s style Jewish family. Like Radio Days meets Leave it to Beaver. Their natal house — brown with yellow shutters, I seem to recall — was on Avenue J in Flatbush. Their block, and the surrounding blocks, were super tidy. Like a suburb street in a Little Golden Book, oddly located just steps from several gritty Brooklyn subway stops.
I recall my late grandmother, Ethel, who died in 1995, as being rather clean. She was from Wisconsin and my dad said she always saw her 50 year residence in Brooklyn as a kind of debasing extended visit. Her hobbies included baking and bookkeeping. Here she is with my uncle in 1953. The Daily News shot this of them when coal gas was replaced by natural gas in Brooklyn.
I never knew her to have a dog, but my dad and his uncles had a Beagle when they were kids. I imagine she saw dogs as outdoor activities. In fact, it looks like that’s a dog gate in the room behind her in this picture. Stay out, Winky! She just was very tidy. When I was young, this seemed to me a very sharp contrast to my dad’s place, which doubled as his art studio and was very much the opposite of tidy. There were boundaries between my grandma and dogs in a way that there wasn’t in the homes of my uncle and dad. Nothing in their lives was so black and white.
Anyway, my dad and Uncle David loved their dogs and were pretty liberal about what they ate, and what they ate off of. They may have eaten canned food out of a dog bowl when they visited grandma, but when they were in their own respective homes, human leftovers made up a good portion of their diets. Other kinds of meat, too: My uncle actually let Samson hunt for rats in City Hall Park. Cooked chicken bones were given to these dogs willy-nilly. They’d also get tossed chocolate chip cookies and fat rinds. My dad had a girlfriend who would get annoyed at him for giving chicken bones to dogs because she said they’d splinter. “They’ll be fine,” he would grumble. And you know what? They were fine.
Today, I might let my dog lick my plate and have my leftovers when its appropriate; but I do stay away from cooked chicken and turkey bones. Predictably, tonight, when everyone at my Thanksgiving dinner was feeding Amos their scraps, someone said not to –those bones could splinter.
“He’ll be fine,” my dad said. “Dogs have eaten this stuff for millions of years.”
Well, sort of. One of the reasons that dogs and humans have such a tight bond is that dogs evolved in order to adapt to living around us. Because we feed them. In fact, the first dogs that lived domestically with humans –fifteen to twelve thousand years ago — were probably garbage scavengers, benefiting from our surpluses and the dumps we started to create as we became less nomadic. The ones that thrived on eating our food, and the ones who were least spooked about being around people and their refuse, were the ones that were more likely to have pups that would be brought inside. Ray Coppinger says, in his book Dogs, “Mutualism between dogs and people requires dogs to change genetically, both in form and behavior, while humans maintain their form and learn to modify their behavior. Humans can back out of the relationship with no loss of genetic fitness, but the specialized dog is stuck with that new shape.”
Over the millennia the dog shape might’ve changed, but his taste for bones hasn’t. Most of the dumpster divers probably were fine eating the bones and whatever else they ate. But at that point, many of them hadn’t yet evolved to the physical extremes we see today — extremes that only thrive because we take care of them. I’m still not sure the latest evolutionary jumps that brought me my Yorkiepoo has made for a species that is necessarily able to survive on our trash. That’s why I don’t totally believe my dad and his Pollyannish “They’ll be fine,” mantra.
All of this has just been something of a preamble to this fact I recently learned that I wanted share: The day after Thanksgiving is one of the busiest days at veterinary ERs. And it’s not because people are trampling their Malteses as they rush to Walmart. It is because we eat too much, and, when we’re done, many of us let our dogs do the pre-rinse cycle.
Some of this is fine. But it can’t hurt to be thoughtful about what your dog eats. i asked Dr. Gabby Fleming, a JustAnswer vet in Norforlk, VA, what she thought of the whole bone splintering issue. She said what I thought she’d say: Better safe then sorry.
“The splinters can puncture the gastrointestinal tract as well as cause a gastrointestinal blockage. If you take a poultry bone in your hand and break it, you will see how it ends up with sharp edges,” she said. But she noted that it’s not an exact science –she wasn’t aware of any studies. “My own dogs occasionally sneak a chicken bone. I do a lot of praying and so far they have all survived,” she said. “But, because we see patients come in with poultry bone related issues, I would not feed bones to any dogs on purpose.” Ham bones, she said are just as dangerous. “I do know some people who feed the ‘raw’ diet and they boil the chicken bones which makes them rubbery. So then they will not splinter but they can still cause a gastrointestinal blockage. You may get lucky,” she said, “or you may end up with $3,000 emergency veterinary surgery bill.”
On Thanksgiving, she said, she advises that people offer no more than a few bites of plain cooked turkey. White meat! Or that they cook the turkey bones, in water, “and make a broth that you could add to the regular dog food for flavoring.”
Here are some other things to consider avoiding when you do give your dog holiday scraps:
- Turkey Skin: “Skin is very high in fat. So only the lean meat can be fed. Dogs cannot digest fat very well. The pancreas is located in the upper right abdomen. It makes digestive enzymes to break down fats and carbohydrates. When a high fat food is consumed, the pancreas can become inflamed.”
- Ham: “Ham is high in fat which again can cause pancreatitis.”
- Pan drippings: also high in fat.
- Onions: Can cause anemia.
- Garlic Same issue as onions.
- Grapes: Affects a dog’s kidneys.
- Raisins: Same as grapes, duh.
- Chocolate: Can be a cardia stimulant
- Nutmeg: Can cause tummy issues and central nervous damage.
- Sage: Same as nutmeg.
- Alcohol: Yep, seriously.