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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Is turkey bad for our pets?

Well the holiday season is almost upon us and Anne had the question "Is it true that turkey is not healthy for our dogs?"  So I decided to write this blog about just that.

Anne your question is a complex one.  Because the answer is both yes and no.  Turkey is not bad for dogs that are used to eating it, especially when it is an ingredient in a balanced dog food.  There is nothing toxic or dangerous in turkey meat for our dogs.  The problem comes when our pets who are used to eating a well balanced, set ratio of fat, protein and carbohydrates, suddenly get a high fat treat.  Think about how you would feel if you ate a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, and lean meat and then suddenly you went to McDonalds and got a Big Mac.  My guess is that you would not be feeling so hot for the rest of the day or even for several days.  That is the best case scenario for a dog that gets a high fat treat: a little belly ache, some gas, and diarrhea.

Turkey (or other fattening scraps like butter, gravy, etc.) become dangerous when they cause the pancreas to kick into high gear.  Eighty to ninety percent of all pancreatitis cases in humans are found in alcoholics or people with gallstones.  It is not a disease most people need to worry about.  That is not the case in dogs and cats.  They are much more sensitive to a sudden changes in fat intake. 

When your pet eats a meal several things happen.  Before the first bite of food is taken salivary secretions increase.  This then triggers the stomach to start producing more acid chyme (pronounced kime) which is responsible for the acidic environment of the stomach which allows the dog and cat to eat dead and decaying things with high bacterial contamination and not get sick.  The increase in chyme stimulates the duodenum (first part of the small intestines) to produce secretin which then causes the pancreas to produce its digestive enzymes.  These enzymes are responsible for the breakdown of fats and proteins. OK enough digestive physiology!

Because the digestive enzymes the pancreas produces will break down fats and proteins they are capable of digesting the pancreas and other internal organs as well.  There are protective measures in place to prevent this and under normal circumstance they are very effective.  The theory is that with a sudden high fat meal the pancreas over secretes enzymes to the point that the safety mechanisms are overcome.  (I always picture the I Love Lucy episode in the candy factory where the conveyor belt is put on super fast speed and she can't keep up). These enzymes then start to digest the pancreas itself causing more inflammation, unregulated production of more enzymes, and hence more damage.  A single high fat meal could be fatal for a dog or cat.  Once the enzymes damage the pancreas enough they can start to leak into the rest of the body and eventually general organ failure, DIC, and death can follow.  While many cases of pancreatitis are successfully treated, there is no guaranteed cure.  A dog or cat may stay in the hospital in intensive care for weeks (and thousands to tens of thousands of dollars), appear to be getting better, only to suddenly die from organ failure.

I know many people will think "but I've fed my dog table scraps at Thanksgiving for years and never had a problem."  All I can say to them is they were lucky.  I know many people that didn't wear a seat belt as a child and they are here to tell about it, but I know of at least three people who died because they weren't, the same theory applies.  I can also name many people that did feed their dog Thanksgiving scraps only to lose their beloved pet from severe acute pancreatitis or have to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars to get them through the illness.  So next time your dog looks up at you with those pleading soulful eyes while you are eating Thanksgiving dinner, think long and hard about what is best for him.  Hand him a raw carrot or green bean or even have some dog treats at the table instead.


  1. As an aside turkey isn't an overly fat meat if you are just talking about the white breast meat. Its the skin and dark meat that most people end up giving their dogs and that is higher in fat.

  2. Dr. Johnston, my dog has chronic pancreatitis and is on a very strict diet (Royal Canin Low Fat GI). The only treats she is ever allowed is small quantities of boiled chicken. Would boiled white turkey meat be as low in fat? I have heard of others using boiled beef as well but I've been too afraid to try. Any suggestions? Thank you so much for writing this!!