Dogs are experts at manipulating us to give them food. When they sidle up to the dinner table all dopey, tail wagging and tongue drooling, it’s hard to look them in the eye and say “no”. They’re called puppy-dog eyes for a reason.
So what do we do when our dogs campaign us for our scraps? I found some answers from dietitian Dr Joanna McMillan (who many of us would know for giving sensible advice to celebrities and lifestyle gurus on their ridiculous diets in her “Day on A Plate” column in Fairfax newspapers) and the Animal Welfare League vet Dr Simone Maher (as seen on Bondi Vet) at a roundtable discussion held by dog food brand Purina Beyond.
The topic was pet nutrition, because according to Purina Beyond’s latest research, one in five of us spends more time on our pets’ diets than our own. And while we’re certainly not eating their food, they often really like ours. So are leftovers OK?
Can I feed my pet leftovers?
If you or other family members have a habit of feeding your pooch leftovers, it can often send their diet out of balance and push them into the overweight category, causing health problems like heart disease, diabetes and shorter life spans.
“I do think one of the traps people fall into is that they really underestimate just how much energy this what that will contribute to a dog’s overall energy intake,” Dr Maher says.
That’s not a hard-and-fast “no” though. Dr Maher says it’s OK to give them leftovers if it’s “just forming a treat part of the diet or a supplement” and doesn’t contain the harmful foods dogs need to avoid, which include onions, macadamia nuts, chocolate, sultanas and grapes.
“For instance, I saw a poodle not all that long ago that actually came in with acute blood cell anaemia – destruction of red blood cells,” Maher said. “When we were investigating what had happened, the owners had had a barbecue and they had all of their sausages [mixed] with their onions. All of leftover stuff was fed to the dog, which meant a big pile of onions, which are highly toxic.”
While it should be generally avoided, Maher says a miniscule amount of onions in something like spaghetti bolognaise is fine if it’s not on a regular basis.
What if my dog needs to go on a diet?
Leftovers should be the first to go. Dr McMillan says that getting a dog to lose weight is just as it would be for a human.
“When people ask me how to lose weight, you pick the low hanging fruit first,” McMillan shares. “Often people are snacking all day thinking they’re not eating anything because they’re not sitting down having a proper meal, and they’re actually taking in a lot more kilojoules than they think they are. I think we’re probably doing the same with dogs. You think that’s hardly anything then you suddenly realise the kids are feeding the dogs the bits they don’t want under the table.”
McMillan, who owns a labradoodle called Spartacus, knows this firsthand. She put Spartacus on a diet after he came back from a kennel “one fat puppy” – so she gave him “nothing extra for a while”.
“Very quickly he was back to his normal size and he lost his 3kg,” she says. “3kg on a 19kg dog is quite a lot!”
It sounds brutal having to put your fur-baby on a diet. But ultimately, it can extend their lifespan.
"I had a client with a boxer who had severe arthritis in both of its knees," Dr Maher recalls. "It was obese. I said to the owner, 'This is going to end up killing your dog because we're going to get to a stage where your dog can't get out of bed and no amount of medication is going to help'.
"And I said, 'If you really love your dog you've got to get serious about this'. He started walking it every day, he had it on medication for pain relief. The change in that dog's wellbeing [was huge]…but the amazing thing was the guy lost 15kg because he just committed. He loved his dog, he knew to extend its life expectancy, he had to make this commitment."
So what is 'the right balance' in a dog's diet?
It's important to note that just like human appetites, dogs' appetites can vary based on breed, their level of exercise and other factors.
But Dr Maher and Dr McMillan agree that dogs generally have the same natural requirements for quality lean protein, smart carbs (including basic grains), fibre and good fats as humans do. Like us, they need natural ingredients with vitamins, minerals and amino acids (which are all present in brands like Purina Beyond).
Eat yo' greens. Image: GIPHY
There are, however, some dietary differences between dog and human diets. Dogs produce their own vitamin C, so they don't need to load up on oranges and berries like we do in winter.
And many dogs have issues with lactose, so owners should take note of their dogs' sensitivity to dairy products (without being a complete no-no, though).
As Maher says, a healthy doggy diet really is about coming up with "the right building blocks for good nutrition in the right proportions".
Sometimes that means leftovers and treats are allowed, as long as it doesn't become an everyday habit. Because really, we all just want to bond with our animals.
"One of the things I've learnt is that nutrition is such a reflection of the human animal bond," Dr Maher says. "What people are feeding their pets is a way that you bond with your pet, and you want to provide high quality for them."
Do you feed your pooch leftovers? Tell us in the comments.