It’s always a bit of a red flag when someone asks, “Can dogs eat human food?”
Usually it means the person is feeding their dog kibble or canned food, believing it to be the best choice. Because, after all, it’s called “dog food”, right?
It’s worth remembering that the whole notion of “people food” and “dog food” is man-made.
There is just food. Some of it is biologically appropriate for people and some of it is biologically appropriate for dogs. There is a teeny, tiny bit of overlap.
One thing’s for sure, “dog food” is a product that’s inserted itself into the mix and been very effectively marketed to owners as a good idea. Really, kibble and canned dog food manufacturers are middle men standing between you and your ability to feed your dog a fresh, natural diet.
A butcher or a supermarket is all you need to feed your dog properly.
Rants aside, and taking the term with a big grain of salt, dogs can eat plenty of so-called “human” foods.
Dogs are carnivores. They are opportunistic. And they are scavengers.
Dogs will give most foods a go and not keel over right away. It’s what we put in their mouths day after day that matters most.
However, there are some things people eat that dogs absolutely should not.
Dangerous foods for dogs
This list is not exhaustive but here are some big ones:
- cooked bones — they can splinter and cause gut perforations
- chocolate — toxic to dogs
- very fatty foods
- xylitol-containing foods — xylitol is a sugar substitute found in chewing gums, mints and other sweets. Xylitol for dogs is toxic.
What not to feed a dog
- junk food — hamburgers, cakes, sweets, leftover Chinese takeout, pizza
- ice cream — I give this a separate listing because I have seen people give icecream truck treats to their dog, thinking they’re doing something nice for their pet
- deli meats — highly processed and full of preservatives. Not so great for humans either!
- processed foods containing salt, sugar, preservatives and artificial flavourings and colourings.
Human foods that dogs can eat
The most healthy human foods for dogs are fruits.
As “facultative” carnivores, dogs and wolves prefer meat but when prey is scarce they can sustain themselves by grazing on secondary foods. In the wild this means fruit. Dogs will eat most kinds, though they tend not to like acidic fruits like oranges.
Great options in any list of healthy human food for dogs include:
- fresh pitted dates (from the cold section, not dried)
It’s commonly said that grapes are dangerous for dogs. I know owners who feed them and say they have no problems. If there’s any doubt, I say: why risk it? There are plenty of other fruits to choose from.
Even avocados are okay, just not the skin or seed.
Some vegetables are safe people food for dogs.
- leafy greens — dogs can’t digest the cellulose in plant cell walls so to be sure the nutrients are bioavailable, feed these as green juice put through a juicer
- sweet potato — when cooked, the carbohydrates in sweet potatoes or yams are converted to simple sugars, giving the vegetable essentially the same chemical composition as fruit
- quinoa (actually a seed, not a grain) — Note there is some thought that bitter naturally-occurring compounds called saponins in quinoa can irritate dogs, so soak quinoa overnight, draining and replacing the water several times
Many other vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and potatoes are okay to feed and won’t cause harm eaten in the occasional table scraps but dogs don’t need them.
Always give new foods in tiny amounts the first few times and increase gradually. In general, anything you see coming through your dog’s system looking the same way it did when it went in, avoid feeding for now. Try it again down the track if you like.
Is peanut butter safe for dogs?
Many owners feed nut butters. Puree your own to be sure what’s in it, or make sure the one you buy contains no additives or preservatives or extra salt.
But also, ask yourself whether peanut butter is a necessary component of your dog’s diet. What does it offer your dog that he can’t get from raw meaty bones, lean muscle meat and organ meat?
Cooked food for dogs?
Cooked meat is a departure from a dog’s natural diet. Cooking kills enzymes and denatures proteins, degrades nutrients and even creates carcinogenic compounds.
Home-cooked food is a better alternative than kibble or canned but raw is a dog’s natural food.
Since domestication about 15 000 years ago, dogs have eaten human leftovers including both cooked meat and things like rice.
Because of adaptation to that carbohydrate-rich diet, and natural selection of dogs that could cope with it, our pets have more genes than wolves for the digestive enzymes that break down carbohydrates.
Dogs can eat these things, and there’s probably no harm in the occasional leftovers as long as they don’t include fatty offcuts or cooked bones. But cooked foods represent a departure from the natural canine diet and arguably, offer less-than-optimal nutrition.
Again, ask yourself what benefit do the leftovers offer your dog that cannot be provided in a healthier form by a raw meaty bone-based diet?
Over time, repeated poor food choices will contribute to disease. Proper feeding will promote vitality.
Can dogs eat cheese? Can dogs eat cottage cheese?
Cheese is a popular training treat. Again, it’s not something that dogs would naturally encounter, it is processed to a degree and it contains a fair amount of fat.
The same goes for milk and yoghurt which is often fed for the probiotics, in hopes of improving gut health. A more species-appropriate way to do this for dogs is to feed a raw meaty bone-based diet, which has been shown to promote a healthy biome.
Kefir for dogs
There is a trend at the moment to feed dogs fermented foods, from kefir to sauerkraut. Needless to say these are not natural foods for dogs.
How to improve a dog’s digestive health? Avoid antibiotics (and medications in general), which frequently damage the gut, stay away from chemical wormers and flea and tick preventatives… and feed raw meaty bone-based diets.
Fish gets a thumbs up.
Wolves in the wild will catch and eat fish.
Check out this video of wolves in Northern Minnesota catching freshwater fish at night.
Sardines are one of the few truly whole foods most of us have access to for our dogs. Feed them raw and fresh, from the fishmonger rather than canned — canned ones are cooked.
Free oils — fish oil, coconut oil — are not necessary.
There are problems with fish oils going rancid too.
Bottom line is dogs do not encounter isolated chemistry in nature. Fish oil is much better consumed by eating fish. Adding oils also ups the overall fat content of the diet.
Obstructions and other hazards
Be careful of your dog raiding trash cans or counter surfing. Train your dog to know these things are off limits.
First there’s the risk posed by cooked bones.
Attacks of pancreatitis in dogs have also been associated with bouts of high fat consumption — dogs eating high fat leftovers from Thanksgiving dinners or snaffling a block of butter, for instance.
Things like corn cobs can cause obstructions. Surgery doesn’t always save the dog.
Those absorbent pads in the bottom of styrofoam supermarket meat packets are soaked in blood and resemble something edible. I’ve heard of this happening more than once.
“Leave it” command
I recently saw a golden retriever hoovering up chunks of bread that she’d found scattered on the ground at the park.
Dog baiting with poisoned meats does happen in city dog parks.
For your dog’s own protection, teach her to leave food that’s on the ground and to only take food that comes directly from you or with your permission.
What to feed a dog
Setting aside what human foods dogs can eat, what actually is a good dog diet?
I feed my dog:
- lean muscle meat — this is the bulk of the meal
- edible bones like chicken frames — enough to produce firm poops
- organ meat like liver — once or twice a week at about 10% of the total meal
- raw meaty bones like a lamb neck — once a week
In conclusion: Can dogs eat people food?
It’s not hard to find human food for dogs that is healthy. There are plenty of common human foods dogs can eat.
If it’s fruit, go for it. Fruit is by far the healthiest human food for dogs. It’s probably the one thing both humans and dogs can eat in exactly the same form and both be in good shape. (But feed it on and empty stomach and separately to meat because it digests much faster and you don’t want it to get backed up in the digestive tract behind the slow-moving meat.)
But when it comes to most other things in your kitchen, you’re probably better off eating it yourself.
Never give a dog processed foods or fast food or sweets.
Likewise, cooked bones and fatty offcuts are absolutely off limits.
Keep in mind dogs don’t attach emotions to foods the way we do. They don’t need or expect treats or tastes of your food unless you train them to.
Do your dog a favor and don’t.