By Kim Everson, DVM
Over the past year, I have talked about the dangers of feeding certain people foods to pets: grapes, brats, and chocolate have received special attention. Just the other day a client asked me to discuss the effects of feeding your dog dairy products like ice cream.
Now hold on. Before you begin to worry that you’ve been inadvertently poisoning your pooch with Wisconsin’s finest dairy products, let me just say that this particular class of people food is not toxic. Many dogs and cats can and do enjoy a little dairy here and there with no obvious ill effect. But for some pets dairy should definitely be avoided.
First off, a chubby pet should not get people food period. It is just too hard to count calories for your pet when people food is involved. And just as a human dieter would be especially careful with sweets like ice cream, pudgy puppies and cobby kitties should lay off these treats too.
So what about those fit and active pets? Should they shy away from ice cream and other dairy treats? The short answer is “it depends.” It may surprise you to learn that many dogs and cats are lactose intolerant. This means a saucer of cream for Kitty or spoonful of yogurt for Fido may result in vomiting, diarrhea or a belly ache.
Shadow, a black lab with chronic digestive problems, is a prime example of how dairy can be disastrous for dogs. When Shadow was rescued from the shelter, she was severely underweight. She suffered from diarrhea, vomiting and had elevated liver enzymes. After repeated courses of medications, she recovered from these ailments, but soon showed up at the clinic with severe pain in her back end. Diagnosed with hip dysplasia, Shadow was treated with a short course of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication and started on several long term joint supplements. Like many Labradors, Shadow also suffered from allergy aggravations and periodically needed treatment for itchy skin infections.
Fast forward a few years. Shadow returns to the veterinary clinic now overweight and with her allergies in full swing. Moreover, her owners are worried that her liver problems are back because Shadow pretty much always has diarrhea and vomits nearly every day. Happily Shadow’s bloodwork comes back perfectly normal! Her fecal tests show nothing infectious. She appears to be happy and healthy — certainly she is not wasting away! Based on her history of allergies, we decide to put Shadow on a special hypoallergenic diet. The owners are careful not to give any people food or treats during this time and Shadow’s GI problems improve — but only marginally. Frustrated, we sit down again and brain storm. What could be making Shadow sick?
Finally, we remember her joint supplement, a natural anti-inflammatory derived from milk. Could that be the culprit? Worried that Shadow’s hips will act up if we stop the supplement, we nonetheless feel it’s worth a try. Her owners stop the supplement but change nothing else. Sure enough, Shadow’s vomiting stops immediately. Her stools start firming up soon after. Darn that dairy intolerance! Luckily Shadow’s other non-dairy joint supplements are up to the challenge and she is doing fine now. No vomiting, no diarrhea, no hip pain and amazingly even her allergies are less severe this summer.
Shadow’s case is dramatic, but it is probably not unique. Many pets eat milk, cheese, ice cream and yogurt. Many pets also suffer from apparently unexplained bouts of vomiting and soft stools. Is there a cause-and-effect relationship here? Perhaps. If you share dairy with your pet and he happens to suffer from frequent gastric disturbances it might be worthwhile to lay off the dairy entirely for a while to see if the belly aches subside. You can always choose a pet-friendly non-dairy substitute for that real Wisconsin ice cream!