Barbecue season brings hazards for your pets
The long, bright, warm(ish) evenings of summer in Ireland tempt many of us to cook and eat outside, in our back gardens and on our patios. Barbecues are a lovely informal, social way of eating, offering a break to the sometimes humdrum routine of eating the evening meal indoors.
As a vet, barbecues don't always fill me with enthusiasm. It's not that I'm a killjoy: I enjoy them as much as anyone. The problem is that when people tell me that they've been cooking outside, it's often the start of a saga. "We were having a barbecue last night and..." is usually how it goes. The next bit of the sentence explains my problem. 'Someone let the dog eat some cooked bones', 'the dog stole some corn-on-the-cob' or 'the dog was given some scraps at the end of the evening'. They will then go on to explain that ever since the incident, their dog has suffered from gastroenteritis, or has been dull and miserable, or has had some other type of malady.
When people have a barbecue, the usual routine and discipline of meal times doesn't apply. Instead of sitting indoors, at a table, eating their food from a plate, people tend to be sprawled on garden chairs and recliners, or even standing up. They may be eating from disposable plates, and when they're finished, the remains of the meal are often left lying around, instead of empty plates being tidied away straight into the dishwasher. And at the same time, pets may be wandering around: the garden is their free-ranging territory. Added to this mix is the fact that people are likely to be particularly relaxed when they're having barbecues, perhaps indulging in a few glasses of wine during the evening.
The common result of the above combination of circumstances is that pets often have access to foodstuffs that are not good for them. There are three classic examples that I see regularly at my clinic.
First, the most obvious: cooked bones. When humans have eaten the meat from pork or lamb chops, the remaining bone is highly attractive to dogs and cats. If they get a chance to steal them, they'll seize the opportunity. Cooking makes bones more brittle and fragile, so that when pets chew them, they are far more likely to be able to crunch them into smaller, sharper fragments that can be easily swallowed. Sometimes pets will get away with doing this: the stomach is able to digest bones, to some extent. But often, the sharp pieces of bone become lodged in the digestive tract. I've seen them stuck in the throat, gullet, the stomach and the intestines. When this happens, the affected animal falls seriously ill, often with repeated vomiting. The only answer is to get the pet to the vet, where x-rays will usually be taken to confirm the diagnosis. Life-saving (and expensive) surgery is usually needed to save the animal's life. Sometimes the broken pieces of bone manage to negotiate their way down the digestive tract only to create a different type of problem at the other end: the fragments stick together like a form of concrete, causing dramatic constipation. I've had to treat many dogs with repeated enemas to remove the solidified brick-like mass of stuck-together sharp pieces of bone.
The second common barbecue hazard seems harmless to the casual observer: corn-on-the-cobs. Humans tend to coat these with salt and butter, chew off the tastiest bits, then discard them. Dogs find half-eaten corn-on-the-cobs highly attractive, and if they get a chance, they'll steal them, slinking off somewhere quiet to chew them. The problem is that the inner core of a corn-on-the-cob is a solid, indigestible cylinder of fibrous tissue. It's often small enough to swallow, but too big to pass through the intestines. At our clinic, we see at least three cases every year of a dog that needs to have surgery to remove an intestinal obstruction caused by a corn-on-the-cob. Nationally, that means that there must be hundreds of dogs every summer suffering the consequences of casually discarded corn-on-the-cobs. The surgery to remove them is expensive, and although it is usually successful, there is a mortality rate. It would be far better if people treated corn-on-the-cobs as potential hazards, keeping them out of reach of dogs at all times.
The third, and most common, barbecue hazard is simple overindulgence: pets are often given a bowlful of a type of food that they would never normally be given. A typical al fresco meal for a dog might include a combination of scraps of meat (chops, burgers and sausages) together with assorted vegetables, spices and sauces). A dog's digestive tract is often not able to cope with this sudden change in diet. For week after week, they are given a standard, predictable bowl of kibble, then all of a sudden, their stomach is filled with a rich assortment of novel foodstuffs. The result is commonly a nasty dose of gastroenteritis, which again means a trip to the vet. A simple treatment is often enough to get them back to normal, with special bland diets to soothe the inflamed lining of the gut. But it would be so much simpler if the crisis weren't allowed to happen at all. The rule of thumb is that no pet should be given more than 10% of its daily food ration as treats and scraps.
Enjoy your barbecues but just be careful with bones and corn-on-the-cobs, and don't overdo the treats. Your pet will thank you for it.