Over the years we’ve all heard scary tales of pet illness and even death over the issue of “people food” in pets’ diets. But did you know that “people food” is ordinarily incredibly safe for pets? Not only can it be safe, many of us home-cook some or all of our pets’ meals––safely, nutritiously, and with improved health as a result.

After all, pet food IS “people food.” 

Food is food. Food is no more ours than the oceans are––or planet Earth, for that matter. We all share in its comestible wealth. We humans have no special claim on food. 

Bagged and canned, machine-extruded and stewed pet foods have undoubtedly revolutionized the ability of “developed” nations to keep pets safely and conveniently. But that doesn’t mean that pet foods are inherently that different from “ours.”

In fact, there’s nothing in pet food you couldn’t safely consume as long as it was manufactured with human-grade sanitary concessions in mind. (By the way, that’s the main difference between human-grade and pet-grade: the sanitary conditions under which the food is prepared.)

Pet nutrition is all about feeding healthy ingredients that are nutritionally balanced for each individual species’ requirements. And so-called, “people food” can be just that. 

The problem comes in when pet owners don’t pay attention to certain key issues when feeding their pets off their own plates. So you understand better what I mean, here’s a rundown of don’ts when it comes to feeding “human food”:

1. Feeding toxic ingredients

Pets shouldn’t eat certain foods that are considered perfectly safe for humans: grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, chocolate, onions and garlic, for example. Though onions and garlic can be made much safer by cooking them, it’s best to stay away from all alliums (onion family plants).

2. Feeding processed nasties

Just because we humans often choose to engage in terrible food habits doesn’t mean our pets should, too. Potato chips, candy, french fries, and other processed foods aren’t good for anyone. Why subject your pets to the same stupid-human hazards?

3. Feeding new foods too fast

We all know what happens after we’ve hosted a big, backyard barbecue. The dog gets sick (and sometimes you do, too). Eating a bunch of creamy potato salad, gooey ribs and butter-slathered corn isn’t a good idea if it’s not what you’re used to. That’s why pets tend to get sick to their stomachs over the holidays. They’re exposed to foods their digestive tracts aren’t exactly accustomed to processing. It would happen to you, too, if you ate the same meal, day after day, and suddenly treated yourself to Babette’s Feast. 

That’s why slow, gradual acclimation to any new ingredient is considered the right way to go about feeding pets anything different, be it “human food” or a commercial pet diet.

4. Ignoring pets’ individual needs

Just as some humans can’t eat X, Y or Z food, some pets are uniquely sensitive to certain ingredients. And some pets have dietary restrictions based on their individual disease processes: food allergies, pancreatic insufficiency or inflammatory bowel disease, for example. 

5. Failing to provide a balance of nutrients

This is the most common problem I see with long-term non-commercial pet feeders. They ignore the need for pets to consume a diet that’s considered nutritionally “balanced” for their species. Sure, we veterinarians may (and often do) argue about what that balance might be, but that’s no excuse for a chicken and rice diet. Pets can no more live on that, long-term, than we could. 

For pets whose owners have decided to take their diets to the next level, recipes and other resources are out there. For pets with unique nutritional needs (cancer patients, diabetics, etc.) veterinary nutritionists are available for individual nutrition counseling. 

Oh, and don't forget to email me (p.khuly@petmd.com) the topics you’d most like to hear about––medical, money, ethical or otherwise––and prepare yourself for my opinionated answers.

Dr. Patty Khuly