Just before bed last night I decided to rescue a group of almost-too-ripe avocados from near certain death-by-compost. I peeled, pitted and sliced them then slathered the wedges in a lime vinaigrette so spicy with garlic you’d have to be a serious fan of the stuff to enjoy this dish. And I am. 

Problem is, Slumdog turned out to be a fan as well. While rearranging things in my too-full fridge I’d placed the open container of “marinating” avocados at its “ground” level, where I’d removed the drawer for greater accessibility. That’s when Slumdog discovered that greater accessibility is a boon for an always-hungry muttly thing like himself, too. 

I was three feet away securing some plastic wrap when I heard the sound of his characteristic food inhalation technique. In a few huge gulps, fifty percent of the six sliced avocados had been consumed. Needless to say, I was powerless to stop him in the face of all that pent-up stray-dog bottomless pit-ness (those of you with rescues know what I mean). 

By the time I reached him there was garlic all over his face and avocado hanging from the edges of his mouth. If he hadn’t looked so funny I would have been more put out. As it was, I knew he’d pay for his dietary transgressions in diarrhea––which, knowing Slumdog’s impossible housebreaking problems, meant I would, too. Can’t wait. 

Then there’s the other issue to consider: The avocado and garlic thing. Because both are on the do-not-fly list for dogs, you’d think I’d be more stressed out by the unholy mess of things Slumdog had made in my kitchen. Not only do I have to half-bathe a dog and clean up a sloppy floor at 10 PM on a school night, but I also have to worry about toxic substances having been consumed...

...or do I? 

Here’s the scoop: Garlic (like all of its onion-y, allium-family members) can be toxic to a dog’s red blood cells (to cats, cows and horses, too). Affected animals’ red blood cells break down (hemolyze), leading to life-threatening anemias in some cases. Dark brown urine is the most common sign in these cases. Treatment typically consists of whole blood transfusions. 

But here’s the good news: You have to consume LOTS of garlic to get there. We don’t know exactly how much and there’s plenty of debate as to how much is too much, but we do know this: 

1. The toxic principle in all alliums is the alkaloid, N-propyl disulphide. 

2. Among the alliums, onions contain the highest amounts of this compound. Garlic contains far less.

3. Raw alliums are the biggest offenders since some of the compound will be inactivated by the cooking process.

4. But given that relatively small amounts of raw garlic yield maximum flavor, it’s unlikely that our household pets would consume enough to sicken them. As such, we tend to consider garlic more of a theoretical toxicity than an actual risk.

5. In fact, despite the near-certainty that garlic would cause a problem if ingested in large quantities, I’ve never heard of a case. Though the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control lists garlic among toxic plants, it’s worth noting that my alma mater (University of Pennsylvania’s vet school) does not. 

OK, so how about the avocados? Here’s an issue that seems to confuse everyone, including the toxicology powers-that-be. Though avocados are billed as pet no-no’s, several well-known brands of pet food and nutritional supplements tout the avocado fruit and its oil as beneficial ingredients. And they are. It’s the pit, skin and leaves of the plant that primarily harbor a toxin called “Persin” (known to cause vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes fluid in the chest). The flesh contains it too, but apparently in far lower doses. 

Here’s what the ASPCA Animal Poison Control has to say:

..avocado leaves, fruit, seeds and bark contain a toxic principle known as Persin. The Guatemalan variety, a common one found in stores, appears to be the most problematic. Other strains of avocado can have different degrees of toxic potential. 

The safety profile of foods and other products formulated with avocado is a difficult question for us to answer definitively, because we do not know specifically how avocados are processed for these foods, what types of avocados are used, or what minimum dose of the toxic principle results in clinical effects.  Therefore, we have refrained from making an overall assessment of the safety or toxicity of products that contain avocado.

Taking a less equivocal view of things is Breeder’s Choice, the makers of  avocado-containing AvoDerm pet foods:

Dr. Art Craigmill, UC Davis, Professor and Extension Specialist in Environmental Toxicology has said that his studies and other research in the United States and Australia have shown that the problem of [avocado] toxicity is in the leaves and the pit of the Guatemalan variety; the avocado meat of the fruit and oils have not been shown to be toxic. AvoDerm Natural pet products do not utilize any Guatemalan variety avocados, nor do we use any leaves or pits of any variety of avocados for our avocado meal and oil.

And then there's WebMD, with their equally unequivocal, 180-degree statement of "fact":

No matter how good you think the guacamole is, you shouldn't give it to your dog. Avocados contain a substance called persin. It's harmless for humans who aren't allergic. But it's highly toxic in most animals including dogs. Just a little can cause your dog to vomit and have diarrhea.

I know, it’s all very confusing––especially for someone whose dogs were raised on the fruits of the avocado orchard I currently live in (my twelve trees drop their produce for six full months of the year). Dogs eat avocados with impunity here in Miami. They love nothing better than to play a round of catch with the pits. And we never noticed any signs of toxicity. We worried more about weight gain and the possibility of pit swallowing. So maybe it’s the variety. Or maybe it’s the fact that they typically ignore the pits and peels (they mostly eat around the peel, somehow, and rarely munch deeply into the pits). 

Sure, Slumdog will have some diarrhea today and tomorrow. But that’s what always happens when he eats anything but his prebiotic-containing dog food and his mama’s special home cooking. Peeled, pitted avocados and a few cloves of chopped garlic? I’m not worried about toxicity. I’m more stressed about the mess that awaits me when I go home to check on him at lunchtime.

In the meantime, however, there is one silver lining: All that glorious garlic breath. It sure beats his regular smell, that’s for sure.