Every Thanksgiving, it makes me cringe when I read articles written by veterinarians and others “pet experts” suggesting that we should avoid feeding our pets most or all Thanksgiving foods.
After all, nature just makes the foods, then we humans heavily process it into "nutritionally complete and balanced," dry or moist pet foods that supposedly meet our companion canines' and felines' nutritional needs, yet are typically made with ingredients that are subpar to those we humans eat (i.e., feed-grade vs human-grade, see Are You Poisoning Your Companion Animal by Feeding Feed-Grade Foods?).
There are actually many foods served during the typical Thanksgiving feast that pet owners can and should share with their canine and feline companions, both on the celebratory day and on an ongoing basis.
In this article, I’m going to focus on what Thanksgiving foods we should be feeding our pets. As to what should be avoided, you can find this information petMD via Ten Tips for Feeding Pets Thanksgiving Leftovers and Wishbones, Candles, and Schedule Changes Pose Thanksgiving Pet Dangers.
Besides avoiding foods having toxic potential, it’s important to make sure you don’t provide your pets with an excess of daily calories or offer foods laden with fat, sodium, and other flavor enhancers. Employing calorie control on Thanksgiving is somewhat of an oxymoronic/counterintuitive concept, but doing so for both pets (and people) can be accomplished with some education and self-control.
Start by establishing the quantity of calories that your pet is meant to consume on a daily basis by referencing the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP)’s Pet Caloric Needs chart:
10 pound cat should consume between 180-200 calories every 24 hours.
10 pound dog should consume between 200-275 calories every 24 hours.
Please note that the calorie counts provided are guidelines for average lightly active adult spayed or neutered dogs or cats (1 to 7 years old receiving less than 30 minutes aerobic activity per day). The caloric needs of a particular pet may differ depending on such factors as lifestyle, genetics, activity level and medical conditions. Your pet will likely be fed fewer calories if you are attempting to reduce weight and improve fitness. Note that most indoor cats receive very little sustained aerobic activity and many dogs do not receive adequate daily physical activity. We recommend a structured routine exercise and nutritional program for both you and your pet.
I always recommend feeding at the lower end of the caloric range. Why? Well, the APOP’s sixth annual National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Survey in 2012 determined that 52.5% of dogs and 58.3% of cats (80 million animals) are overweight or obese according to the diagnosis of their veterinarians, and are put at risk for a variety of potentially irreversible health problems (arthritis, diabetes, and even cancer).
After determining the number of calories your cat or dog should eat per day, make sure you are not giving excess calories by feeding too much pet food or too many treats. If your pet eats a commercially prepared food, the number of calories (kilocalories) per portion should be listed on the label. According to the FDA’s Pet Food Labels — General: If a calorie statement is made on the label, it must be expressed on a "kilocalories per kilogram" basis. Kilocalories are the same as the "Calories" consumers are used to seeing on food labels.
Next, determine the quantity of calories you’ll be serving by feeding human foods in replacement of a portion or an entire day’s worth of your pet’s regular food. For example, if you want to feed 2 ounces (oz) of turkey breast (72 calories) to your 10 pound dog, then you’ll need to reduce the daily portion of pet food by 36% (approximately 1/3) to ensure you’re not feeding more than 200 calories per day.
Here’s my CalorieKing.com based breakdown of the foods I suggest feeding to pets, and their caloric contents. By the way, 1 cup = 16 tbsp (tablespoons) = 8 oz. So, 1 tbsp = 2 oz.
Turkey breast (white meat) without the skin has 38 calories per oz.
Dark meat turkey without the skin is more caloric, as it contains 46 calories per 1 oz.
Sweet potato, boiled and without the skin contains 22 calories (confirm) per 1 oz (5.3 oz is a medium sized sweet potato).
Sweet potato is a regular staple of my dog’s (and my) diet due to the vegetable’s high fiber and antioxidant (beta carotene) content.
Potato, boiled and without skin (e.g., white, Russet potato) contains more calories than sweet potato at 26 calories per oz.
In general, I suggest sweet over other varieties of potato for my patients and personal pooch due to the nutritional makeup.
Ocean Spray Whole Cranberry Sauce (canned) has 110 calories per 2 oz (1/4 cup) serving.
I avoid commercially available cranberry sauce, as I prepare a fresher and less-caloric version by adding small quantities of natural sweeteners (honey and orange juice instead of sugar).
Choose canned or fresh/cooked options and not pumpkin pie filling (which has added sugar and fat) for your pet, as canned, unsalted pumpkin has 10 calories per 1 oz.
Pumpkin contains nearly three grams of fiber per 8 oz (1 cup) serving and can help with canine and feline constipation and diarrhea.
Turnip, boiled is one of my favorite foods that I seemingly only eat on Thanksgiving Day. Turnip is also one of the foods that would be a great addition to your pet’s diet on an ongoing basis, as it has only 6 calories per 1 oz.
Like Turnip, green beans is another low-calorie food, having only 10 calories per 1 oz
Green beans can also be fed raw as a crunchy and delicious snack to replace those nasty, faux-meat or potentially-toxic, China-made jerky treats.
My suggestion is to feed the above foods without calorie-increasing flavor enhancers, as every portion of butter, milk, or cream added to Thanksgiving Day foods significantly increases calorie and fat content.
A pat of butter (1 inch square x 0.3 inch thick) has 36 calories, all of which are from fat (4.1 g of fat).
1 tbsp (0.5 fluid oz) of whole milk has 9 calories with 5 being from fat (0.5g of fat).
1 tbsp (0.5 fluid oz) of heavy whipping cream has 52 calories with 50 being from fat (5.6g of fat).
Before you let your pet binge on foods from the Thanksgiving Day table (even on the lowest calorie options), get out your metric tablespoon and measuring cup to determine the appropriate portions so that daily caloric needs aren’t exceeded. Additionally, if you’re making a Thanksgiving Day plate for your pooch, I suggest using turkey breast, sweet potato or pumpkin, turnip, green beans and a touch of cranberry sauce due to the provided variety of protein, fat, carbohydrate, fiber, color, and other nutrient content.
Enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday foods but consume them in moderation and apply the same principles of feeding healthy, human foods to your pets.
Dr. Patrick Mahaney