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Scrap Table Feeding

Advice from our vet on how and why to keep holiday table food out of your pet's reach

I don't feed my dog table scraps every day, but I do like to treat him around the holidays. Is that so bad?

As a general rule, giving animals too much people food sours their appetite for pet food, which is designed to contain all the nutrients they need to stay fit and healthy. If more than 10 percent of your dog's diet consists of table food, you may be inadvertently training him to beg and putting him at risk of weight gain, diabetes, and joint, cardiac, and digestive problems. The current obesity epidemic in pets can be partly attributed to people's tendency to feed their animals treats. That said, I do "spoil" my own dog, Rusty, on special occasions with small portions of animal-friendly foods like turkey breast, hamburger, or hot dogs -- and he hasn't come to expect these treats at regular mealtimes. Indulge your pet sensibly with the following guidelines:

Choose carefully.

Never give your dog or cat bones or fat trimmings: Cooked bones may splinter and either perforate or obstruct their intestines; raw bones carry bacteria that can cause infection. And fat can contribute to pancreatitis, a painful and dangerous condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed and unable to produce the enzymes that break down food. Other foods to keep your dog away from at holiday time are chocolate, cocoa, tea, and some colas which all contain theobromine, and can make dogs fatally ill; onions and garlic can cause anemia; grapes and raisins can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and lethargy; and macadamia nuts, which can cause muscle swelling, pain, and general distress. Your best bets are small pieces of boneless meat or vegetables.

Pick a better treat.

Opt for freeze-dried liver or chicken jerky from the pet store. They're a healthier option, and some dogs may actually prefer these to table food.

Train him right.

If your pet does start begging for food, you can break the habit: Arrange the chairs to block easy access to the table while you're eating. Don't leave food where your dog can reach it. Remember if your dog "steals" the sandwich you left on the coffee table, that's your fault, not his. So rather than punishing him, maybe you need a swat on the nose as a reminder!

Nicholas H. Dodman is the director of the animal behavior clinic at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.