If you're like most home veggie gardeners, you started growing your own food to take control of what you put in your face. Do you have pets? Maybe your nutrition standards extend to your (oh no, we're going to say it) "fur kids," and you're wondering if your dogs and cats can benefit from fresh garden produce.
Are dogs and cats omnivores? Are fruits and veggies healthy for pets?
You've got questions, and we're going to break 'em down for you. And in doing so, we'll have to take a look at how dogs and cats break down their food.
Should dogs and cats eat fruits and vegetables?
Felines are obligate carnivores, meaning they'll trash your backyard barbecue party if all you're serving are tofu burgers and veggie kabobs. Their digestive systems don't handle carbohydrates or cellulose well, and cats quickly develop nutrient deficiencies if they don't eat enough meat.
Dogs, on the other paw, are omnivores, and plant-based nutrients are essential to their diets. Where cats aren't built to digest vegetable matter, dogs need to hit the salad bar once in a while. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is investigating a possible link between grain-free dog food and canine dilated cardiomyopathy.
But wolves didn't eat grain-based kibble, right?
No, they didn't, but wolves and undomesticated dogs do eat grain-eating rodents whole and pick through the intestinal tracts of herbivore quarry. (Cats, on the other hand, tend to leave mostly-intact gopher guts right where their humans will step on them on the way to the bathroom at 2:32 a.m.)
According to the Cummings Veterinary Center at Tufts University, the domestication process, through mutations in body shape, coat, color, and temperament, helped canines coexist with humans. Even their ability to process human diets improved. When researchers compared the dog and wolf genomes, the main differences were the genes that influence a pooch's physical appearance and starch digestion.
Want to learn how to give your pets healthy snacks from your garden? We've yet to meet a veterinarian who supports the trend of 100% DIY dog food, and we think canine and feline nutrition is best left to the pros, but as long as treats make up no more than 10% of a dog's total intake (gym socks don't count), you won't be throwing their diets off balance.
Tips for safe and palatable fruit and vegetable pet snacks
- The greater the surface area of the food, the easier it is to digest. Cooking and pureeing garden treats make the nutrients more accessible and reduce the chance of them irritating your pet's digestive system.
- Go easy on dried fruits (never raisins) as the dehydration process concentrates the sugar content.
- Limit servings of fruits and veggies to between 1/4 and 1/2 cup, total, per day. Less for toy-sized dogs.
- Always let cooked foods cool and mix up food after microwaving to get rid of "hot spots."
- Wash all fruits and vegetables before feeding them to your pet unless you're certain they haven't been exposed to herbicides and pesticides. Urban gardeners or suburban gardeners with a front-yard veggie patch should always wash their produce, as car pollution clings to plants.
- Make pup pops! Fill ice cube trays with pureed fruit and vegetables for summertime snacks.
- High sugar fruit easily ferments on a hot day, and any food will go bad if left out too long. Don't let your dogs get sick (or wasted).
Healthy fruit and vegetable treats for your pet
Have you seen photos of our Seed Needs quality control canine? Leah may look wolfy, but she loves her garden treats. Here are some of her favorites, and a few suggestions we've collected from friends and customers.
Spinach, Zucchini, and Carrot Cookies
We like For the Love of Cooking's how-to for these healthy home-baked dog treats, originally developed by Damn Delicious. The recipe also calls for pumpkin, and we think you can throw yams into the mix, as well.
Homemade Breath Freshening Biscuits
The chlorophyll in fresh parsley and mint is believed to help combat odor-causing bacteria. If your vet has cleared your pet of any potential dental problems, it won't hurt to bake up a batch of faux "Greenies," the popular dog treats marketed to combat dastardly dog breath. This recipe from Health Starts in the Kitchen is worth a try, though the author is definitely on the grain-free bandwagon. According to our vet, chlorophyll cookies themselves are likely more a marketing thing, too, but hey. We can only make so many mojitos, right?
Yams are fiber-rich and loaded with vitamins. If you slice them into half-inch chunks or sticks and dry them in an oven at 250°F for about three hours, you can give your dog something to gnaw on that won't crack a tooth.
The next time you bake (or nuke) a yam for yourself, throw in an extra for your dog.
Pumpkin and Winter Squash
Prepare pumpkin as you would yams, or puree it to help get your dog's digestive system back on track. It aids in constipation and diarrhea and helps nourish the beneficial bacteria in your dog's intestines.
Some fans of natural medicine promote pumpkin seeds as a dewormer. Research on cucurbitacin (the compound in squash thought to control worms) shows mixed results though generations of farmers swear by squash seeds' ability to reduce worm loads in livestock, people, and pets.
If you do decide to give squash seeds to your pets, be sure they're dehydrated in a warm oven, finely ground, and stored in a freezer until ready to use. If you suspect your pet has a parasite problem, you might want your vet to prescribe a dewormer and ask about using seeds on a maintenance basis.
Dogs love to destroy stuff, and carrots give a lot of satisfaction to our bored buddies. The American Kennel Club recommends cutting carrots into smaller pieces to reduce the chance smaller dogs or overly-enthusiastic pups might choke, but supervised carrot annihilation keeps gums stimulated and teeth healthy.
Dogs don't get much nutritional value from raw carrots (you'll see what we're talking about when your next poo patrol produces carrot-bedazzled dog turds), so if you're trying to up your dog's vitamin and mineral uptake, cook them enough to soften them for better digestibility.
Dogs love sweet, juicy melon! The rinds might be a little tough for most dogs, and we recommend removing them, but otherwise, they're non-toxic. Seeds can get caught between teeth, but if they're swallowed, they're small enough to safely pass and won't turn your dog into an inside-out Chia Pet.
The antioxidants in blueberries safely reduce harmful cholesterol levels in animals, just as they do in humans! Feed them fresh or frozen, or add them to your favorite dog biscuit recipe.
Treat your dog to peeled, cored, and sliced apples, or use applesauce to hide crushed medication tablets. It's important to remove apple seeds whenever possible. A few won't hurt, but they contain trace amounts of toxins that can build up over time.
Avoid feeding your pets these garden fruits and veggies
Here's a list of garden fruits and vegetables that cause the most problems for pets. Use sturdy fencing to keep your pet out of orchard and garden areas where these plants grow, and teach your kids to check with you before feeding anything new to your family pet.
Grapes and currants
Currants, raisins, and grapes can cause sudden and devastating kidney failure in dogs and cats.
All parts of the avocado fruit and plant contain persin, a compound that's deadly to dogs and cats.
Onions and garlic
All alliums and bulbs are bad for dogs to a varying degree. DO NOT believe what you read about garlic being a good flea, tick, and mosquito repellent when fed to your pets. Garlic damages pets' blood cells, leading to dangerous anemic conditions.
Nuts, especially macadamia (but not peanuts!)
It's not known exactly why macadamia and other nuts make dogs sick, but the symptoms usually include lethargy, severe vomiting, and tremors. Nuts have a high-fat content, which alone is something to consider if you're trying to keep your pets healthy.
Peanuts are actually legumes, and though they, too, are high in fat, they're safe for dogs in small amounts.
Pets can eat the fleshy fruit of plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and other pitted fruit, but we don't recommend it. The pits themselves contain a compound that turns into cyanide when ingested. Need we say more?
Plant a cat garden
You can still garnish your kitty's diet with home-grown catnip, catmint, or lemongrass. "Cat grass," often sold in nursery pots at pet stores, isn't anything special; it's usually barley, oat, or wheatgrass marketed at a premium. Indoor cats love having access to fresh greens grown on a windowsill, and a corner of the backyard planted with their favorite herbs can distract them from high-value bedding species.
You can dehydrate catnip in a warm oven, or by hanging sprigs in a dry, well-ventilated spot. Just be sure to hang it out of reach of your feline junkie!
What's up with dogs, cats, and grass, anyway?
Oh yeah, nothing like the feel of a slimy, foamy, slug-shaped blob of regurgitated grass between bare toes.
Cats will "graze" grass to induce vomiting, which aids in purging hairballs. Both dogs and cats use grasses as a digestive aid, and dogs appear to benefit from grass' fiber and nutrients.
A note on herbs, aromatherapy, and pet safety
We're always going to be the first to encourage you to grow gardens for health and well-being, whether your goal is a healthy diet, a more robust home apothecary, or more variety in your adult bevvie garnishes. But we're not going to tell you that "natural" always means "safe." Never use essential oils or herbal remedies on or around your pets without first consulting your veterinarian. Organic compounds that are safe for us can quickly, seriously, and irreversibly harm your dog or cat.
Get the dirt on healthy gardens (and healthy living!) with Seed Needs
We're proud to offer the highest-quality, freshest seeds, and we're committed to helping you become a successful gardener. Let us know if you have any questions about our products, or if you'd like to suggest a topic for our gardening blog. In the meantime, always check with your vet before making any major changes to your pet's diet, and if you're unsure if a plant is safe to grow around or feed to your pets, check with the Pet Poison Helpline or the ASPCA Poison Control Center's list of poisonous and non-poisonous plants.