Super Bowl Syndrome Can Be a Dog’s Undoing

Looks like you'll be watching the game in the ER waiting room

November 6, 2017 (published)

You’ve invited a slew of friends over for the big game, charred some tender, aged flesh and onions on the grill, filled the cooler with ice and microbrewed IPA, and you’ve got the corn chips, salsa, nuts and cheese doodles aplenty. It’s the third quarter. A field goal separates the two teams. You’re settling in for a nail-biting finale. And then you look over at Mr. Big, your ageing Chihuahua (you named him after the character in Sex and the City), and notice that he’s…not doing so well. He’s having trouble breathing and he’s coughing a bit. A couple of months ago when Mr. Big was diagnosed with congestive heart failure (fluid in the lungs) due to a badly leaking mitral valve your veterinarian told you to watch for breathing problems. At that time, Mr. Big was prescribed drugs to help keep that fluid under control. You’ve been giving them to him as directed, and he’s been fine since that visit. Yet it looks like you’re going to be watching the last quarter from the TV in the waiting room at the local veterinary ER clinic. Why now?

Well, Mr. Big is rather sociable, and has spent the afternoon in the laps of your guests, nibbling corn chips and pieces of steak, picking up the occasional dropped cheese doodle, and giving himself a massive salt hit in the process. With his heart problems, this sudden increase in salt has pushed him right over the edge into heart failure again. He was fine up to now because his diet was consistent: his salt intake didn’t vary from day to day. But this party was his undoing. He’s going to require aggressive treatment, possibly hospitalization, to get stabilized.

Emergency room veterinarians see these dogs all the time. It’s uncanny how often they coincide with events such as Thanksgiving (“Thanks for giving me heart failure, Dad!”) or the Super Bowl because many owners are unaware of the dangers of what we consider to be regular foods. Anything salty – deli meats, cheeses, chips and snacks  is essentially poisonous to a dog in heart failure.

At another house, Jackie Chan, the Jack Russell Terrier, has been standing guard by the grill, catching pieces that have fallen in the process, and staring lovingly into the eyes of everybody who has come over for a burger. His longing gaze is irresistible and guests are giving him bite-sized pieces of burger, fried onions, the occasional hot dog. Clearly, he’s not going to need dinner tonight! Bloated, but happy, he climbs onto his dog bed that evening and sleeps it off.

But a few days later, he’s just not doing well. He’s a little bit short of breath and sluggish, and you notice that his gums are pale. It’s off to the vet’s office with him. And the diagnosis is made with a couple of blood tests – he has hemolytic anemia, a condition where his red blood cells are being destroyed within the blood stream. What could have caused this? Was he poisoned? Does he have cancer?

No, he had onions. You and I can eat onions with impunity. But as little as half an onion (cooked or raw) can cause a life-threatening hemolytic anemia in dogs. Jackie Chan’s going to require a blood transfusion until he can regenerate his own blood cells, all because of a bloomin’ onion!

Katniss, the 2-year-old Labrador, also enjoys Super Bowl Sunday. She’s not getting into onions, and she doesn’t have heart disease. She feels she can eat anything (after all, she’s a Labrador and ascribes to the rule that “It’s food until proven otherwise”). She has an iron stomach! And eat she does. Bits of steak. Pieces of hotdog. Chips. Salsa. Cheese cubes. Sausages, many wrapped in delicious, life-affirming bacon. It all goes down the gullet. Sometimes, she even stops to chew it. Her stomach swells visibly with all the stuff she’s getting. That night, the vomiting starts. At first, you think it’s just overeating that caused it (serves her right!). But she’s not looking so good in the morning, and vomiting has continued, rather than stopping or even letting up. She walks as if she’s on hot coals. You know it’s serious when this Labrador turns away from her breakfast.

At the vet’s office, you find out she has pancreatitis. That’s inflammation of the pancreas (a digestive gland) and it can be nasty. (Despite their eating habits, Labradors don't tend to get pancreatitis; smaller dogs, such as Schnauzers, tend to be the frequent flyers.) She’s going to require hospitalization, fluids, pain medications and other supportive care until her pancreas settles down from the insult it has suffered – and that takes time. Several days later, she makes it home. But from now on, whenever she’s at a party, she’s going to be locked in the bedroom or facing the humiliation of wearing a canine equivalent of a Hannibal Lecter face-mask, so that she doesn’t overeat.

We love our pets and we love food, especially when the holidays or special occasions arise. Just don’t combine the two! There’s a reason it says “dog food” on the bag of dog food, and that’s because that’s what dogs should eat. You may be a good cook and have barbecue skills that are legendary in the neighborhood, but save the tasty browned bits for the neighbors and keep the pets on a steady diet of pet food. Dogs are used to eating the same thing day in and day out, no matter what those big brown eyes seem to be saying. On behalf of dog hearts, pancreases (or, if you want to be an etymological purist, pancreata) and red blood cells everywhere – thanks for feeding them the stuff they should eat and saving the delicious human food for yourself and your friends.

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