Can I Give My Dog Onions?
At one point or another, most dog owners make the decision to share ‘people food’ with their beloved pets. Many of us spent our childhoods sneaking our family Labrador bits of overcooked meatloaf or unwanted peas under the table, but now that we have grown up, we realize we need to be a little more cautious about the foods we feed our pets. When asked about their feeding habits, most dog parents will tell you firmly that they never, ever, under any circumstances, give their pets chocolate. While it is true that chocolate is one of the most toxic foods for dogs, it’s far from being the only one.
While a lot of people use carrots or apple slices as dog treats, one of the less-discussed food items is onions. Can I give my dog the leftover onion slices from dinner? Is it okay if my dog eats the fajita filling that fell on the floor? What are the benefits and risks associated with onions in the doggy diet?
Onions: yea or nay? The answer: NAY, NEVER. Onions should never be fed to dogs—no matter how small the serving may seem. It does not matter if the onions are raw or cooked into translucent mush. Even if the onion in question is deep-fried and smothered in ketchup, you should pick it up off the floor instead of letting your dog eat it. Both raw and cooked onions are highly toxic to dogs. In high enough doses, onion consumption may even be fatal.
But why? What are the risks involved in feeding your dog onions? If dogs are omnivores like us, why is the seemingly-harmless root vegetable we love so dangerous for our furry friends? Since a lot of people eat onions on a regular basis, it’s worth looking into the causes of onion toxicity.
The biggest issue with onions is a condition called hemolytic anemia, otherwise known as Heinz body anemia (not to be confused with the ketchup). Onions poison dogs by affecting the levels of hemoglobin in the blood. Hemoglobin, a red protein found in the blood of all living vertebrates, serves the purpose of transporting oxygen molecules throughout the body.
When your dog eats onions, the chemicals absorbed into her bloodstream cause these vital, oxygen-carrying proteins to oxidize. Once hemoglobin has oxidized, it clumps up in the blood, which means it can’t carry oxygen nearly as efficiently. Your veterinarian will notice these balls of hemoglobin inside red blood cells under the microscope. Even though there is more than one food that can cause these Heinz bodies to form, onions are usually the culprit.
The Heinz bodies in and of themselves usually are not enough to cause your dog life-threatening health problems—after all, the affected red blood cells can still carry some oxygen. The real problem is what Heinz bodies do to the lifespan of the average blood cell. A red blood cell containing Heinz bodies dies a lot faster than a healthy blood cell, which means that, over time, your dog’s red blood cell count plummets. This can result in life-threatening anemia, because your dog no longer has enough oxygen-carrying blood cells to transport the much-needed oxygen to her heart, lungs, brain, and other organs.
That sounds terrifying, but what does that look like? After all, most of us have onions in the house every week. How will we know if our dog has eaten onions behind our backs? What should we watch out for?
Symptoms to Watch Out For
Unfortunately, symptoms can vary based on your dog’s size, how many times she has eaten onions, and how large the serving consumed was. Even though you will need to make a trip to the veterinarian for blood tests and an official diagnosis, there are some universally recognized symptoms of Heinz body anemia you can look out for.
The warning signs of onion toxicity are the symptoms of anemia in dogs. Because an anemic dog is not getting the oxygen they need to function properly, they will often exhibit extreme fatigue, lethargy, physical weakness, and lowered stamina. Your Labrador who once ran laps around the yard may tire after a brief walk or spend most of the time lying on the floor.
Symptoms of anemia are often most obvious during or immediately after exercise. Your dog may be shaky and pale—the pale skin pigment is most obvious in the dog’s gums, which can turn white or blue when the dog is not getting enough oxygen. Your dog may pant excessively even when they are not exercising or hot. Your dog may have an accelerated resting heart rate, and their urine might be red or pink in color.
Other symptoms sometimes seen in onion toxicity patients are more like those typically associated with poisoning: vomiting, diarrhea, and yellow gums or eyes.
All of these symptoms can take several days to appear, so if your dog eats onions, it is important to keep a close watch over her for up to a week after the initial exposure. If you see your dog eating more than a very small amount of onions, or if your dog is very small, take them to the veterinarian immediately. Your veterinarian may be able to give your dog something to inhibit onion absorption—or, if the incident just happened, they may just induce vomiting to prevent onion toxicity altogether. They may also flush out the stomach with water or use activated charcoal to prevent and treat symptoms of poisoning. Preventative care can save both you and your pooch a lot of suffering.
Though we love onions, and though many health professionals agree they are excellent for our health in moderation, this is one tasty treat we should not share with our furry friends. Dogs who eat raw or cooked onions can suffer from onion toxicity, which leads to red cell damage that causes life-threatening Heinz body anemia. If you see your dog eat onions, or if your dog exhibits symptoms of anemia, such as fatigue, vomiting, or pale gums, you should take them to your veterinarian immediately.