Animal antics: The ominous onion

I have a love/hate relationship with onions. On one hand, they are very tasty and make my casseroles taste oh so much better. On the other hand, they make my eyes water so badly that I have to continually dart out of the room when they are chopped or sautéed. I am so sensitive now that I am starting to get small asthma attacks from the vapor when they are cooked. But yet, I still do love them (especially batter and fried).

For dogs and cats, eating onions are an essential no-no. They contain a toxic chemical that causes issues with the red blood cells in the bloodstream. This leads to destruction of the blood cells and eventually anemia. Anemia means a decrease in the number of red blood cells that circulate in the bloodstream. The red cells carry oxygen to tissues and organs to help them function. In the worst cases of toxicity the body undergoes shock and even organ shutdown.

So how much onion is too much? Very few studies exist that determine the toxic dose (amount needed to cause illness) in dogs and cats. One study concluded that about 23 ounces of onions would cause problems in a 50-pound dog. That means a lot less could make a smaller dog or cat sick. More concentrated formulations, such as powders or dehydrated onions, may be even nastier on an ounce per ounce comparison.

Essentials of onion toxicity:

  • Onions can be raw, cooked or powdered and still be toxic.
  • Cats may be more sensitive but both dogs and cats can get sick.
  • The anemia can be life threatening in severe cases.
  • The family of onions includes: onion, leek, shallots, garlic and chive.  All are considered toxic.
  • Avoid food cooked with garlic and baby foods that contain garlic powder.
  • If ingestion has occurred, seek veterinary help for physical exam and blood/urine tests.

Onions are widespread in foods, even in some baby foods. They enhance flavors and work well with a lot of spices. Consider what is in the meatloaf and salsa that we take for granted every day. My family eats garlic bread almost every week.  So many of our foods, and especially our prepared foods, contain this popular ingredient.

We have to be aware of what we give to our pets, considering that everyday foods for humans can be life threatening to our four-legged creatures. It is very tempting to just give a little scrap here or there, especially when they have such cute begging eyes. But stop yourself next time before giving in and dropping that morsel for Fido or Fluffy: could this be toxic?

Amanda Battaglia is a veterinarian who lives in Cameron Park.

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Posted by on Nov 4 2010.
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