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Ask a Vet: Is It Safe For Cats to Share in Thanksgiving Feasts?

Can cats safely eat turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and other foods? This applies to Thanksgiving Day as well as leftovers.

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Nov 22nd 2016

Several years ago I was at a Thanksgiving celebration with my relatives. Most of the food had made it onto the dining room table, but for some reason all of the people were still in the kitchen or in the living room. We migrated en masse to the dining room and found the cat on the table. He was helping himself to the gravy.

It was obvious that everyone present was a cat lover. Several photos were taken before the cat was removed from the table. And we still ate the gravy.

If my pal Buster were allowed unfettered access to a laden Thanksgiving table I can only imagine the decimation that would occur to the dinner and the dog. Fortunately, cats aren’t as prone to extreme gluttony and subsequent pancreatitis and bloat.

However, cat owners might be wondering just how much of their Thanksgiving dinners they might share with their pets, intentionally or accidentally.

First, some general advice. Remember that any cat might have specific food intolerances or allergies. So even if something is generally safe for cats, it might not be safe for your cat. Second, remember that moderation is key. If you allow your cat to feast at Thanksgiving to the extent that I do, then your cat, like me, will probably feel ill after the dinner. Unlike with me, however, that feeling of illness might progress to real illness. And some things, as will be outlined below, might be mildly toxic to cats and therefore should be minimized.

So, what can and cannot be shared with your cat at the table?

Turkey: Yes. This staple of Thanksgiving happens to be completely edible and delicious for felines. Skinless white meat is most benign, but most cats can handle dark meat or a bit of skin and giblets as well. I remember as a child my father would give a hearty helping of skin, fat, and giblets to the cat every Thanksgiving. I was worried that it could cause heart disease in the cat. I had not yet learned that fat and cholesterol do not contribute significantly to heart disease in cats, and possibly not in humans either. However, the fattier parts of the turkey are more likely to cause upset stomach, so go easy.


Turkey dinner by Shutterstock

Gravy: The cat I mentioned above suffered no adverse consequences from his gravy lapping. However, remember that gravy is fatty and salty. Moderation is key, and the salt could cause problems for cats with pre-existing heart conditions.

Mashed potatoes: I like to make my mashed potatoes with lots of garlic, onion, shallots, half-and-half, and butter. It turns out that garlic, onions, and shallots can cause Heinz body anemia in cats. And many cats are lactose intolerant, so the half-and-half could be a problem. However, garlic isn’t cyanide and half-and-half isn’t acetaminophen (which is massively toxic to cats). Most cats could survive a bite or two of my potatoes. And they certainly could tolerate milder, less rich mixtures. But I wouldn’t recommend serving up mashed potatoes to your cat.

Stuffing: Again, garlic and onions could be a problem. And the bread laden with delicious turkey grease might cause gastrointestinal issues. It’s best to keep your cat out of the stuffing.

Green bean casserole: The green beans are no problem, but the canned onions are. This is a no-no for cats.

Cranberry sauce: Although it’s certainly not a part of a cat’s natural diet, it’s not toxic either. I learned in vet school that cats supposedly are not attracted to sweet items or tart items. My experience, however, has been different. I’m sure that some cats love cranberry sauce. Fortunately I doubt that any problems will occur if your cat breaks into yours, unless it’s so loaded with brandy that the cat gets drunk.

Rolls and bread: Plain rolls and bread should not be a problem. Garlic bread, on the other hand, introduces a risk of Heinz body anemia.

Creamy lime Jell-O with marshmallows: I wonder whether this delicious item is a staple of Thanksgiving anywhere other than my mother’s house? If not, it’s a shame because it’s super-delicious. And it’s safe for cats. In extreme moderation.

For the record, I am not advocating that cat owners pile heaping dishes of Thanksgiving food for their cats. In fact, really the only food that I can unhesitatingly recommend for most cats is skinless turkey breast. But if your cat drinks a bit of gravy, or licks a bit of cranberry sauce, or noshes on a roll, or digs into the lime Jell-O, you probably don’t need to be worried.

Also, remember not to feel too sorry for your cat when you do not share your delicious Thanksgiving meal with her. She already no doubt has plenty for which to be thankful.

Other stories by Dr. Eric Barchas:

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