Return of the Zombie Flesh Eaters


Anticipation is in the air as humans await the return of their favorite mindless creatures thirsty for blood or hungry for flesh.  In television series, video games, movies, comic books (excuse me — graphic novels) — our psyches cannot get enough of the culture of the undead, be it vampires, mummies, monsters, or especially, “the zombie.”  We delight in the gorefest of a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by the walking undead who relentlessly seek out human tissue upon which to feed. 

As for me and my colleagues, this season does provide thrills and chills, but it is not the drooling, ambling, vacant-eyed, two-legged marauders who give us the willies.  From the month leading up to All Hallows Eve until New Year’s Day, our concern is for the seemingly simple-minded, four-legged scavengers slinking beneath our notice.  

Their tail wagging and purring lull us into forgetting that they are the stealthy — and fully aware — creatures in the crowd, patiently waiting for a chance to remove the choicest morsels of meat from the table when their human’s attention is elsewhere. 

Over these next few months, pet owners can become easily distracted by the delightfully gruesome makeup and costumes of Halloween revelers, by the sheer number of long-lost relatives giving thanks around a table, or perhaps by the pretty lights and mind-altering beverages during rounds of Christmas parties.  These festive occasions are the perfect time for our furry friends to snitch a bit of a ham shank, to nudge the remnants of roast from the stove onto a welcoming floor, or to “carcass diem” the entire turkey skeleton while humans lay bloated and unbuckled in front of a football game.  Whether these treats of meat and muscle make their way to our pets by thievery or by guilt (“ahhh, does Snookums want some of Auntie Patty’s pork roast like everyone else?”), a few moments of tastiness can give way to hours or even days of pain and regret.


Eating fatty leftovers such as ham, roast beef, turkey, or gravy can at the very least give pets stomach and intestinal upset (vomiting and diarrhea).  If the pancreas becomes overwhelmed — by arrival of unexpected fatty meal of turkey skin, meat trimmings or table scraps — it releases digestive enzymes into its “neighborhood” of tissues and organs.  If there is extensive inflammation and swelling of the pancreas and surrounding tissue (pancreatitis ranges mild to severe), abdominal pain, vomiting, dehydration and even shock can occur.  Acute severe pancreatitis often requires intensive care hospitalization and in some cases can be fatal. 

 High fat foods also have the potential to delay the emptying of a dog’s stomach, making him/her prone to bloating.  When a stomach bloats and twists on itself — a condition feared by many large breed dog owners — a simple “gassy” episode can become a surgical emergency.   

Beyond the arsenal of tempting juicy drippings and luscious marbled fat, slabs of meat also can contain bones; some large with the potential for lodging in the bowel, and some sharp like knives (think what a snapped chicken bone looks like and then imagine a pile of them in your stomach — ouch!).  Despite its reputation for being a low-fat meat, the turkey carcass left over from the holiday feast can still pose quite a choking hazard to pets.  If the pet does get the gobbler down their gullet, poultry bones eventually dissolve in the stomach, but large bunches of sharp shards can give dogs bloody diarrhea and painful defecation.  Large or sharp beef and pork bones have been known to cause pain, obstruction of the bowels, and at times, perforation of the intestines.  Potential remedies for bones in the belly can range from simple soothing medications for the stomach to enemas (with sedation) to “loosen” bones stuck in the colon, and at times, surgery to retrieve the nasty painful bone fragments lodged in the bowel.  Because of all the scary potential painful outcomes of pets eating bones, veterinarians believe it is best to keep the bones in the bird or the beast and avoid playing Russian roulette with your pet — or your finances.


I’ve known 2 families who’ve lost dogs after their dogs ate turkey – more from the effects of skin and fat … can you talk about that?

If you want to include your pets in your holiday celebrations — beyond dressing your Schnauzer as Santa’s little helper — and share your “family feast” with them, we recommend not moving fatty meats and goodies directly from the table into the dog or cat bowl.  Instead, choose some of the menu items (such as turkey, rice, vegetables, and broth) and alter the ingredients into a more pet-friendly dish.  Several good recipes can be found on the Internet — just make sure to get the final “okay” from your veterinarian before serving these foods to your furry family members. 

For those with a strong stomach, venture on for a final warning on flesh eating:

Cooked carcasses aside, it is not uncommon in the Portland parks and rural areas to see your canine cutie chewing on something “off in the distance;” a close-up inspection can find your dog gnawing on the partially decomposed body part of an animal.  For those “live and let the carnivore eat” types who might be tempted to turn a blind eye to Rover’s roadkill snacking, there are things “lurking” in that tissue that can harm your furry flesh eater.  Bacteria and toxins in the decaying tissue are the primary culprits for making your pet ill, but there’s yet another that might give you pause:  if that body part had been part of an improperly disposed euthanized animal,  strong drugs such as barbiturates could poison your pet.  “Found body parts” of all types should not be in your pet’s diet; unearthed “goodies” should be wrapped and placed in sealed garbage for pickup.


Advice from those in the Vet ER to holiday revelers?  Go ahead and have a great time — but if you are providing an evening or day-long banquet or food spread, it’s best to keep pets confined to a bedroom or kennel.  Provide a tasty treat and park your pet in front of the television so they can also get a visual vicarious “flesh-eating” thrill.  For the bloodthirsty hound it might be the strewn limbs of the cult “Zombie Fest at Band Camp,” while more prim pooches find delight in the raucous but G-rated devouring of the holiday bird by the neighbors’ dogs in “A Christmas Story.”  Confining household canines (and felines) may not seem to be in the holiday spirit, but remember some of a veterinarian’s favorite holiday ditties:  “better to kennel or crate than later constipate” or  “Leave Fido to frolic and he may later colic.”


Dr. Heidi Houchen is an ER/Critical Care veterinarian at VCA Northwest Veterinary Specialists in Clackamas; she writes and lectures extensively about trauma, blood banking, and toxicology.  She is especially passionate about keeping pets and poisons apart.