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Should You Share Your Cocktail Hour With Your Dog?

Evidence shows that sharing alcoholic beverages with your dog is a bad practice.

János Rusiczki photo — Creative Commons License
Source: János Rusiczki photo — Creative Commons License

I had stopped by the home of a colleague to drop off some material and to discuss an upcoming event, which both of us were supposed to attend. It was a hot, muggy, summer afternoon and he suggested "If you have the time we can go out on the porch where it's cooler and have a beer."

I agreed and he tossed me a bottle of beer and grabbed one for himself. I was a bit puzzled to see that he also picked up a small shallow bowl just before he led me out the door. We were followed out to the porch by his somewhat oversized Doberman Pinscher, Max. When we sat down, he opened his beer and poured a couple of ounces into the bowl. He looked up at me and explained, "I have to let it sit for a few minutes until it goes flat. Max doesn't like the bubbles going up his nose."

A short time later Max was greedily lapping at the small amount of beer in his bowl, and when it was empty he settled down for a nap beside us.

While this seems like an innocent enough episode, and many people have probably seen other dog owners giving their pets a bit of beer or wine when they were having drinks with friends or family, it is actually fraught with a good deal of danger. The reason is that alcoholic beverages are dangerous, and perhaps even lethal, for dogs.

Even before we get to the alcoholic content of beer and wine we just have to look at the ingredients to begin to understand the problem. Let's start with wine. Grapes are toxic to dogs, and when the toxic effects appear the results can be serious — possibly resulting in kidney failure or even death. The nature of grape toxicity in dogs is a mystery and very poorly understood. For example, we do know that not all grapes are toxic, and in fact some experts don't believe that the grapes themselves are the source of toxicity, but rather they believe it's more likely that a fungus, which is commonly but not always associated with grapes, is the culprit. It also appears that not all dogs are sensitive to the toxin, but those that are can be in real trouble if they eat the wrong grapes, or any products containing grapes or raisins — such as wine.

How about beer? The ingredients that go into beer are water, grain, yeast, and hops. Hops are the flower of the hop plant (humulus lupulus) and they are used to give beer its tangy or slightly bitter taste but they are also toxic to dogs. Just as in the case of grapes, it is not known why hops are toxic to dogs, but the consumption of them can cause violent physical reactions including vomiting, fluctuations in body temperature, labored breathing, and kidney damage.

But now let's get to the reason why humans tend to drink beer and wine, which is for its alcoholic content. Dogs are much more susceptible to alcohol poisoning (technically ethanol toxicosis) then people are. Part of the difficulty that dogs have with alcohol is to due to their size. It takes far less alcohol to intoxicate and poison a dog than it does to affect a fully grown human. Different alcoholic beverages will have greater or lesser effects due to the amount of alcohol present. Beer contains the lowest concentration of alcohol, usually around 4%, while wine averages around 10% alcohol by volume. In comparison some hard liquors can contain as much as 90% alcohol. Even a little bit of hard liquor can produce the alcohol poisoning and can harm a small dog.

As in the case of humans, when a dog is exposed to alcohol it depresses their central nervous system. That means that the dog becomes drowsy, acts uncoordinated and is less responsive to what is going on around them. At higher doses alcohol can depress the dogs nervous system to the point that their breathing and heart rate are significantly slowed. In addition another major danger arises from the fact that a dog's blood chemistry is altered by the alcohol, leading to a dangerous condition called metabolic acidosis (this is where the blood becomes too acidic). When this condition appears the dog is in danger of dying of cardiac arrest. Even if a dog is not exposed to lethal levels of alcohol, small amounts of alcohol over the long term can harm its kidneys and liver.

You don't need to deliberately pour beer or wine into a bowl to expose your dog to potential difficulties. Any fermented products that the dog can get a hold of can be problematic. Thus some dogs like to snatch and eat apples or pears or other fruit that has dropped from a tree. Unfortunately, if these fruits have laid on the ground long enough to go soft, that means that they are fermenting and contain alcohol. Bread dough that contains yeast can also be a problem, and I read a report in a veterinary journal of a small dog that suffered from alcohol poisoning from eating a rum cake.

Strange as it may seem, it appears that in some instances the depressive effects that alcohol has on dogs is being used deliberately. One of my correspondents alerted me to an online petition that is calling for the pet supply company Petco to stop selling a product called "Good Dog." It is supposed to be a homeopathic supplement intended to calm hyperactive dogs. Unlike many homeopathic remedies, Good Dog actually does work. If you give it to your dog he or she will calm down and become sleepy and mellow. However a check of the active ingredients finds that the reason that Good Dog is effective is because that it contains 13% alcohol, which is about the same as a relatively strong table wine.

We do like to have our dogs around when we're socializing and we like to include them in our ongoing activities. So if we are drinking some beer or wine it seems natural to want our dogs to partake in these beverages as well. Thus we should probably not be too surprised to find that several companies have tried to find a way to allow us to do this. They have created canine versions of "beer" or "wine" which are alcohol-free and safe for dogs. For example, a Denver-based wine company, Apollo Peak, offers a white and a red canine wine. There are no grapes or alcohol in this product, and they get their wine-like color from red or yellow beet juice. These beverages do contain active ingredients, namely peppermint and chamomile, which are supposed to help calm your dog down, thus making him less likely to be a pest while you are relaxing with your own alcoholic drink. On the downside this product is priced at about the same level as a reasonably good bottle of wine designed for humans, going for $17.95 for a 12 ounce bottle.

If your dog is more of a beer drinker, there are several breweries making canine "beer." Perhaps the largest is 3 Busy Dogs Brewery in Phoenix, Arizona, which brews several varieties of "Bowser Beer". Apparently the beer is really a meat broth, with no added salt, but with the addition of a small amount of malt extract (apparently dogs really like the taste of malt). There are no bubbles, so you don't have to wait until the beverage goes flat before serving it to your pet. However, once again, the price is equivalent to a premium human beverage, going at $23.99 for a six pack.

I was not particularly concerned about my colleague's dog being damaged by the small amount of beer that he was given, namely because beer has low alcohol content and Max was a big heavy dog. However I did suggest to him that in lieu of giving his dog beer (or the expensive canine version of beer) whenever he sat down to have one for himself, he might do the same thing that I do. I fill some ice cube trays with chicken bouillon, and then keep a bag of these chicken flavored ice cubes in the freezer section of my refrigerator. When I go to get myself a drink, I pull out one of these ice cubes and toss it to my dog. That way my dog gets something cold and refreshing while sharing my cocktail hour with me, yet there is not any exposure to potentially harmful alcohol.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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