Skip to Content

Do Dogs Know What Not to Eat?

Do Dogs Know What Not to Eat?

How smart is your dog? You may think you have an intelligent dog who understands some of your language, listens when you give a command, and even knows how to get an extra treat or two out of you. Do you also assume that your dog comprehends potential dangers in the surrounding environment?

For instance, does your dog know not to chase a Frisbee into the street where cars are oncoming? It may seem like your dog is smart as a whip, but perhaps they aren’t as attuned to danger as you believe. Let’s take a closer look at how intuitive dogs are when it comes to determining what they should and shouldn’t eat.

Do Dogs Know What Not to Eat?

Dogs sometimes know what not to eat, but not always. They have two tools when it comes to determining what they should and shouldn’t eat:

  • Smell
  • Taste

If you’ve ever offered a dog a treat or bone, you’ve likely noticed how they give it a sniff before taking it in their mouth. That’s their first line of defense against foods that could potentially make them sick. If it smells good, then your dog is likely to give it a taste to see if it passes that test. If it’s bitter or otherwise tastes harmful, they will leave it alone.

Unfortunately, many harmful foods and substances smell and taste acceptable to many dogs. While they may know to stay away from some smells and tastes, dog poisonings occur frequently because domesticated canines aren’t as good at identifying food dangers as many humans think.

How Dogs Learn What Not to Eat in the Wild

Canines living in the wild learn what not to eat when they’re young. They watch their mother and are warned when they try to taste something that isn’t healthy for them. With time, they also learn what plants make them feel bad, so they use that experience to determine what is and isn’t safe to consume.

Dogs living in the wild still use their sense of taste and smell, but they have firsthand observation, warnings, and personal experiences to help. There are advantages to living wild because they run in packs and can protect one another. They also don’t have friendly humans bringing potentially toxic foods into their living spaces, which is what the domesticated dogs we love encounter daily.

How Domesticated Dogs Learn What Not to Eat

Domesticated dogs have a sharp sense of smell just like canines still roaming free. What they don’t always have is long-term guidance from older and more experienced dogs. Many puppies are separated from their siblings and parents at a young age. It’s common for households to have just one dog, so the pup is on his own when it comes to determining what is a suitable chew toy or dinner.

It has become common for pet owners to come home to chewed up couches, hairbrushes, and other items. Dogs who love to chew may even destroy remote controls, swallow batteries, and ingest other dangerous substances. Those are the experiences that may teach dogs what they shouldn’t put in their mouths, but those are also potentially fatal experiences.

The Most Toxic Foods for Dogs

It’s important for owners to know what foods are toxic and potentially deadly for dogs. Many dogs will eat at least some of these foods if given the opportunity. They may at least take a nibble to see how it tastes, but that’s all it takes for some toxic foods to make them sick. When these foods are mixed with other ingredients that a dog does like or that taste and/or smell good, then the chances are even higher for consumption.

Some of the most toxic foods your dog can eat include:

  • Caffeine
  • Grapes
  • Raisins
  • Garlic
  • Alcohol
  • Avocado
  • Onion
  • Chocolate
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Fruit pits/seeds
  • Xylitol (found in sugar-free candy, gum, cough syrup, etc.)
  • Raw dough (and other products with yeast)

How many of those foods are in your kitchen right now? How often do you bring in grocery bags filled with these potential dog toxins? Most kitchens are filled with spices, caffeinated drinks, and sweet treats that may contain chocolate. Those items may end up in your trash as well, which makes it more concerning when your puppy knocks the trash over and riffles through for dinner scraps.

Now that you’re aware of foods that are delicious for humans but potentially dangerous for dogs, you can take extra precaution. Make sure your trash is secured and not easily tipped over or remove bags from the house quickly. Also think twice before sharing human food with your four-legged family members. Don’t assume that your dog knows what they can and cannot eat safely.

Do Dogs Know What They are Eating?

Dogs may not always know what they’re eating. Their sense of taste is far less powerful than that of humans, but their sense of smell is up to a million times stronger. That’s why they’re so big on smelling their food before they start eating. If they smell something that may make them sick or that has harmed them in the past, they’re not likely to put it in their mouth.

Once they decide to eat, dogs can taste sweet, spicy, salty, and bitter just like humans. They even have an extra taste resource in their tongue which is activated by water. Dogs may know that they’re eating meat or grains, and they may know that they’re chewing the couch that they enjoy sleeping on in the afternoon.

They just might not always know what exactly they’re eating or why it’s harmful. For instance, many dogs are drawn to antifreeze because it smells sweet and dogs like sweets. Do they know that they’re consuming something dangerous as they lap it up? No, they do not.

Dogs don’t have a human understanding of what antifreeze is or why we use it. If they see their favorite human eating avocados on toast, they naturally want some, too. They don’t have a complete understanding that the avocado they’re begging for may make them sick. If they don’t smell the danger, they’re likely to consume whatever they see their two-legged friends eating if given the chance.

How Do Dogs Know What Is and Isn’t Food?

Dogs use their powerful sense of smell to determine what is and isn’t safe to eat. They instinctively know that bitter, rancid smells are unsafe. Something that smells sweet or a bit salty like meat may signal something that is good for food.

Your dog is also likely to learn what is and isn’t food by experience. They may trust the food that you give to them, knowing that you love them and don’t want to hurt them. As you feed them the same foods over and over, they learn that those smells and tastes are safe to eat.

When a dog encounters something new, they first go on their personal experience and knowledge. If they aren’t sure what the item is, they turn to their sense of smell. They may also watch your reaction to it to determine how they should react to it. If you’re not there, then they will give it a good sniff before taking a small taste if they think it’s possibly a food source.

Many dogs will chew anything that doesn’t smell dangerous. That’s why we have so many dog poisonings every year. Let’s dig into that right now.

Non-Food Substances Your Dog Just Might Eat

Since domesticated dogs don’t have an easy time determining food from non-food, it isn’t shocking that dogs account for up to 80% of animal poisoning cases. Owners bring dogs and cats to the vet for poisoning and toxic exposure more often than any other pet.  

Those poisoning cases often involve the following toxic substances:

  • Rodenticides
  • Insecticides
  • Pesticides

Other substances that are often mistaken as chew toys or food by dogs include:

  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Fabric softener sheets
  • Tobacco products
  • Marijuana
  • Cocoa mulch
  • Fertilizers
  • Mothballs
  • Liquid potpourri
  • Cleaning products
  • Play dough

Many pet owners are shocked when their dogs knock a glass bulb off a Christmas tree and bite into it or eat the cupcake wrapper in one swallow before touching the cake. These occurrences often occur after dogs see humans interacting with items and decide they want in on the fun. They don’t always process the danger of glass bulbs or understand that the cupcake wrapper isn’t part of the treat.

How Do Dogs Determine What to Eat?

Dogs determine what to eat by going through a mental process that looks something like this:

  • Have I encountered this before? Did I eat it? Did my humans eat it? Did it make me or them sick?
  • What does it smell like?
  • If I lick it just a little, what does it taste like?

Some dogs will also hold items loosely in their mouths while running to a private place to further investigate a potential food source or chew toy. They don’t bite down on it to avoid ingesting it if it turns out to smell or taste bad. Some dogs are faster to grab an unknown object while others prefer to investigate with their powerful sense of smell before touching it with their mouth.