Do you sometimes sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese on your dog's food to entice them to eat? Maybe you've stopped and wondered if your dog should be eating Parmesan.
Parmesan is a hard, aged cheese originating from the Reggio Emilia, Parma region of Italy. It is a hard cheese, meaning it is low in lactose, as opposed to softer cheeses such as mozzarella and brie. It is also an aged cheese (sometimes aged up to 12 months), meaning it is higher in sodium than non-aged cheeses. It's important to note that 'true' Parmesan cheese is more commonly called Parmigiano-Reggiano in the United States. While the Parmesan you can purchase pre-grated in plastic shakers is technically Parmesan cheese, these contain preservatives not used in classic Parmesan.
Is Parmesan Cheese Good for Dogs?
Most dogs are actually lactose intolerant to a point. Dogs lack the enzyme lactase needed to break down the milk sugar lactose. A healthy dog may be able to tolerate up to 2 g of lactose per kg of body weight. There's 2.2 lbs in 1 kg, so if you know your dog's weight in pounds, simply divide by 2.2 to determine their weight in kilograms. Grated Parmesan may contain anywhere from 2.9% to 3.7% lactose, while fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano may contain anywhere from 0 to 3.2% lactose. Since Parmesan is a hard cheese with less lactose in it than some other, softer cheeses, it may be easier for your pup to digest.
The aging process means it will naturally be higher in sodium than other cheese varieties. When Parmesan was first created, salt was the most commonly used natural preservative, so it remains a high source of salt. This can be a health concern for healthy dogs but especially for dogs with certain diseases, including heart and kidney disease. If your dog has a heart or kidney condition, you should avoid feeding them Parmesan, as salt toxicity is something that can happen in dogs. For most healthy, adult dogs, a toxic dose of salt is ~4000 mg of salt per kg of body weight. Dogs with heart disease or kidney disease will be even more sensitive to salt. Parmesan cheese has about 76 mg of salt per tablespoon of cheese. A healthy dog will need to ingest a large amount of cheese for it to be considered deadly, but that doesn't mean non-lethal doses are healthy. A dog should consume no more than 1 mg of salt per kg of body weight per day. Keep in mind, though, that your dog is consuming salt in their diet and other treats, not just Parmesan.
Side Effects of Giving Your Dog Parmesan Cheese
Due to its low lactose level, Parmesan can be easier on your dog's GI system than other cheeses. In large amounts, though, your dog can still experience gastrointestinal upset. If your dog is intolerant of the lactose in Parmesan you may see any of the following:
- Bloating (not to be confused with bloat, which is an emergency)
- A lack of appetite
Since Parmesan is higher in salt content than it is in lactose, signs of salt toxicity will be more commonly seen than signs of lactose intolerance. A dog that has consumed too much salty Parmesan will exhibit the following symptoms:
- A lack of appetite
- Muscle spasms, convulsions, and seizures
- Excessive drinking and urinating
- Watery diarrhea
- Fast heart rate
- High fever
True cases of salt toxicity, if not treated immediately, can lead to coma and death, so if your dog eats Parmesan and you then notice any of the above symptoms, seek veterinary attention immediately.
What to Do If Your Dog Eats Parmesan Cheese
If your dog eats Parmesan, first try to determine how much Parmesan they ate. Depending if you have a shaker bottle of grated Parmesan or a block of it, this may be more or less difficult to figure out accurately. If they ate a large amount of cheese (relative to how big your dog is—a 5 lb dog eating a whole shaker bottle of Parmesan will be affected differently than a 55 lb dog eating that same shaker bottle of Parmesan), you can call your vet or Pet Poison Control to determine if you should seek medical attention now or if you should ride it out and monitor for symptoms. In the United States you can call (888) 426-4435 to contact the ASPCA Pet Poison Hotline or (855) 764-7661 to contact the Pet Poison Helpline.
If the hotline does recommend a vet visit, they will give you a case number to then give your veterinarian. This is helpful for your veterinarian as they can call the hotline and get
specific recommendations from the veterinary toxicologist for your dog. While most veterinarians know what is poisonous for your dog to consume and what isn't, there are so many toxins your dog can get into, there is a different treatment for each, and the treatment plans can change based on a dog's medical history and how they are responding to therapy. The veterinarians that work at pet poison control centers are essentially veterinary specialists when it comes to toxin ingestion.
While most dogs can eat small amounts of cheese and not have any lasting side effects, not all cheeses are created the same. Parmesan cheese, with it's high salt content, isn't the best dog treat or food topper. Instead, opt for something like cottage cheese. This is a much healthier product for your dog to be snacking on.