It’s pumpkin season! It’s that time of year where you can see those wonderful orange gourds all over the place, from hardware stores to your local grocery store.
It brings to thought some common questions many pumpkin curious pup parents have: Is pumpkin good for dogs? What are the benefits of pumpkin for dogs? What is pumpkin used for in dogs? What about pumpkin seeds, can my dog have those?
In this article, we’ll discuss all those questions, including the most common reason pumpkin is considered for dogs, the best forms of pumpkin to use, certain things to stay away from, and what to do if you’re still seeing some health concerns in your dog after giving pumpkin a try.
The main reason pumpkin is considered good for dogs in many cases, is that it is a great source of fiber. There are two types or classes of fiber including soluble and insoluble. Pumpkin has some of both!
Both types of fiber can convey their own benefits for a dog’s health in relation to digestion and bowel movements. Next, we’ll discuss what those two types of fiber do in the body and to what degree they’re found in pumpkin.
When we’re looking at what parts of the pumpkin convey health benefits in the form of fiber, we’re really talking about the flesh or pulp of the pumpkin, the part just below the skin that makes up its outer structure. The goopy fibrous strands and outer rind or skin are not our focus. The seeds we’ll talk about a little later on.
According to the USDA National Nutrient Database a 1 cup serving of cooked fresh pumpkin contains about 2.7 grams of total dietary fiber. Dietary fiber is then split into the two forms of fiber that comprise it, soluble and insoluble fiber.
According to Tufts University, pumpkin contains about 60% soluble fiber and 40% insoluble fiber.
What’s the difference and what do each of these two fiber types do?
Soluble fiber is dissolvable in water. In the GI tract, it forms a gel-like substance. This gel slows down the digestion rate of other nutrients, like fats and sugars.
Benefits include lowering cholesterol and stabilizing blood sugar levels by preventing blood sugar spikes after eating. This can help reduce the risk of diseases like diabetes.
Because digestion of nutrients in soluble fiber foods is delayed, much of it reaches the colon, allowing for fermentation by our healthy gut bacteria. This helps to improve the health of good bacteria, maintaining a good balance.
Insoluble fiber is not dissolved in water, and essentially remains in its original form. Because insoluble fiber is not readily digestible, it can help to speed up the transit of nutrients through the GI tract, reducing constipation.
Together, both soluble and insoluble fiber can work together to slow down digestion but also physically fill up space in the GI tract. This can improve satiety, and may help with weight management simply by reducing hunger and thus begging for food.
For pets with really loose stool, mixed fiber can also still help, especially with soluble fiber slowing things down and insoluble fiber adding bulk to the stool.
But this is really where the benefits of mixed fiber can have some mixed responses, depending on what type of bowel movement concerns are being seen with a pet.
We’ll get to that in just a minute. But first, what are some other health benefits of pumpkin for dogs?
As one of those easily recognizable yellow/orange foods (along with others like carrots, sweet potato, and butternut squash), pumpkin contains a lot of beta carotene.
Besides just contributing to the yellow/orange color of a pumpkin, beta carotene also acts as an antioxidant, which “eats up” volatile compounds called free radicals.
Free radicals are essentially unbound, unstable atoms that roam the body, causing damage to cells and tissues. Free radicals have a link to not only aging, but also a host of diseases. Antioxidants like beta carotene help to keep free radicals in check, reducing their effects throughout the body.
There are some common situations to consider using pumpkin for dogs. Dogs exhibiting signs of constipation where stools are too firm and they have a hard time passing them, can benefit from the increased transit time of insoluble fiber. While insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water, it can draw water into the intestine, also assisting with clearance.
For dogs experiencing issues with soft stool, there are some cases that respond well to fiber. It’s always important to remember that many things can contribute to a soft or runny stool, so make sure to chat about all possibilities with your veterinarian.
However, for fiber-responsive diarrhea or soft stool, soluble fiber helps slow down digestion of nutrients. Insoluble fiber also adds some bulk.
Adding bulk to stool may also assist with some anal sac/gland issues. One thought is that the anal sacs may express more readily with regularly formed stools. So while there are also several potential underlying causes for anal sac issues, if you see this issue alongside chronically soft stool, some fiber may help.
Before talking about how much to give and how often, it’s important to discuss what to give. And what not to give. The gourd and the bad, if you will.
You can of course chop up a pumpkin into smaller pieces, remove all the seeds and strands, and boil the pieces (which makes it easier to then remove the skin).
You can mash all of that up and use that to top dress your pup’s bowl or mix in with a regular diet.
But it’s an awful lot of work.
So, can dogs eat canned pumpkin? Sure! Canned pumpkin is usually a more practical go-to. It’s also readily available year-round.
When selecting canned pumpkin, make sure to check on sodium levels. Some canned pumpkin brands may have levels of sodium exceeding 500 mg per cup. Low sodium brands may have less than 100mg per cup and that’s what you really want to stick with.
It’s also important to make sure you’re getting just plain, unadulterated, canned pumpkin. Avoid using pumpkin pie filling or pumpkin pie mix. While these do contain pumpkin, they also contain a lot of added sugar, which packs on calories.
According to Tufts Clinical Nutrition Service, regular canned pumpkin is only about 80 kilocalories per cup, but canned pumpkin pie mix may contain close to 300 kilocalories per cup. For those not familiar, 300 kilocalories is close to a whole cup of kibble for many brands of dog food. That would be close to a whole extra meal!
Another alternative is to keep an eye out for supplements for stool health that contain pumpkin. Usually these contain powdered pumpkin in the form of a tasty chewable. Supplements can also contain other fiber sources, like psyllium husk and beet pulp, adding to the benefits from different forms of fiber.
With any supplement, always make sure to look for the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) Quality Seal. In order to have permission to display the NASC Quality Seal, member companies must voluntarily follow very strict measures including independent facility inspection, random product testing, adverse event reporting, and strict labeling guidelines. This helps to ensure a safe and quality product for your furry friend.
This is the golden question, and depending on who you ask, you’re likely to find some different answers.
However, it’s common to recommend starting with one tablespoon of canned pumpkin per meal. If you’re not seeing a desired improvement, it’s okay to gradually work up to 4-5 tablespoons per meal.
But from a practical sense, if you think you need to add more than that, pumpkin may not be the best fiber source, which gets us to our next topic.
As you may have noticed, certain types of fiber are useful for certain types of stool concerns. Insoluble fiber helps more with constipation, while soluble fiber aids dogs with loose stool. While mixed fiber contains health benefits on both sides, we may or may not find some mixed fiber sources to be the ticket every time.
If you find that you’re thinking of piling on a whole cup or more of canned pumpkin to try to help your pup stay regular, you'll soon be asking your dog if he’d like some kibble with his pumpkin, instead of the other way around.
While using the right form of pumpkin is generally harmless and most dogs find it tasty, it may not be the most effective solution in all cases. If adding a tablespoon or two to your dog’s meals isn’t having a noticeable effect, it’s time to ask your vet about other fiber choices.
Tufts Clinical Nutrition Service points out in their article “The Problem with Pumpkin”, that to supplement the same amount of fiber as a veterinary therapeutic diet for a medium-sized dog that really needs it, you’d have to feed nearly 12 cups of pumpkin a day.
So in effect, while some dogs may respond well to some pumpkin added to their meals, others would need a whole heap of it, and that just isn’t practical.
Now that we’ve discussed pumpkin in great detail, what about pumpkin seeds? They are certainly a favorite of mine this time of year as they can be cooked with so many different flavors to make a crunchy snack.
With dogs though, we have to be careful. There’s nothing toxic about a pumpkin seed at all. But moderation is key. The fibrous outer shell of the seed is not easily digestible. A dog that eats a heap of pumpkin seeds raw or cooked with their shells may develop some tummy discomfort.
Pumpkin seeds can be cooked without their shells, but it’s still important to be aware of what they’re being cooked with. Some of my favorite toppings for pumpkin seeds include lots of olive oil, garlic powder, salt, and old bay seasoning--not exactly ideal for dogs to be eating handfuls of.
So if you choose to offer your pup some pumpkin seeds, it’s best to remove the shells, cook them, and feed them plain, and in moderation--just a couple as a fun, seasonal treat will do.
Pumpkin is tasty and when the right type is used (low salt canned pumpkin or fresh boiled pumpkin), is very safe to use.
But remember that the practical amount to add to a dog’s meal of up to a couple tablespoons may not be adequate for some situations involving problems with stools.
It’s also important to remember that not all dogs require fiber and definitely not high levels of fiber, if they’re already on a nutritionally balanced diet. Inappropriately adding high levels of fiber can cause problems with constipation, runny stools, and weight problems, depending on the source.
Stool problems may have other underlying causes that need to be addressed in other ways, and there may be more effective fiber supplements available for your pup to try if more fiber is the way to go. That’s why it’s always important to discuss fiber supplementation strategies with your veterinarian to ensure that your pup’s regularity is being looked at from every perspective.