Can Dogs Eat Ice Cream? Here’s What the Experts Say

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Dogs love ice cream as much as we do, but should they be eating it? Here's everything you should know before sharing your next scoop.

It’s hard to say who loves ice cream more: humans or dogs. While we devour a cone lick by lick, they patiently sit by, willing the ice cream to slide off the cone. Why are they so obsessed with it? “Dogs love ice cream for all the reasons we do,” says veterinarian Sam Meisler, DVM, founder and CEO of PetWellClinic. “It is high in sugar, fat and even salt. All those ingredients make it very palatable.” Translation: It’s delicious!

But are human foods good for dogs? As pet parents, we know there are certain fruits and vegetables dogs can’t eat, like grapes and mushrooms, but where does ice cream stand? Is ice cream one of the foods dogs can’t eat? We asked veterinarians to get the scoop. Once you’re up to speed, discover the answers to weird dog behaviors, including why dogs eat dirt and grass.

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Can dogs eat ice cream?

“Yes, a dog can eat ice cream,” says Dr. Meisler. “However, it can be fraught with potentially harmful effects—and even death.” Yikes. Ice cream hardly seems harmful, let alone poisonous, but it can be, depending on its ingredients. Raisins and chocolate can be toxic for dogs, for example. Artificial sweeteners are also a big no-no (more on that below).

Obvious harmful ingredients aside, you might be wondering, Can dogs eat vanilla ice cream? After all, what’s the harm in plain ol’ vanilla? Well, even though the milk in ice cream is considered a wholesome food for many humans, dogs generally don’t tolerate dairy products well. “Most dogs do not have the enzymes necessary to digest lactose,” explains Dr. Meisler. Enzymes are critical for many metabolic functions, and without the enzymes needed to break down dairy, your pup could have a rumbly, painful tummy ache—or worse—after eating ice cream. Overall, you should stick with veterinarian-recommended diets for dogs.

How much ice cream can a dog have?

It’s most likely OK if your pup sneaks a few licks from a bowl as you’re loading the dishwasher, but larger quantities should be avoided. “Some dogs can tolerate dairy better than others, but you are taking a risk if you give them ice cream for the first time,” says Heather Berst, DVM, medical lead with Zoetis, a pet pharmaceutical company.

Can dogs eat ice cream if it’s dairy-free? It might not cause tummy trouble, but you have to consider its other ingredients, which could potentially be much more dangerous. “Chocolate, as in dark chocolate chips, depending on the amount given and the weight of the dog, can be fatally toxic to dogs,” explains Dr. Meisler.

Despite the downfalls of ice cream for doggos, it’s still hard to resist those adorable puppy-dog eyes staring at you while you eat spoon after spoon of rocky road. But hold firm, and toss them a tasty, healthy dog treat instead. Just don’t go overboard with them. “Treats should account for 10% or less of a dog’s daily caloric intake,” says Dr. Berst.

What happens if a dog eats too much ice cream?

Here are some of the health concerns and consequences of dogs eating ice cream in any quantity.

Pain and obesity

When dogs eat ice cream, they will most likely experience an upset stomach, cramping, gas, bloating, vomiting and/or diarrhea. The problem is that some of these warning signs of doggy pain aren’t obvious to us, so we might think the ice cream sits well with them. And, of course, our dogs can’t connect the dots that yummy ice cream equals an upset tummy, so the cycle repeats. “The eventual outcome may end up being an uncomfortable dog who is gaining excess weight,” says Dr. Meisler.

Toxic ingredients

Dogs are opportunistic by nature and would love to get their paws on virtually any flavor of ice cream, but some ingredients could cause food poisoning in dogs. “There are a lot of common ice cream ingredients that can cause problems for a dog, including chocolate, raisins, macadamia nuts, walnuts, coffee and xylitol,” says Dr. Berst. Think about the raisins in rum raisin ice cream. Raisins contain an unknown substance that is toxic and can cause kidney damage. And fudgey chocolate contains a chemical called theobromine, as well as caffeine—both of which are toxic to dogs.

Dogs metabolize these ingredients much more slowly than humans, and that can cause a host of problems. Symptoms you might notice right away are vomiting and diarrhea. If your dog wolfed down a lot of ice cream, more severe symptoms could show up, such as excess urination, muscle tremors, seizures, cardiac arrhythmias and even death.

Any ice cream with macadamia nuts is potentially toxic too. Scientists haven’t nailed down why, but they do know that if a dog gobbles up macadamia nuts, it can result in weakness, vomiting, tremors, hyperthermia and poor muscle control.

Artificial sweeteners

Xylitol is one of the most widely used artificial sweeteners, often found in sugar-free foods like peanut butter, baked goods, candy and, yes, sugar-free ice cream. Humans can eat it without an issue, but even very small quantities of xylitol are potentially fatal to dogs, Dr. Meisler says. When dogs eat it, it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and may prompt a rapid release of insulin from the pancreas, which can result in dangerously low blood glucose levels (hypoglycemia). This can have devastating effects and become life-threatening if not treated quickly. Early signs include vomiting, but as hypoglycemia quickly progresses, it can lead to muscle weakness, lethargy, seizures and collapse.

What about other sweeteners? Can dogs eat ice cream that contains aspartame, sucralose or stevia? While these ingredients aren’t toxic, they can cause gastrointestinal discomfort and diarrhea, so you should avoid them.

Food allergies

Though food allergies aren’t as common in dogs as airborne allergies, some of the most popular dog breeds, such as the Labrador retriever and cocker spaniel, may have an increased risk of developing them. Common culprits are chicken, beef, corn, wheat and eggs, as well as milk and soy—two standard ingredients in dairy and nondairy alternative ice cream, respectively. Signs of a food allergy include itching, swelling and reddening of the skin.

Pancreatitis

“In serious cases, dogs could get a very serious disease called pancreatitis that may require hospitalization to treat,” says Dr. Berst. Typically, this condition is caused when a new food or treat is introduced. And it might be something new that you don’t know about, like if they ate something they dug up in the backyard or snatched an item from the garbage. Normally, the pancreas shoots enzymes into the gut to help with digestion, and it also regulates glucose and insulin in the body. In pancreatitis, the pancreas becomes inflamed, which leads to damage in other parts of the body. The standard symptoms are loss of appetite, weakness, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, stomach pain and dehydration.

What should you do if your dog ate your ice cream?

You left the room for one minute and returned to find your bowl of brownie fudge ice cream gone. It’s no mystery who ate it. As adorable as their ice cream–covered face is, it can be a serious health concern if your dog eats your whole bowl of ice cream versus a stolen lick. “First and foremost, call your veterinarian if you have any questions about an ingredient your dog ate, and do not wait to call,” says Dr. Berst. “Your veterinarian will be able to guide you about what to do and if your dog needs to come in for treatment.” If you can’t get through to your vet, call ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control or the Pet Poison Helpline.

What are healthier alternatives to ice cream?

You can still treat your pupster to the sweet delights of ice cream—just make it a doggy-friendly scoop. Many grocery stores and pet shops carry soy or other nondairy-based ice cream options specifically made for dogs. You might also be able to find nondairy-based people ice cream that doesn’t contain xylitol or other offenders like chocolate and nuts. “You can try ice cream that uses nonfat Greek yogurt or kefir as a base to avoid the higher fat and sugar content in traditional ice cream,” says Dr. Berst.

If you already love spoiling your pup with homemade dog treats, why not branch out and create your own doggy ice cream? Here’s what to do:

  1. Blend 32 ounces of plain fat-free Greek yogurt or kefir with two ripe bananas.
  2. Line a 9-by-9-inch baking dish with parchment paper, and spread the yogurt mixture evenly.
  3. Freeze until firm.
  4. Cut into bite-sized pieces.

Your doggy might dig these treats cold, but you can also thaw them out for a creamier ice cream–like texture. Dr. Berst says you can swap the bananas for two tablespoons of peanut butter too. Or sub in or add blueberries, apples (without the seeds and core), watermelon, pumpkin and just about anything nontoxic your dog goes zoomies for. The flavor possibilities are only limited by the foods dogs shouldn’t eat.

The best doggy ice creams

Now that you know the answer to the question “Can dogs eat ice cream?” find out which plants are poisonous to dogs to make sure your home is truly safe.

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Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and Realtor.com., among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center. Follow her on Instagram @lisamariewrites4food and Twitter @cornish_conklin.