(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 22, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
The health benefits of pumpkin are well-known, though most people do not think of pumpkin as a health food. Perhaps this is because most of us think of pumpkin pie, which is a high-calorie treat--but it might be one of the healthier desserts we could choose. Pumpkin is loaded with vitamins C, K and E, beta-carotene, fiber, and several other beneficial antioxidants and other phytonutrients like lutein and ziazanthin. Pumpkin seeds are high in various minerals such as manganese, magnesium, zinc, potassium, copper and iron and are high in essential fatty acids (no trans fats, either!) Pumpkin is a common ingredient in some facial and skin products that help protect against aging and dermatologic maladies. There is even research that indicates pumpkin extracts can be useful in the treatment of diabetes. For humans, it is no less than a miracle food.
But what about our pets? They don't need vitamin C and very few dogs or cats are deficient in any of the above minerals or vitamins, thanks to the diets most of them consume (which are superior to what the average human consumes as part of his or her diet.) But the fiber content is sometimes very useful in the treatment and maintenance of digestive health of our pets. Few foods are more readily consumed than pumpkin puree (not the pumpkin pie filling) by our pets; just a small portion in their daily diets (1/4 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon, depending on the pet's weight) can make the difference between a case of chronic diarrhea or constipation and a normal daily bowel movement. Many veterinarians often prescribe pumpkin as part of the treatment for either intestinal malady, as well as simply a healthful dietary supplement.
It may not seem logical at first that something like pumpkin fiber can treat both defecations that are too runny as well as too hard and dry. But that is why fiber additives are advertised to help make us ‘regular'.
Diarrhea is usually the result of lack of water re-absorption in the colon (the last part of the intestinal tract), either because of too-rapid transit through the intestines, or because of some toxic, secretory activity in the tract itself. Fiber in the digesta can directly assist in the formation of more solid stools and also by slowing the passage of waste material through the colon,allowing more time for water re-absorption. Thus, added pumpkin in the diet can help in the treating of loose stools in our pets.
Alternatively constipation is often due to the too-slow passage of material through the colon, allowing too much water re-absorption and resulting in dry, hard, and difficult-to-pass stools. Additional fiber in the diet will keep some of the moisture from being re-absorbed by the colon. Even pets that are not constipated but just having trouble getting that last little bit of stool out, or having some perianal itching afterwards can benefit from the addition of pumpkin in their diets. Therefore, one can see that added pumpkin in the diet can help in treatment and prevention of constipation as well.
And what is so special about pumpkin? After all, couldn't the addition of Metamucil or some other form of fiber additive be just as useful and effective? Probably. Pumpkin, however, has several advantages over other fiber forms. Primarily, it tastes good. I have not known too many dogs that will not readily accept pumpkin as part of their diet, or as an intermittent treat. Most dogs love it, which makes giving them added fiber not only convenient but even enjoyable. And often cats will like pumpkin, too. Trying to get a cat to take fiber in any other form can be very frustrating. Pumpkin is loaded with other nutrients as well, though perhaps less useful for our pets than for us. Still, aren't harmful and could be beneficial.
Most dogs like the flavor
As mentioned above, pumpkin can be given to cats as well as dogs. Not only can it help with the problems of simple diarrhea and constipation, but also can help cats deal with their unique hairball problems. Cats that vomit up hairballs frequently (more than once a month) should probably see a veterinarian; however as that is probably not normal, particularly if additional pumpkin does not help matters much.
It is interesting that cats, too, seem to benefit from the addition of pumpkin in their diets. Why this is surprising is cats are obligate carnivores, which means they are meat eaters. Vegetables are usually not an important part of a true carnivore's diet (dogs are not really true carnivores despite their being members of the carnivore family.) Yet many cats seem to relish eating vegetable material, most which is not digested. Vegetable fiber passing through even the short digestive tract of the feline can assist in correcting problems in defecation and normal stool production. And often on top of the list of a cat's favorite vegetable is canned pumpkin. Use caution in feeding excess pumpkin to a cat as they could develop excessive gas and discomfort. A little pumpkin goes a long way and a lot is not good!
Please note that the form of pumpkin recommended is pumpkin puree, not pumpkin pie filling, which is far too sweet and sugary for most pets. The internet is bursting with all sorts of pumpkin remedies for pets as well as humans, but be sure these recipes include the puree and not the pie filling, and do not contain pet-toxic food items like chocolate, onion or garlic.
Birds may also benefit from pumpkin in their diet!
Please remember that serious cases of diarrhea or constipation may still need veterinary attention and may not respond to simply adding pumpkin to the diets. However it is always worth a try, and pumpkin often will be prescribed by a veterinarian as part of the immediate, if not long-term treatment of a pet's medical problems.