It’s that time of the year again, as green leaves blossom into hues of red, yellow, and orange and the smell of pumpkin spice fills coffee shops. With autumn in the air, Halloween is just around the corner, and this means candy, costumes, and…PUMPKINS! Pumpkins are an essential part of Halloween for carving and decorating but, more recently, pumpkins have also gained increasing attention for their health benefits in humans and pets. And so, now is an excellent time to begin the conversation around the use of pumpkins as a dietary fibre supplement for pets.
First, let’s dive into a little history about the pumpkin. The word pumpkin comes from the Greek word Pepon, which translates to “large melon” (Dhiman et al., 2009). Pumpkins belong to the Cucurbitaceae family and originate from countries experiencing hot climates like Africa, Central and South America, and Asia (Kaur et al., 2020). Since then, pumpkins have become a widely grown vegetable around the world because of their high yield and nutrient rich content (Dhiman et al., 2009), with the largest producers being India, China, and USA (Kaur et al., 2020).
With increasing rates of cardiovascular diseases, digestive health issues, cancer and diabetes, humans have demonstrated an increasing interest in plant-based eating patterns due to the significant amounts of micro- and macronutrients, vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and fibre present in these diets (Ceclu et al., 2020). As for pet food, pumpkin has become a common ingredient due to its purported digestive health benefits. Many pet owners choose to give their pets canned pumpkin as extra fibre in their diet for gut health maintenance, and to reduce instances of diarrhea and constipation.
What is Fibre?
Fibre falls under the umbrella of carbohydrates, but, unlike most carbohydrates, is resistant to digestion and absorption in the small intestine (Sanderson, 2021). Instead, fibre travels to the large intestine where it is fermented (broken down) by colonic microbiota and produces many beneficial metabolites like short-chain fatty acids (Sanderson, 2021). However, diets containing highly fermentable fibres can produce less desirable products like gases, which can result in diarrhea and cramping (Sanderson, 2021).
Fibre can be classified into two main types: soluble and insoluble fibre (Sanderson, 2021). Soluble fibres dissolve in water to create a gel-like substance in the digestive system and have absorptive capabilities, which can control blood glucose and cholesterol levels (“How to add more fibre”, 2021). Insoluble fibres help food move through the digestive system and promote regular bowel movements, ultimately reducing constipation (“How to add more fibre”, 2021).
There is no dietary fibre requirement for dogs and cats; however, there are many health benefits as fibre can help with glycemic response, alter the composition of the gut microbiota and fermentation products/metabolites, and improve stool output (Sanderson, 2021).
Benefits of Pumpkin:
Moisture content: Pumpkin has an extremely high moisture content; it is composed of approximately 88% – 96% water (Ceclu et al., 2020). By consuming pumpkin, we can increase our pet’s water intake to help soften stools and reduce instances of constipation. This also makes pumpkin a low-calorie food!
Rich in nutrients: Pumpkin is a nutrient rich food because it is a source of many vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, is cholesterol-free, and low in fat (Dhiman et al., 2009). It is also very low in calories (due to the high moisture content noted above). In fact, 1 cup (245 g) of canned pumpkin (without salt) contains 83.3 calories and is loaded with many essential nutrients like vitamins A, C, E, K, and minerals like magnesium, calcium, and potassium (Ceclu et al., 2020). This makes pumpkin a good low-calorie topper to add to your pet’s food.
Vitamin A: Have you ever thought about what gives pumpkin its bright orange colour? Pumpkin is extremely high in carotenoids, like beta-carotene, which are fat-soluble plant pigments (Ceclu et al., 2020). Beta-carotene gives pumpkin its trademark bright orange colour, and is converted into vitamin A in our bodies (Williams et al., 2021). This is an essential vitamin for maintaining good eye health and vision, cell division, and proper growth/development (Williams et al., 2021). Vitamin A is also helpful to our immune system (Williams et al., 2021).
Palatability: Some pet owners may find pumpkin improves the palatability of their pet’s current food. Pets might like the taste and texture of pumpkin and it could encourage picky pets to eat their food if some is added as a topper.
Source of fibre: Like many fruits, pumpkin is a good source of fibre and contains both insoluble and soluble fibres. 1 cup (245 g) of canned pumpkin contains around 7 g of dietary fibre, and is commonly used by many pet owners to treat acute digestive health issues like constipation and diarrhea.
But is pumpkin truly the best source of fibre? Could there be other foods that are higher in fibre? Let’s take a look at some other sources of fibre.
In this chart, we compared 5 different sources of fibre: canned pumpkin with salt, canned pumpkin without salt, canned pumpkin pie mix, Metamucil Sugar-Free Unflavoured Smooth Powder, and NOW Organic Inulin Prebiotic Pure Powder. Right away, we can see that canned pumpkin is not as high in fibre as we thought it would be. In comparison to the canned pumpkin pie mix, 100g of canned pumpkin (salt and unsalted) only contains 2.9 g of fibre, whereas 100g of canned pumpkin pie mix contains 8.3 g of fibre. If we look at the non-pumpkin fibre sources, we can see that Metamucil contains 55.6 g of fibre per 100g and the powdered inulin contains a whopping 89.3 g of fibre per 100g!
This does not mean pumpkin is not a good source of fibre – it is just not the best. Although canned pumpkin is not a rich source of fibre, it has an extremely high moisture content. As seen in the chart, 100g of canned pumpkin (salted and unsalted) contains 90g of water. This is likely what contributes to the improved digestive health outcomes pet owners see like softened stools, improved fecal output, and constipation relief, as there is more water being directed to the gastrointestinal tract. However, this also means that in order to see the therapeutic effects of additional fibre, more pumpkin will need to be consumed in comparison to some of the other fibre sources.
Things to consider:
Crude fibre vs total dietary fibre: The total amount of fibre is measured as “total dietary fibre” on human nutrition labels and considers both types of fibre (Sanderson, 2021). However, on pet food labels, dietary fibre is measured as “crude fibre” on the guaranteed analysis section (Sanderson, 2021). Crude fibre only measures insoluble fibre and does not measure any soluble fibre; thus, crude fibre is not a reliable measure of the total dietary fibre (Sanderson, 2021). Relying only on the fibre content listed on pet foods does not accurately display the total dietary fibre or the types of fibre present, and as a result, certain pet foods could have a higher amount of total fibre, especially if most of the total fibre is soluble fibre.
Types of fibre: Human fibre supplements can come in a variety of forms, depending on an individual’s needs. A rich source of soluble fibre is inulin, which can be found as a prebiotic powder supplement (Sanderson, 2021). Insoluble fibre can be found in the form of wheat bran, and a supplement that contains a mixture of soluble and insoluble fibre is psyllium husk, which is the fibre found in Metamucil (Sanderson, 2021).
Adding extra fibre: Feeding your pet extra fibre may cause undesirable physiologic effects if paired with a pet food already high in fibre (Sanderson, 2021). If your pet is consuming too much fibre, they may experience diarrhea, uncomfortable gas, nutrient deficiencies, and an increased urgency to poop, which could potentially lead to weight loss and other health issues.
10% rule: Ensure 90% of your pet’s total daily calories are coming from a complete and balanced diet, and the other 10% can come from treats, human foods/supplements and any other food items. By exceeding this 10%, we can cause an energy imbalance and potentially lead to weight gain and other health issues. Since canned pumpkin is so low in calories (34 Calories per 100 grams), it should be easy to stay under this 10% rule, especially if the pet is a larger dog. But if other supplements or treats are given in addition to pumpkin, this allotment could easily be exceeded.
Canned Pumpkin: Fresh pumpkin may be plentiful in the fall, however in other months you will be selecting the canned variety. Although delicious, pumpkin pie filling will also contain plenty of sugar, spices, and other ingredients which may be problematic for your pet. The difference between cans can be subtle, so ensure you select the right, not spiced, addition!
Talk to your vet: If your pet has diarrhea or constipation, seek veterinary care prior to starting any fibre supplementation or diet change. These symptoms may be due to a new or worsening medical condition, parasites, infection, or even toxicity, and may need to be treated in addition to nutrition modification. Depending on your pet’s needs, a veterinarian can help you select a balanced diet by addressing the specific types of fibre that would be most beneficial. If a supplement is required, your vet might recommend a human fibre supplement that can be added to your pet’s food. Alternatively, your vet may recommend a veterinary therapeutic diet that is high in specific fibre and does not require supplementation. For pets with multiple medical conditions, or for owners whose preference is to feed more human foods, veterinarians can refer to a veterinary nutritionist to formulate an individualized balanced homemade diet with more fibre.
Overall, pumpkin could be a beneficial addition to your pet’s diet for the reasons described above, but it is important to recognize its limitations as a fibre supplement. Depending on your pet’s individual needs, pumpkin may give you the results you are looking for, but in other cases, a better fibre source might be needed. Whenever you have questions about your pet’s diet, please speak with your veterinarian before making any changes or adding new food items.
Written by: Amrit Rooprai, Undergraduate Studies
Edited by: Dr. Caitlin Grant, DVM, DVSc
Shoshana Verton-Shaw, RVT, VTS (Nutrition)
Ceclu, L., Mocanu, D.G., & Nistor, O.V. (2020). Pumpkin – health benefits. Journal of Agroalimentary Processes and Technologies, 26(3), 241-246.
Dhiman, A.K., KD, S., & Attri, S. (2009). Functional constituents and processing of pumpkin: A review. Journal of Food Science and Technology, 46(5), 411-417.
Kaur, S., Panghal, A., Garg, M. K., Mann, S., Khatkar, S. K., Sharma, P., & Chhikara, N. (2020). Functional and nutraceutical properties of pumpkin – a review. Nutrition and Food Science, 50(2), 384-401. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/NFS-05-2019-0143
Sanderson, S. (2021, October 08). Nutritional requirements and related diseases of small animals – management and Nutrition. Merck Veterinary Manual Sept. 2013
Williams, P., Foster, D., & Carughi, A. (2021, July 29). Pumped up for pumpkin. US Department of Agriculture.
Nutrient data for fibre sources was taken from: