Many dog owners enjoy giving their furry friend the occasional people-food treat. While some are safe in moderation, many are toxic and potentially lethal to the family dog. Alfalfa sprouts contain a few problematic components but are unlikely to cause harm in small quantities. However, as with many sprouts, they may harbor dangerous bacteria. If you do provide alfalfa sprouts to your dog, you should cook them first.
The Alfalfa Plant
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is a plant of the pea family, Fabaceae, widely grown and consumed by humans and other animals. Farmers in Iran were the first to domesticate the plant, which now grows all over the world. The plant is an important food source for most herbivores living alongside it and is particularly important to Canadian geese (Branta canadensis), elk (Cervus canadensis) and moose (Alces alces). Alfalfa has one of the highest nutritional values of any forage and holds more protein per unit of volume than any other crop. Humans most commonly consume the plant in the form of germinated seeds -- alfalfa sprouts.
Beneficial Nutritional Content
The primary positive attribute of alfalfa sprouts is their high protein content, but in contrast to animal-based foods, the sprouts do not provide the complete complement of amino acids. In addition to the protein, alfalfa sprouts contain high levels of non-soluble fiber, vitamins and minerals. According to the USDA, raw, sprouted alfalfa is high in vitamins C, A and K, as well as several B-complex vitamins. The germinated seeds are also low in fat and sugar but high in potassium. These factors make them attractive for supplementation purposes and particularly popular among raw-foods proponents.
Both mature and newly sprouted alfalfa contains chemicals called saponins. While some evidence suggests that saponins may help lower cholesterol levels, some of them limit the absorption of vital nutrients. Alfalfa contains at least four different saponins, but medicagenic acid is the most important one, likely most responsible for absorption problems. Additionally, alfalfa contains phytoestrogens, which are disruptive to the endocrine system. Regardless, alfalfa is absent from both the ASPCA’s and the Humane Society of the United States’ list of dangerous pet foods.
Some pet owners seek to replace all animal protein in their food with plant-based protein. However, because of the saponins and endocrine disrupting compounds present in the plant, Dr. Karen Becker advises against large amounts of alfalfa in your dog’s diet. On her namesake website sponsored by Mercola, Becker concedes that dog foods with small amounts of alfalfa are probably not dangerous.
Food Safety Issues
The sprouting process takes place in a warm and wet environment -- perfect conditions for culturing bacteria. Scientists have linked salmonella and E. coli. outbreaks to alfalfa sprouts on more than one occasion. Cooking sprouts thoroughly kills the bacteria but is at odds with the goals of those seeking to offer a raw diet.
- United States Department of Agriculture: Plants Database: Medicago Sativa L.
- Healthy Pets: Alfalfa: 3 Reasons to Avoid This Plant Protein in Your Pet’s Food
- Cornell University: College of Agriculture and Life Science: Saponins
- ASPCA: Foods That Are Hazardous to Dogs
- The Humane Society of the United States: Foods That Can Be Poisonous to Pets
- US Forest Service: Medicago sativa
- Unites States Department of Agriculture: Basic Report: 11001, Alfalfa Seeds, Sprouted, Raw
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Interactions of Alfalfa Plant and Sprout Saponins With Cholesterol in Vitro and in Cholesterol-Fed Rats
- FoodSafety.gov: Sprouts: What You Should Know