Think of pet treats and many of us envision those highly processed, highly flavored morsels in the shape of fishes or mailmen. They might be fun to buy and give to your dog and cat, and your animal might love eating them, but at best all they do is add empty calories to his diet. Most also contain all kinds of risky ingredients, including artificial colorings, sugars and fillers. Just like people who are always snacking on candy and cookies, animals that eat too many treats can become prone to obesity, diabetes and other health issues.
Here’s a look at the different types of pet treats you can buy and the pros and cons of each.
These are an old standby, so familiar we don’t think about what’s in them. But they are what they look like: Cookies! The average dog biscuit contains more grain than most dry foods, as well as flavorings of all sorts.
Here’s an example: Yodel is a heavy 30 pound beagle. He gets two medium sized biscuits in the morning, two for “lunch,” and two after he goes out before bed. Each biscuit contains 35 calories. Yodel’s ration for the day is about 550 calories; with six biscuits a day, 210 of those calories are being provided by treats, on top of what he’s already eating. His owners didn’t do their arithmetic, and Yodel got fat. Because of this, his life may be shortened, and he may be more likely to develop arthritis and other chronic health problems.
When buying biscuits, choose organic, natural products made with only whole grains and that contain as few synthetic ingredients and additives as possible. Keep in mind that even natural biscuits will add to the carbohydrate level of your animal’s diet, making it harder for him to maintain a proper weight. Break the treats up into small pieces, or buy the smallest size you can find, so you’re not giving your animal as much at a time.
Meat based treats
These come in all shapes and forms, from jerky to tiny freeze-dried cubes. Look for whole food products. Brands that bear “meat-sounding” names may be full of artificial coloring to make the treat look like bacon, beef or other meats.
Meat-only treats include freeze-dried or dehydrated meat such as liver, turkey breast strips, lamb lungs and other body parts. These treats are mostly protein, but they still add calories. A 20 pound dog who consumes a full piece of lamb lung is getting most of his calories for the day, and not in a balanced way. Again, break these treats into small pieces.
Hint: Cats love meat and fish based treats. Read labels carefully: attractively packaged, smelly treats may contain low quality ingredients.
Freeze dried meat and vegetable diets make excellent, often “complete and balanced” treats. They contain both protein and fat, though, so they add more calories than meat only treats of the same size.
All meat based treats should be bought in small packages and used promptly. Store them in the freezer to preserve the fats and keep the treats dry.
People food treats
It’s not surprising that every time you open the fridge door, Fido shows up, wondering if there’s something inside for him! In fact, human food can make fresh, nutritious treats for dogs and cats, so long as you choose the right things. Blueberries, carrots, apples, melon, eggs, or bits of cheese or meat are all tasty tidbits. As with any treat, size and quantity are important, but since many of these foods still have their water content, they aren’t as fattening. A piece of apple has far fewer calories than even a small biscuit.
Peanut butter and celery is an entertaining dog treat, but it does have an extremely high caloric content, and should be saved for special occasions.
Hint: Avoid giving your animal raisins, grapes, onions, and chocolate; these can all have toxic effects. Also, don’t feed him junk food like potato chips or hot dogs.
Chew treats can promote mental, dental and overall physical health, and may also help prevent a growing puppy from gnawing on your furniture or shoes. Here’s what you need to know about them:
A raw meaty bone (not cooked) is the best and healthiest chew treat.
Food stuffed toys provide lots of physical and mental stimulation. A rubber Kong fillled with a few crunchy treats, a piece of cheese, or a bit of peanut butter will keep a dog working for a long time. Treat balls stuffed with small crunchy treats add an element of play as the dog throws and bounces it around to get the goodies out.
Avoid rawhide treats. Not only do they contain no nutrient value, but dogs tend to swallow large chunks which can cause life threatening blockages in the digestive system. Even small pieces can be irritating to the GI tract and may cause diarrhea.
HintAlways supervise your dog when he has a chew treat.
The green chews promoted for dental health are often made with a gluten base. Gluten is one of the most common causes of allergies in dogs and should be avoided.
Other cooked or smoked body parts also need to be carefully evaluated. Pigs’ ears, for example, are not recommended because they are high in fat. Tracheas and tendons are easy to digest and add cartilage to the diet, but can pose a choking hazard.
Hint: “Cat grass”, available as a kit or already growing, is an excellent kitty treat, providing entertainment and live green nutrients for indoor felines. Some dogs also enjoy nibbling on fresh greens. Look for an organic product.
Treat time is an important part of the day for your companion animal. The most healthful goodies you can give your dog or cat are those made from fresh, whole foods. It’s all right to buy those cute little fishes and mailmen once in awhile, but stick to real food or meat treats most of the time. You’ll help your animal maintain a healthy weight and live longer.
Contibuted by Steve Brown and Beth Taylor, co-authors of "See Spot Live Longer: How to help your dog live a longer and healthier life."
Originally published in the "Pet Food Report, 2007" by the publishers of Animal Wellness Magazine