The Truth About Pet Treats

I don't know about you, but I have never met a dog or cat who doesn't love treats. The act of rewarding our pets with a treat is a small gesture that brings a whole lot of enjoyment to pets and pet owners alike. Unfortunately, calories from treats can add up—and they aren't always the healthiest foods for your pet to be eating. As conscientious pet owners, it's important to make sure the treats we feed our pets are nutritious and not just junk. But how can you be sure you're choosing the best treat for your furry companion?
When it comes to pet treats, there is a lot of junk on the market. Many treats are high in calories and contain large amounts of sugar and other undesirable ingredients. Since our domestic dogs and cats live relatively sedentary lifestyles these days, compared to their wild predecessors, many are prone to obesity or are already overweight. It's true that treats can be great training rewards or motivators for dogs and cats, and they provide us with a wonderful way to bond with our pets. However, too much of a good thing can be harmful and lead to obesity, which also puts your companion animal at an increased risk for chronic conditions such as heart disease.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in charge of regulating dog and cat treats, ensuring that they are safe to eat and are produced under sanitary conditions. However, just like with any other product, it's up to you to do your part as a consumer to make sure that you are making smart choices when it comes to selecting and giving treats. In the wake of recent pet food recalls, many consumers are wary of purchasing packaged treats. While it's true that contamination can happen anywhere, you can always opt to make your own homemade treats as an added measure of quality control.

Here are some basic rules to remember when it comes to pet treats:
Size Matters
A single treat can easily contain 25 percent of a small dog or cat's daily calorie allotment. It's easy to see how one too many treats can easily derail your pet's diet. Generally speaking, treats (even healthy ones) should not make up more than 10 percent of your pet's daily caloric intake. If you need help figuring out how many calories your pet should have to maintain a healthy weight, ask your veterinarian.
Consider the Quality
When purchasing treats for your pet, always check the ingredients list. Look for treats containing whole foods with ingredients you can recognize and pronounce. In general, the fewer ingredients, the better. Treats made from whole food sources that are low in sugar are likely to be the most nutritious.
Follow the 90/10 Rule
You've probably heard of the diet guideline whereby you eat healthful foods 90 percent of the time and allow a little wiggle room with the other 10 percent, right? The same rule can be applied to your pet's treats. Think about the consequences of a high-calorie, low-nutrient "splurge" on your pet's overall long-term health and make it a habit to routinely purchase wholesome, nutritious treats for your pet, just as you would do for yourself or your kids. That doesn't mean you always have to pass on say, the complimentary biscuit your dog is offered at your local coffee shop drive-thru, just don't make it a regular thing.
Keep Your Eyes on Portion Size
Just because a treat is packaged or marketed as a single serving doesn't necessarily mean it's appropriate or healthy to give the whole portion to your pet. (You know that giant coffee shop cookie that could easily serve four people? This is similar.) Look for small treats for everyday use (often labeled as "training" treats), and don't be afraid to buy treats for smaller pets even for a larger animal. Large treats, such as biscuits, can be reserved for special occasions or broken into small pieces to give your pet throughout the day. Since it's the act of receiving a treat that your pet truly enjoys, he or she likely won't notice if the portion is smaller than usual.
Make Your Treats Do Double Duty
When choosing treats, you may want to look for ones with added health benefits for your pet, such as those containing glucosamine to help support the joints or enzymes to aid with tartar control. By opting for treats that pack an extra punch, not only are you rewarding your pet, but you are boosting his or her health at the same time. Just be careful not to think your pet should eat more of these functional treats. They should still be occasional foods.
Cut Back on Training Treats
Many trainers and animal behaviorists will recommend rewarding a puppy or kitten for good behavior by giving him or her a treat. This can be a very useful tactic in crate training, litter box training or learning commands. But as your pet masters these basic skills, he or she shouldn't need to be rewarded for completing the behavior every time. Work to reduce the frequency of reward treats while still getting the behavioral outcome you desire. While young pets can use these extra calories since they are growing fast, it won't be long before your pet is fully grown and these treat calories really add up.
My Favorite Pet Treats
One of my personal favorite healthy treat options for pets is freeze dried chicken or liver pieces. These are wholesome and healthy, come in small chunks (so it's difficult for owners to go overboard when feeding) and dogs and cats go crazy over them. There are also a number of healthy whole foods that make great pet treats such as baby carrots, broccoli and sweet potato.
You may come across various homemade treat recipes available on the Internet, too. As always, stick to whole, nutritious ingredients and be sure to avoid using any foods that may be dangerous to your pet. To be safe, always run any homemade treat recipe by your veterinarian first. And be wary of any special treats like birthday cupcakes or holiday cookies that contain added sugars. Your pet does not need sweets to enjoy a treat.
Please note that if your pet has a specific health or medical condition or is on a prescription diet food, certain treats and even whole foods can actually be harmful to his or her health. When in doubt, always check with your veterinarian before adding any new treats into your pet's diet.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "Pet Food,", accessed on October 18, 2013.