What better way to show you care, than giving your dog a delicious treat? Dog owners love giving treats and with the advent of delectable doggie bakeries, in addition to your dinner plate, the sky is the limit. With all of these options, how do you choose a nutritious treat?
In general, owners tend to "over-treat" their dogs! This introduces many extra calories into a dog’s diet and is a leading cause of pudgy pooches. Although many people don’t see overweight or obese dogs as a problem, health risks of obesity are real. Obesity contributes to a wide range of health problems, from arthritis to diabetes, and it has been well documented that obese dogs live shorter lives.
The following are tips to help you select great treats that will optimize your dog’s health!
- Read the label for ingredients. Most commercially available treats are poorly nutritious and filled with carbohydrates, sugars (e.g. corn syrup, molasses, fructose, etc), artificial colorings or flavorings and do nothing to satisfy hunger. Although these "empty" ingredients make them desirable to your dog, they will contribute to ever-expanding waistlines.
- Go Natural! Choose natural treats that are meat-based and contain no artificial ingredients or sugars. Fruits, vegetables and even ice cubes are great natural alternatives to commercial treats. Dogs often love apples, carrots, green beans and other fresh produce. Ask your veterinarian for advice before starting, as some fruits and veggies can be toxic to dogs (e.g. onions, grapes, raisins, etc).
- Count calories! Treats are usually not complete and balanced like dog food and should not be used as the primary source of calories—in fact, treats should make up no more than 10% of your dog’s daily calories. Ask your veterinarian how many calories your dog should eat each day. For example, an average 20 pound adult dog will require approximately 500 calories each day—therefore, no more than 50 calories should be provided as treats. After you have done this calculation, read the label and determine how many treats your dog can have each day. Some commercial treats contain over 100 calories each and some table scraps are loaded with calories (steak, pizza, etc)! It is easy to see how giving just a few treats (in addition to regular meals) can be the cause of excess calorie intake and contribute to obesity.
- Avoid certain table scraps—especially directly off the table! Leftover table scraps usually include hunks of fat or sweet morsels you know your dog will love. These scraps are usually high in calories and low in other nutrients. In addition, these rich tidbits will often cause digestive problems such as bad breath, gas, loose stools and occasional vomiting. If your dog develops a taste for these scraps, they may become finicky and even stop eating their own food. If you want to use human food as a treat, select lean meats and unseasoned vegetables to really show your love. To avoid creating a disruptive diner, never give your dog treats from the table or around dinner time.
- Do not give treats around your dog’s meal time. Like your mother used to say, "if you eat that now, you will spoil your dinner!" If dogs fill up on treats before their scheduled mealtime, they are likely to skip their meal. Dog food is the source of proper balanced nutrition they need, so it is important to plan your treating accordingly. Missing meals can lead to dietary deficiencies and imbalances that can lead to degeneration and disease.
- Do not give treats for begging. It is common for pet owners to create a vicious cycle of begging and bad behaviors by the inappropriate use of treats. Treats should only be given to positively reinforce good behavior or to motivate a pet during training. "Sad puppy dog eyes” that look hungry when slinking around the dinner table should be ignored. If you give a treat, this begging behavior will be reinforced and you will forever have a moocher!
- Using treats as rewards. A great time to offer treats is during or after activity or play sessions. This reinforces the positive aspects of exercise and helps your dog look forward to his daily activity. Exercise boosts the metabolism and this is a great time to give a nutritious protein snack!
- Choose snacks with health benefits. There are several treats available that may improve your dog’s health. These "functional" treats may have very specific recommendations about maximum daily consumption. Examples of functional treats are those that target or support:
- dental health by their texture and abrasiveness.
- gastrointestinal health
- immune system health by providing additional antioxidants and vitamins.
- arthritis or other inflammatory conditions.
- The ideal treat. The ideal treat is low in total calories, low in fat, high in protein, and has added health benefits. A winning combination is achieved when this type of treat supplements a high quality natural dog food to provide necessary daily nutrition.
Giving treats should be fun and help build a strong bond between you and your dog. When healthy treats are given correctly, you will have a happy dog receiving excellent nutrition—which is the basis of excellent health.