Treats Come in Threes! A Vet's View of the Reasons We 'Treat' Our Pets
As far as I'm concerned, treats for pets come in threes — three categories, that is. Systemized by function, any extra-curricular snacking falls into one of three camps: (1) to fulfill chewing needs (for dental health and as a basic biological behavior in the case of dogs); (2) to facilitate training and/or exercise; and (3) to make the humans in the household happy.
Perhaps it's a tad quibble-y to break them down as such, but I can't help thinking that if pet owners thought more carefully about why they gave their pets pets' treats, we'd have fewer over-treated pets. (Reference the more than 50 percent of pets in this country whose excess weight is proving problematic.)
It also seems likely that the age-old question of what constitutes the best treat for any particular pet might best be solved by understanding the rationale for the treat in the first place. Makes sense, right?
It's an oblique conceit, perhaps, but I'm running with it anyway…
So here's the deal: Dogs and cats don't really need treats. If they're eating a well-balanced diet in biologically appropriate intervals (two or more times a day for cats, two or fewer times a day for dogs), getting enough exercise, enjoying excellent dental health, and are generally well behaved without the need for dietary motivation, I see no real need for treats.
If, however, training, exercise, chewing and dental health time can be aided by the introduction of a treat, it only makes sense to offer one. The problem comes in when people are unable to differentiate between a useful treat and one that flies in the face of all they're trying to achieve, health-wise.
This usually happens in one or both of these two instances: (1) when owners truly don't know how best to "treat" their pets (as when they fail to understand that there's more to a treat than the commercially ubiquitous crunchy-bone or chewy-sausage); and/or (2) when they know better but just can't help themselves.
Which brings me back to reason number three in paragraph one. In my experience, making the humans in the household happy seems to be the default rationale for "treating" both dogs and cats in modern America.
The game begins innocently enough when the "cookie-wookie" jar gets trotted out every morning for a game of fetch, or every night before "beddie-bye-bone" time. Eventually, treating is insidiously inserted into nearly every aspect of our together-time.
Which is understandable, because as all good Americans know, food is love, right? Problem is, we also have a way of overdoing the "love." Hence all the fatties in my hospital life. (I swear, if my patients and the standard "body condition score" posters are any guide, that 50 percent overweight statistic is way low.)
But it doesn't have to be that way. While it's true that the bulk of my clients admit to having difficulty controlling their household's ability to ration the treats, there are plenty of adjustments to be made in how those treats are parsed out.
Let me explain (by category):
Pet Dental and Behavioral Needs — Chewing
If your pets require chewing for their dental health, tooth brushing is an excellent substitute. This is especially true for cats, seeing as tartar-control treats are calorically taxing and usually not clinically effective.
If both dental health and your dog's chewing needs are of concern (most dogs NEED to chew!), I recommend a variety of options (all of them based on the amount of chewing time undertaken):
- Willing to go raw? A lamb shank is an excellent treat for one or three afternoons a week. (One long session for a smaller dog, three shorter sessions for a bigger dog.) The "flossing" action is unparalleled. Just be sure to start slow to mitigate GI upset, and rescue the bony refuse once you can hear the sound of teeth on bone (we don't want diarrhea or dental fractures!). Read up on "raw meaty bones" for more info and to research more affordable alternatives.
- Treat-dispensing chew toys are great - IF your dog will chew them like a champ (mine won't). Any brand that'll work works for me, I love 'em all. The tiny sums of calories found in the kibbly and/or squirty treats inside these chewy exteriors are negligible if it truly takes your dog ten minutes of perseverance to gain twenty calories. (Most of these treat chew toys are like that.)
- Proven commercial chews. Yes, there are some. The best are the kind that are made of chopped-to-bits rawhide treats combined with chlorhexidine disinfectant solution to make for highly digestible but utterly tasty strips that resemble rawhides but offer a proven, medicinal approach.
It's my take that here's where the bulk of your dogs' treat-based calories should go. Chewing is simply critical for dogs' overall health. As for cats ... well, read on.
Training and/or Exercise for Pet Weight Management
Let's start with cats, seeing as this is where cat treats truly shine, in my estimation. Because indoor cats rarely get the kind of exercise they need, it's important to establish a playtime rapport with your cats that keeps them highly motivated.
Treats are the easiest (and most successful) way of doing that. After all, I've met few indoor cats who didn't act like bottomless pits of dietary need. This feature makes them especially susceptible to the seductive inducements of a game of kibble-toss.
Kibble toss? That's when you throw kibble 'cross the room and watch cats chase it down. Not treats, mind you, but their actual kibbled food. Works great, actually. It also works with "real" commercial treats (though I haven't much use for these) and for entertainment value and variation, I recommend using frozen peas. Now, that's what I call a treat!
Other exercise treat ideas? Corn nibblers (a kernel at a time) and edamame (delish!). For variation on the theme, hide these all over the house to encourage your indoor kitty to work his way around the furniture.
Now, back to the dogs: Do you know how many calories are in that treat? Even when we're talking about the tiny treats designed for training, I've seen as many as 30 calories included in these suckers! That means every time your dog does a perfect down she gets thirty calories. Outrageous!!
That why I'll usually ask my clients to skip the commercial training treats in favor of the simpler things in life:
- Air-popped popcorn, Cheerios, frozen peas, etc...
- Need some serious inducements for your reluctant ones? Tiny (and I mean tiny) chunks of liverwurst may make your hands smell gross but even a tiny amount (very few calories) goes a very long way towards convincing the slackers that there's something in it for them.
Then there's this mega-issue to tackle:
Making the Treat-Happy Humans in the Household Happy
It's impossible to omit mentioning the elephant in the room: the irrational, human side of the equation. So it is that I always have to offer a round-up of the easiest, least-caloric, most human-satisfying treats our pets might realistically appreciate. Here's my list:
- Carrot nibblers and/or apple slices (both come in easy-to-dispense baggies)
- Popcorn (even the bagged, cheesed and salted stuff is less caloric per piece than any commercial treat I've ever met)
- Green veggies (green beans, broccoli florets, asparagus spears)
- Human cereals (as mentioned above, offer a Cheerio, a Lucky Charm, a Kix)
I could go on, but it's fairly obvious where I'm taking this thing. There's really no need to belabor it. The point is this: We need to start thinking outside the (treat) box when it comes to offering our pets the kind of "love" they've come to expect from us.
Dr. Patty Khuly
P.S.: So what are your suggestions? Have any treat tips to share?
Pic of the Day: Patience by Andrew Magill / Flickr