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Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

Treats or By-Products?

March 15, 2013 / (5) comments

I had a funny experience with my six year old daughter at a pet supply store a couple of months ago. We were looking for a “chewie” for our dog. He has severe inflammatory bowel disease so is on a strict, limited antigen diet. All the usual treats are off limits, but he still likes to chew, so we were combing the shelves for something appropriate. After a few minutes, my daughter held up a bully stick and asked, “How about this?”

Now she has an age appropriate grasp of the birds and the bees, but I didn’t think the pet store was the place to go into the details of what, exactly, a bully stick is. I managed to dodge the question by simply saying it was made from cattle and therefore wouldn’t work for our dog.

Do you know what bully sticks are? If you don’t, you are in good company. A study published in the January 2013 issue of the Canadian Veterinary Journal (CVJ) revealed that 44 percent of dog owners could not correctly identify their source and neither could 38 percent of veterinarians. The answer … dried, uncooked bull or steer penises.

Even if my dog could eat a bully stick, based on the findings of the CVJ paper I wouldn’t give him one. Tests showed that these products contain between 9 and 22 calories per inch. According to an article on LiveScience, the researchers “found that the treats contained 9 to 22 calories per inch. That means the average 6-inch bully stick potentially represents 9 percent of the recommended daily calorie count for a larger 50-pound (22-kilogram) dog and 30 percent of the requirements for a smaller 10-pound (4.5-kg) dog — a significant source of calories pet owners might not be aware of.”

I recommend to my clients that calories from treats comprise only about 10 percent of a dog’s caloric intake per day; the rest should come from a nutritionally complete diet made from high quality ingredients. While a single 6-inch bully stick might be okay calorie-wise for a large dog, these treats could quickly lead to obesity in smaller individuals.

The study revealed another potentially serious problem with bully sticks. Many were contaminated with potentially nasty bacteria including Clostridium difficile, methicillin-resistant Staphyloccocus aureus (MRSA), and Escherichia coli. Ingesting these bacteria could cause illness in dogs, and just as importantly handling the products could make people sick. I hope I had my daughter wash her hands after we left the pet store!

Admittedly, this study was a small one, examining only 26 bully sticks purchased in the United States and Canada, but the findings are still worrisome. Bully sticks (as well as the equally popular pig’s ears and cow’s hooves) are by-products of the slaughter industry. Owners and veterinarians often disparage the inclusion of by-products in commercially prepared foods. Why then are we feeding them to our pets as treats?

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Supie Davis / via Shutterstock