Why Do We Need to Give Treats to Our Pets?

By Ken Tudor, DVM on Mar. 3, 2015

Worldwide, pet parents are humanizing their pets. We are spending more on luxury pet dining, grooming, boarding, and daycare experiences. Pet treats is one of the fastest growing areas of pet expenditures. Americans alone spend approximately $3-4 billion dollars per year on pet treats. The trend in pet treat spending has increased 10-15 percent in Eastern Europe and Latin America versus about 5 percent in the United States.

Recent furor over potentially toxic jerky treats from China has not dampened this need to pamper our pets. But why do we have this need to humanize and overly pamper our pets? Why do we insist on giving gourmet or store bought treats if they are potentially harmful and promote unhealthy weight gain? Rather than worry about the safety of purchased treats or spend energy chastising sellers and bashing nations, why don’t we just refrain from offering our pets purchased treats? What is our deep need to show affection and gratitude to our pets by spending lavishly on them?

High-value vs. Low-value Treats

Dog trainers have had a significant impact on our general attitude about treats. Studies have indicated that rewarding dogs with high-value treats (meats, liver) significantly decreases the time and sessions needed to learn various behaviors compared to dogs given low-value treats (dog kibble). And treats, high-value or low-value, worked better than praise or petting for learning new behaviors. Dogs switched from high-value treats to low-value treats quickly did not respond with appropriate behavior to commands.

And so was born the idea that high-value, tastier treats (translation: higher calories) were more appropriate to reward our pets. Never mind the fact that most of us are only buying our pet’s love rather than training for any particular tricks or behaviors. In fact, all we seem to be training for is begging behavior because the reward is so satisfying. When I suggest low calorie vegetables and fruits as treats owners look at me as if I was proposing starving their babies and depriving them of love. Never mind that these healthy snacks are already in their refrigerators, so they would be saving money.

What is lost from these studies is that when the trainers are in close proximity to the dogs, the dogs respond to praise and petting as equally as high or low-value treats. Pets, especially dogs, want our companionship, not our treats. They are begging for our attention and we respond with food. We are setting the table by substituting food for attention.

Studies actually indicate that dogs form stronger bonds with those who exercise them than those who feed them. So what drives us to think treats are necessary to build a strong relationship with our pets? My guess is, in large part, guilt. We know they give far more of themselves in the relationship than we do.  

Why Are We Guilt Ridden?

  • We are not there. Work and social demands cause long separations. Late hours mean less time for quality interaction and exercise. Treats substitute for attention.
  • Financially, we need to compromise on the quality of food. Owners of large numbers of animals often have to compromise on the quality of food in order to make feeding them all fall within budget demands. Treats fill the guilt void.
  • Social dynamics in multi-pet households. Packs, dogs or cats, are not democracies. They can’t be, or order would turn to chaos. We try to democratize the pack with treats, especially for those who seem to be outcasts.
  • Trying to make-up for a bad start. Pets rescued from horrendous circumstances are often overfed and over-indulged with treats to eradicate those bad memories of previous suffering. Is this our vision of those times or theirs?
  • Personal issues. Often we use our pets to overcome our own personal issues. Pampering them somehow helps us cope with our own struggles.

You can probably think of more reasons.

Almost 60% of all pets are overweight. Much of this problem is created by treats. And it is not only the high end, special occasion variety treat. A major dog food company makes a dental treat for a 50 lb. dog that contains 1,057 calories. That 50 lb. dog only needs 1,000 calories for the whole day! One treat is not a balanced diet. And homemade dog treats are also high in calories. As the recipes get tastier, the calorie counts sky rocket.

When you add the potential toxic danger of treats, feeding them to our fur kids makes even less sense. A quick check of the FDA food and treat recall list shows that many more treats are recalled from American producers than from Chinese producers.

We need to re-evaluate our attitude toward our pets and our need to return their devotion with treats. Their lives depend on it.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: InBetweentheBlinks / Shutterstock


Ken Tudor, DVM


Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health