By Jessica Remitz
If used correctly, pet treats can be a great asset. However, there are important things to consider before offering your cat or dog a treat. In addition to discussing the best practices for treat-giving with your veterinarian (who will have a detailed medical history of your pet), we’ve asked an expert to answer some of the more common questions regarding pet treats, as well as some guidelines before you open up the treat jar.
For training sessions with treats to be truly successful, you’ll need to make sure that the reward you’re giving your pet is a “high stakes” or “jackpot” reward they love to eat. Experiment with and learn about the treats your pet goes crazy over and keep them handy for getting your pet’s attention and rewarding their training successes. “You’ll also need to make sure your treat-giving happens at the same time as the behavior,” Murray says, “as a time delay will cause them to lose the association between the treat and good behavior.”
According to Dr. Murray, treats are extremely useful for modifying your pet’s behavior, training them to learn something new, reinforcing good behavior, or helping your pet overcome their fears. When using treats to modify behavior and reward a job well done, be careful about the number of treats you’re giving your pet. Break large treats into small pieces and give them to your pet throughout a training session, says Dr. Murray. This will keep them engaged in their task and prevent them from eating too much at one time. It’s also good to keep in mind that a reward for your animal doesn’t always have to be centered on food.
“If you’re training your dog and want to limit the number of treats they get, you can use other ways to reward behavior like verbal praise and physical attention like petting,” Dr. Murray says.
“Overfeeding our pets with too many treats is the number one mistake owners make,” Dr. Murray says, and can lead to obesity. It can be easy to lose track of how many treats you’re feeding your pet, particularly if there are multiple family members in the home caring for your pet at different intervals throughout the day. “Keep track of the number of treats you give your pet by setting aside a certain number of treats per day and talk to your vet about the amount of treats your pet should have on a daily basis and stick to that amount, regardless of when their daily allotment is reached,” Dr. Murray says.
A common mistake people make when treating their pets is to give them items that are fatty, spicy and unfamiliar to their gastrointestinal tract. These rich foods can cause inflammation of the pancreas in addition to other serious conditions, Dr. Murray says. You should also steer clear of garlic, onions and grapes when feeding your dog, as they can be harmful and even deadly. Dr. Murray recommends only treating your pet with bland food, similar to what you’d feed a toddler, and be sure to discuss feeding your pet human food with your veterinarian, especially if they have food allergies or a special diet.
Treats with excessive levels of sodium or fat may be dangerous for your cat or dog. Another type of pet treat to be wary of is jerky manufactured outside the United States, as these have been known to cause major kidney problems in pets.
“I don’t recommend purchasing treats that aren’t produced in the U.S. because there have been serious toxicity issues,” Dr. Murray says. “Owners have to be vigilant to keep an eye on the news and FDA recalls.”
According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) the term “natural” is any feed or ingredient “derived from plant, animal or mined, unprocessed or subject to physical, heat, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not subjected to chemically synthetic process.” The term “organic”, according to the AAFCO, refers to a formula feed or a specific ingredient within a formula feed that has been produced and handled in compliance with the requirements of the USDA National Organic Program (7CFR Part 205).
If this seems confusing your best bet is to read the ingredient label carefully and speak your veterinarian. He or she can help you determine if the dog or cat treat is what you're looking for, and make other recommendations if it isn't. For instance, “if there is a lot of sodium, coloring, and artificial flavors on the ingredient label,” Dr. Murray says, [you] will see that [the treat] is not very healthy.”
While some treats claim to be good for your pet’s teeth by reducing tartar and preventing gingivitis, Dr. Murray suggests reaching out to your veterinarian for recommendations on the best treats for your pet’s teeth. There are, however, certain commercial foods designed to help prevent or manage certain health conditions in your pet. If your dog or cat is on a therapeutic food or follows a special diet, it’s important to make sure that their treats follow the same dietary guidelines as their dry or wet foods. According to Dr. Murray, pets with allergies will also need their treats to be monitored in the same ways their food is, particularly those who have severe skin or gastrointestinal reactions to certain foods.
“Even a small amount of what your pet is allergic to can cause a reaction, [so] look for hypoallergenic treats” says Dr. Murray. “If your pet has any kind of medical condition or special diet, [you] should also check with their vet before giving any kind of treat or people food because it may worsen the condition or negate the effect of the special diet.”
Just like you do with your pet’s everyday food, you may want to consider providing your cat or dog treats which are “complete and balanced.” These treats will have the combination of nutrients and vitamins your pet needs to maintain a healthy and balanced diet. You should see this wording on the label of a particular treat, says Louise Murray, DVM, DACVIM and vice president of the ASPCA Bergh Memorial Animals Hospital, and you can look at the ingredient list to determine how healthy it is. Treats that aren’t complete and balanced should not make up a significant portion of your pet's diet (often the recommendation is that pet treats should account for no more than 10% of a pet’s total daily calorie intake), as these will dilute your pet’s daily nutrient intake. You should also be on the lookout for treats with high amounts of salt and sodium, as they may cause trouble for your pet.
“We see dogs and cats come in because they’re urinating in the home or drinking way too much water because they’re being given very salty treats,” Dr. Murray says. “[The appropriate amount of sodium] all depends on the dog or cat, but watch out for treats with salt and check to see if your pet is drinking too much water.”