Reviewed and updated for accuracy on March 31, 2020 by Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM
Buying manufactured dog treats can be a hit-or-miss proposition. “Most of them are loaded with salt, sugar, preservatives, flavorings and colors. Dog treats are made with a wide variation in quality and nutrient content,” says Dr. Donna Raditic, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist with Nutrition and Integrative Medicine Consultants based in Athens, Georgia.
So how can you treat your pup without giving her something that will contribute to poor health and obesity? One option is to bake your own homemade dog treats. It’s not always easy, especially if you’re not sure where to start. However, if you follow a few basic guidelines, you can make nutritious and delicious homemade dog treats, even if you’re a beginner.
But be sure to talk to your veterinarian if your dog is on a special or prescription diet, says Dr. Susan Jeffrey, a veterinarian at Truesdell Animal Care Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. “For example, if a dog is on a diet to prevent the formation of urinary stones or crystals, the ingredients of the treats may negate that diet. The same can be said for dogs with food allergies and sensitivities.”
Prevent Injury and Illness
Baking healthy homemade dog treats does more harm than good if your best friend is hurt in the process. To help keep them safe, here are some precautions you should take to prevent accidents and food-related illnesses:
- The kitchen can be a dangerous place for dogs; they don’t understand the concept of hot stoves and ovens. Keep your pup safe while you bake by securing the area with a dog gate.
- Avoid using baking molds and containers containing BPA, a contaminant linked to cancer and other health maladies.
- Don’t use toxic ingredients, including xylitol, onions, garlic, chocolate and raisins, says Dr. Jeffrey, whose professional focus includes preventative care. If you’re planning to make homemade peanut butter dog treats, read the label carefully. “There are several peanut butters on the market that contain xylitol,” she cautions. Xylitol isn’t toxic to people but can lead to potentially fatal low blood sugar levels and liver damage in dogs.
When in doubt, consult the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center for a database of ingredients known to be toxic to animals, or call 888-426-4435 if you think your pet may have ingested a poisonous substance.
- Cook homemade dog treats to an adequate temperature to kill potential pathogens, such as Salmonella that may be present in eggs and other ingredients, recommends Dr. Jeffrey. “Also, if treats are made out of raw meat, they should be cooked well (about 165 degrees),” she says.
Skip Unhealthy and Unnecessary Ingredients
The ingredients we enjoy in our treats are not necessarily good or even all that satisfying for dogs. For example, there’s no need to use frostings or sugars, says Dr. Raditic, who is also a cofounder of the Companion Animal Nutrition & Wellness Institute (CANWI).
“Avoiding fat is also important, as some dogs can develop pancreatitis with high-fat treats and foods. This is a painful inflammation of the pancreas that can result in hospitalization for a pet,” says Dr. Jeffrey. Severe cases of pancreatitis can be deadly.
What ingredients can you include? Many vegetables and fruits are a safe bet. Some that Dr. Raditic recommends include broccoli, carrots, summer squash, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, pumpkin, cucumber, celery, spinach, kale, dandelion greens, apple (and unsweetened apple sauce), peaches, pears, strawberries, blueberries and bananas.
Feeding your pup too much of any treat can result in nutritional imbalances, “Especially if the dog eats less of the complete and balanced diet and substitutes the incomplete and unbalanced treat,” says Dr. Joe Bartges, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and Professor of Medicine and Nutrition at the College of Veterinary Medicine, at the University of Georgia in Athens. Keeping your dog’s food intake the same while adding a lot of treats as extras isn’t the answer either since this increases the risk of weight gain.
Treats should not make up more than 10% of your dog’s daily caloric intake, with the remaining 90% originating from a complete and balanced diet, says Dr. Jeffrey. Dr. Bartges is even stricter, saying that treats should comprise less than 5% of daily food intake for dogs.
The best way to keep track of calorie intake is to use a food gram scale to weigh a dog’s regular meals and any treats they eat, says Dr. Raditic. “If your dog eats 100 grams a day of a food that provides 35 calories per gram, they are getting 350 calories a day. So your treats may contain 4.0 calories per gram, and if it weighs 10 grams, you are adding 40 calories. So now the total calorie intake is 390 calories, and that can really impact weight management.”
Dr. Jeffrey admits that it can be tricky to accurately calculate the number of calories in homemade dog treats. “One way is to follow a recipe that already has the calorie calculation, versus making up a dog treat recipe on one's own.” As long as the recipe comes from a reputable source, this can also help you avoid making treats that are actually worse for your dog than the ones you can buy off the shelf.
By Paula Fitzsimmons