By Dr. Becker
The chicken jerky dog treat problem is several years old, has expanded to other types of pet treats, and is no closer to being solved than it was back in 2007. So it's not surprising pet owners are looking for the safest options they can find when it comes to offering treats to their dog or cat.
And there's certainly no shortage of commercial pet treats on the market today. They come in every conceivable shape, size, smell, flavor, color and texture. The challenge is finding safe, high-quality, species-appropriate treats in a sea of products claiming to be "all-natural" and "made in the U.S.A."
The following recommendations will help point you in the direction of selecting safe, wholesome treats for your furry family member.
Tip #1: Don't Overfeed Treats to Your Pet
Dog or cat treats – even very healthy ones – should not constitute more than 15 percent of your pet's daily food intake, and preferably less than 10 percent. And it's best to limit them to training and behavior rewards, as a bedtime ritual, or as a "time to get in your crate" enticement - things of that nature. Treats should be offered primarily as rewards during house training, obedience training or other similar activities, and not because the rest of the family is sitting down with a bowl of popcorn to watch a movie.
Also keep in mind that cat and dog treats are not a complete form of nutrition for your pet, and should never be substituted for balanced, species-appropriate meals. Overfeeding treats on top of daily food intake will result in an obese pet. Overfeeding treats while underfeeding balanced meals will result in a dog or cat with nutritional deficiencies.
Tip #2: Treats Should Be Sourced in the U.S. and Made in the U.S.
Legally, pet food manufacturers can make the "made in the U.S.A." claim as long as the product was assembled in this country – even if the ingredients are imported. So when you're shopping for safe treats, it's not enough that a product claims to be made in the U.S. You want to be sure all the ingredients originated here as well.
The U.S. certainly produces its own share of tainted products, but as a general rule, the contaminating agent is quickly identified and these days, immediate action is taken to remove the product from store shelves.
The chicken jerky dog treats and other treats suspected of causing illness and death in so many pets have ingredients imported from China. Despite the efforts of the FDA and independent laboratories to isolate the contaminant, nothing has been identified, and five years after the first reports of sick and dying pets, the treats are still being produced by major pet food companies and sold by major retailers. So I would certainly strongly recommend avoiding any product containing ingredients sourced from China.
That said, I have found several excellent quality treats from New Zealand and Canada. The important point is to know and trust your treat company's commitment to purity and quality control.
Tip #3: Treats Should Be High-Quality
A high-quality pet treat will not contain grains or unnecessary fillers, rendered animal by products, added sugar (sometimes hidden in ingredients like molasses and honey), chemicals, artificial preservatives, or ingredients known to be highly allergenic to pets.
These criteria rule out the vast majority of commercial pet treats on the market.
As is the case with commercially available pet foods, high-quality pet treats aren't likely to be found in big-box stores, large pet store chains, your local supermarket, or your vet's office. Your best bet shopping locally is to visit small, independent pet stores with knowledgeable staff who can answer customer questions and are competent to recommend products that make sense for individual pets.
Most excellent quality, human-grade pet food producers – typically smaller companies – also make a few types of treats. So if you're already feeding your dog or cat a high-quality commercial pet food you trust, see if the manufacturer also makes treats.
Another option is to shop online, especially if you've done your research and know exactly what you're looking for.
Tip #4: Offer Fresh Human Foods as Treats
I recommend avoiding all grain-based treats. Your dog or cat has no biological requirements for the carbs in these treats, and in addition, they are pro-inflammatory.
Consider instead living "human" foods. Berries are a great treat because they're small and loaded with antioxidants. You can also offer small amounts – no more than 1/8 inch square for a cat or small dog and a 1/4 inch square for bigger dogs – of other fruits (melons and apples are good fruits to start with) as well as cheese.
Many cats enjoy bits of zucchini or cantaloupe. You can also try offering some dark, green leafy veggies as treats for your kitty. It might even keep her away from your houseplants!
Excellent training treats for dogs include frozen peas and raw almonds, cashews and Brazil nuts (but NEVER macadamia nuts).
Tip #5: Prepare Homemade Treats for your Pet
If your dog happens to be wild for dehydrated chicken strips (chicken jerky), you can make your own quite easily.
Just buy some boneless chicken breasts, clean them, and slice into long, thin strips – the thinner the better. Place the strips on a greased or non-stick cookie sheet and bake them for at least three hours at 180 degrees. The low temp dries the chicken out slowly and the strips wind up nice and chewy.
Let the strips cool, and then store them in plastic bags or another airtight container. You can also freeze them.
If you buy commercial canned food for your dog or cat, you can 'repurpose' a can for use as a supply of healthy treats.
Open a can of your pet's favorite brand, preferably something with a strong aroma, and spoon out little treat sized amounts onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper.
Put the baking sheet into the freezer until the bite sized bits of food are frozen. Then move them to an airtight container and back into the freezer they go until you're ready to treat your pet to a treat! (Most dogs will enjoy the treats frozen, but you'll need to thaw them to a chewy consistency for kitties.)
For recipes to make pet treats at home using beef, liver and turkey, check out my article titled Nutritious, Delicious Pet Treats You Can Make in a Flash.