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Be a Hero in Your Pet's Eyes Without Making These Common Errors

dog treats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Treats are the fastest growing segment of the pet food market
  • In 2014, over three-quarters of US dog owners bought treats for their pet, along with almost half of cat owners
  • Finding commercially available, species-appropriate, and high quality treats for your dog or cat is possible, but can be challenging
  • Another excellent option is to prepare homemade treats for your pet

By Dr. Becker

According to recent research, 70 percent of all US households include at least one pet.1 Single-pet households account for 26 percent of the total, two-pet families are at 19 percent, and 25 percent own three or more pets.

Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of US pet owners have a dog, 51 percent are owned by a cat, and 17 percent are fish fans. Less than 10 percent of the pet-owning population keeps small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and other types of pets.

Families with kids are more likely to have pets than those without young children. In fact, 84 percent of families with children under the age of 18 have pets, compared with 63 percent of households with no children under age 18.

Treats Are the Fastest Growing Type of Pet Food

Given all the households that include at least one four-legged family member, it's no surprise that pet treats are big sellers. People tend to offer treats as a way to show affection and love to their pets, and of course treats are an irreplaceable tool in positive reinforcement behavior training for dogs (and many cats as well).

This is the time of year when many pet parents are shopping for yummy treats to offer their dog or cat during the holidays. Interestingly, according to the analysts who keep track of such things, many more dog owners are in the habit of buying treats than cat owners.

In fact, in 2014, 78 percent of dog owners bought treats for their pets, compared to 46 percent of cat owners.2

There are countless types and brands of pet treats on the market today, but most fall into one of four main categories: jerky, rawhide/natural chews, dental chews, and "other."

In 2015, the treats pet owners purchased most often were as follows:3

Type of Treat # Of Cat Owners Buying # Of Dog Owners Buying
Jerky 12% 27%
Rawhide/natural chews 8% 31%
Dental chews 13% 36%
Other type of treat 56% 77%

I'm a little surprised that so many dog owners are still feeding store-bought jerky treats. I certainly hope they are doing their homework so they can avoid products that could make their dog or cat sick.

Fortunately, just as the number of high quality commercial pet food brands has increased in recent years, so has the quality of pet treats. You can now find all-natural treats formulated without grain, animal byproducts, or GMO ingredients. However, it's important to keep in mind that many high quality commercial treats still contain some type of starch, which isn't ideal.

How to Pick Safe, Healthy Treats for Your Pet

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, and species-appropriate treats in a sea of products claiming to be "all-natural" and "made in the USA."

The following recommendations will help point you in the direction of selecting safe, wholesome commercial treats for your furry family member.

#1: Don't Overfeed Treats to Your Pet

Dog or cat treats – even very healthy ones – should not make up more than 15 percent of your pet's daily food intake, and ideally less than 10 percent. Try to limit them to training and behavior rewards, as a bedtime ritual, or as a "time to get in your crate" enticement.

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 having a snack.

Also keep in mind that treats are not a complete form of nutrition for your pet, and should never be used in place of balanced, species-appropriate meals. Overfeeding treats on top of daily food intake will result in an obese pet, and overfeeding treats while underfeeding balanced meals will result in nutritional deficiencies.

#2: Treats Should Be Sourced in the US and Made in the US

Legally, pet food manufacturers can make the "made in the USA" 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 US. You want to be sure all the ingredients originated here as well.

The US, of course, 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 yet been identified. So I would certainly strongly recommend avoiding any product containing ingredients sourced from China.

However, I've found several excellent quality treats from New Zealand and Canada. It's important to know and trust your treat company's commitment to purity and quality control.

#3: Treats Should Be High-Quality

A high-quality pet treat will not contain grains or unnecessary fillers, rendered animal byproducts, 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.

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.

#4: Offer Fresh Human Foods as Treats

I recommend avoiding all grain-based treats. Your dog or cat has no biological requirement for the carbs in these treats, and in addition, they are pro-inflammatory.

Consider instead offering 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, for example) 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).

#5: Prepare Homemade Treats for your Pet

If your dog is crazy 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 put them back into the freezer 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 more ideas on preparing special homemade treats for your furry companion over the holidays, be sure to request my free e-book "Homemade Treats for Healthy Pets," which is loaded with nutritious, super-simple recipes for both cats and dogs.