Dogs are faithful companions that enrich our lives in so many ways. Dogs are there when we need a sympathetic ear, a playmate, or someone with whom to hang out and watch TV. The bond between an owner and their dog is a special one, and in all my years of veterinary practice, I have yet to meet an owner that doesn’t want to spoil their pup with a treat every once in a while.

Treats can be a great way to reward your dog’s good behavior, deepen the bond you have with your pet, and simply make your dog happy!

However, with so many options available, from things found in your kitchen to the hundreds of treats available at your local pet store, how can a caring pet parent choose? Every owner wants to give their furry friend a safe and healthy treat.

There are basic things to look for when considering a treat for your dog. Some of the recommendations may vary depending on the purpose of the treat for the dog and the owner, but the ingredients in the treat are always important.

Top Considerations When Choosing a Treat

Of course, each dog’s unique likes and dislikes have to be taken into consideration. Dogs, like people, have different personalities, and some dogs will enjoy treats that others do not. This may be related to the texture of the treat (hard vs. soft) or the taste.

Owner preferences must be taken into consideration as well. Some owners prefer to use small amounts of “human” food and will source their pet’s treats from their kitchen. Others prefer for the dog never to eat anything other than food intended for dogs.

Regardless of the treat that is ultimately chosen, toxic or dangerous foods must be avoided, and treats should be fed only in moderation.

What to Look for in Dog Treats

Once you have determined what type of treat your pooch prefers, it is time to determine the goal of the treat. Treats can be used for training, to aid in oral health care, or simply… as a treat!

In this article, I will cover dog treats used simply to reward good behavior and bonding. These treats come in all shapes, sizes, and textures.

Ingredient Facts

The most important feature of a treat is the ingredients list. You want to pick a treat that contains high-quality and healthy ingredients.

Ingredients will be listed on the label by weight. This means that the first listed ingredient comprises most of the treat, then the second ingredient, and so on. 

The first few ingredients on the list are the most important to evaluate, as they make up the majority of the content. These ingredients need to be of high quality.

High-Quality Ingredients

What does it mean when referring to an ingredient in dog food or a dog treat as “high-quality”?

A high-quality ingredient is as close to its original form as possible. Processing strips away nutrients and introduces opportunities for contamination.

Sourcing

Ingredients sourced in the United States are also strongly preferred as there have been serious issues in the past with contamination of pet food and pet treats from other countries. Sadly, these cases led to the deaths of many beloved pets.

If possible, main ingredients should be sourced as close to the manufacturer as possible to ensure freshness. Locally sourced ingredients are fresher, retain more nutrients, and are more environmentally-friendly.

If your dog requires a specific protein that is not readily sourced in the United States (kangaroo, for example), due diligence should always be done to ensure the safest source possible for the protein. These foods and treats should always be sourced from a reputable company, preferably with the help and advice of your veterinarian.

Protein

Look for whole meats and easily recognizable ingredients. Meat meals and byproducts are acceptable as they can be excellent sources of protein, but they should not be the main (first-listed) ingredients.

Sweeteners

Many treats contain sweeteners, which is acceptable as these are treats, not your dog’s main diet. 

Xylitol or any artificial sweetener would not be allowable, as xylitol is toxic to dogs. Most treats use applesauce, honey, or molasses as sweeteners.

Preservatives

Many treats sold at the pet store contain preservatives to improve shelf life and to help them maintain their color.

Ideally, look for treats preserved with a natural preservative such as vitamins C and E. These are typically listed as “mixed tocopherols.”

If a treat is genuinely preservative-free, it will likely require refrigeration or have a very short shelf-life. 

In summary, we want the fewest number of and least-processed ingredients in a dog treat.

Dog Treat Ingredients to Avoid

There are a few ingredients to look for and avoid in dog treats as well.

Anything artificial should ideally be avoided. This includes artificial preservatives and artificial colors.

Artificial preservatives to avoid are:

  • BHA
  • BHT
  • potassium sorbate
  • ethoxyquin
  • sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite
  • calcium propionate

Artificial colors should be avoided as they may be unhealthy for your dog but are definitely unnecessary. The research on the health effects of these substances is still unclear, but your dog cannot reliably discern color and will not care what color the treats are.

Propylene glycol is found in many moist dog foods and treats. Though it is a misconception that it is the same as the toxic compound ethylene glycol, it is an emulsifier that is likely best avoided.

Marketing Pitfalls to Avoid

Many treats will boast all sorts of claims on their packaging to lure buyers into purchasing their treats. Unfortunately, marketing can be misleading and, at times, outright false.

Claims such as “All Natural,” “Organic,” or “Grain-Free” are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and have no requirements for use. Additionally, these claims, even if true, do not necessarily make for a better product.

Treats in Moderation

Keep in mind that treats are just that—treats. Though we want to find a treat that is as healthy as possible, they should still be a very small portion of your dog’s diet.

As a rule of thumb, dogs should never consume more than 10% of their total calories from treats.

If a dog is fed too many treats, they often will be too full to eat adequate amounts of their appropriately balanced healthy dog food. If they are not too full and overindulge, they may become overweight or obese.

Obesity in dogs may lead to arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes mellitus. Weight is much easier to gain than it is to lose, so it is essential to maintain your dog’s healthy weight and, therefore, their health.

As always, pet parents should consult their veterinarian with any questions or concerns about their dog’s health.