How to Identify and Pick Top Quality Dog Treats
How to identify healthy dog treats - there is such a thing!
Surely there is no such person as a dog owner who never gives his or her dog a treat. We all like to see our dog’s tail wag, and his face light up with attentive anticipation, right?
But how do you know that the treats you give him are healthy? It’s actually pretty simple. As with every food you buy (for yourself or your dog), it’s all about the ingredients.
If you do not already read the label of every food item you consider buying, get in the habit! Most of the information you need to know in order to determine the product’s quality is legally required to appear on the label.
What to look for
We suggest that you start with the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed on the label by weight; there is more of the first ingredient on the list present in the treat than the second ingredient, and so on. (One exception: If equal amounts - by weight - of different ingredients are present, the manufacturer can list those ingredients in any order; that is, as long as they are still in order relative to the other ingredients). The first few ingredients on the list are the most significant; since they comprise the majority of the content, they should be especially high in quality.
What constitutes quality in a pet food ingredient? Actually, the same attributes that indicate quality in human food denote quality in pet food. Top-quality ingredients are as fresh, pure, and minimally processed as possible; whole food ingredients are better than by-products or food “fractions.” For example, “wheat” is better than “wheat flour.” “Wheat flour” is than “wheat bran and wheat germ.” The more highly processed and reconstituted an ingredient is, the more opportunities it has for adulteration and contamination, and the more nutrients it loses.
It stands to reason that the freshest ingredients available to U.S. food makers will be grown in the U.S. While some manufacturers argue that their oversight of foreign ingredient providers is reliable, we strongly prefer domestic ingredient sources. The only exception may be those ingredients that are near-impossible to obtain from U.S. sources, such as free-range, organic venison. Even so, if we found a treat that contained domestically sourced free-range, organic venison, we’d favor it over a product containing free-range, organic venison from New Zealand.
Ingredients that are sourced as close as possible to the manufacturer (locally sourced ingredients) are good. Again, they are necessarily fresher than ingredients that require shipping from across the country. That’s good for the environment, too.
Every ingredient on the label should be an easily recognizable food; there should be no question what the source is. For example, “meat meal” or “animal fat” could come from just about anywhere. In contrast, “chicken” comes from chickens, and so does “chicken fat.” If you can’t determine what species of animal a meat or fat came from, you should not feed it to your dog.
Organic ingredients are good; they are less likely to be adulterated with contaminants, and they receive extra scrutiny from inspectors. The more organic ingredients, the better.
If a sweetener is used, it should be natural and food-based, and used in moderation. Applesauce, molasses, or honey are better than artificial sweeteners. We disapprove of any sweeteners in dog food, but we’re talking about treats here: something the dog may not get every day, and something he’ll get only a few of. A little natural sweetening in a treat is okay.
If a treat is preserved, it should contain a natural preservative. Vitamins C and E (the latter is listed as “mixed tocopherols”) are effective and safe preservatives. Some treats contain no preservatives at all; these should be stored properly and used promptly.
Ingredients to avoid
While you are examining the list of ingredients for quality components, make sure the treat does not contain any of the following:
• Artificial preservatives, including BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, potassium sorbate, sodium nitrate (used for dual purposes, preservative and coloring), and calcium propionate should be avoided.
• Artificial colors. Color is added to dog treats to appeal to you; your dog doesn’t care what color the treat is! You aren’t going to eat these treats, are you? So don’t buy treats that contain these unnecessary (and many believe unhealthy) chemicals.
• Chemical humectants, such as propylene glycol. These are used in some pet (and human!) foods to keep them moist and chewy, and to prevent discoloration in preserved meats. There are more natural, food-sourced humectants available, such as vegetable glycerin and molasses.
Speaking of glycerin: If it’s not identified as “vegetable glycerin” (a food-sourced product), it’s likely to be a petrochemical product - not good.
Other admirable traits
There are many other factors that we consider when buying treats, but these don’t quite rise to the level of make-it-or-break-it selection criteria. However, they are attributes we appreciate for their benefits to our dogs, all dogs, and the planet we all share.
• We like to see products with recycled (and/or recyclable) and minimal packaging.
• We seek out treats that are either small, or easy to break into small pieces. When you use a lot of treats for training, they should be small, so you don’t ruin your dog’s diet.
• We admire companies that simply list the ingredients in their products, without splashing the ingredients they don’t contain all over the label, as in, “No soy, wheat, or corn!” Many dogs do just fine with soy, wheat, corn, and other ingredients that some food makers try to marginalize. (Please consider that there is a difference between a label that boasts, “No artificial colors or preservatives!” and one that says, “No corn!”).
• On a related note, we get aggravated every time we see a label claim that a treat is “hypoallergenic” or “contains no allergens.” Any food ingredient can be an allergen; there are dogs who are allergic to eggs, chicken, beef, fish, pork, lamb, rice, barley, quinoa, and any other food you can name - foods that are perfectly appropriate for most dogs.
• We appreciate companies that donate a percentage of their sales to dog-related charities.
Our list of approved treats
Starting on page 14, we’ve listed a number of companies that make treats that meet all of our selection criteria. Be aware that we do not rate or rank-order the treats we have highlighted as examples of good products. A treat either meets our selection criteria (as outlined above) or it does not; there is no “top pick” or “best on the list.” We suggest that you try a variety of products, and keep track of which types your dog likes best and which don’t agree with him (so you can avoid them in the future).
Don’t fret if your top pick is not on our list; if it meets our selection criteria, it’s as good as anything we’ve highlighted on the following pages. Happily, there are many more good products on the market than we could ever list.