How To Read Dog Treat Labels

Whole Dog Journal leads you through a label analysis – and the cream rises to the top.


Most of us just can’t resist giving our beloved canine friends a little snack now and then. Many of us are trained by our dogs to run for the doggie biscuits at the cock of a brow, a whimper and a nudge, otherwise known as “the biscuit shuffle.” I am convinced there is a biscuit “look” that no one can refuse.

Treats are fine; after all, we snack between meals! But, just as with our snacks, what treats you choose to give your dog should contribute – not take away from – the overall healthfulness of his diet.

There is a huge variety of biscuits on the market in these dog-friendly days, and variety is great for our canine friends, as long as we know which ingredients to seek and which to avoid.

In order to make our “A” list, a biscuit must meet a minimum set of conditions we impose on all foods that cross our dogs’ lips:

• No artificial colors.

• No products with the term “flavor” in the ingredients list. This indicates the contents don’t have enough of their own good flavor – not the mark of quality ingredients.

• No artificial preservatives like BHA, BHT, potassium sorbate, sodium nitrate (used for dual purposes, preservative and coloring) and especially, ethoxyquin.

• No propylene glycol, which is used to keep certain foods moist.

• Since we’re shopping for a treat, not a food the dog will subsist on, we’ll be lenient about our usual restriction on sugars and other sweeteners, which make the snack more palatable. However, we will insist that the sweetener be a higher-quality type, such as molasses or honey, instead of artificial or lower-quality substances such as corn syrup, sucrose, and ammoniated glycyrrhizin. Keep in mind that flavor enhancers such as salt and sugar are used to make poor-quality ingredients more attractive to your dog. If the product contains “good stuff,” your dog will want it, even without sweeteners.

• Look for top-quality, whole ingredients like rice, wheat, and eggs, and foods that are kept fresh with natural preservatives like vitamin C and E (often listed as mixed-tocopherols).

• Meat ingredients should be whole, too. This is indicated by the notation “Chicken,” “lamb,” “beef,” etc., rather than “lamb by-products,” for instance. “Lamb meal” is better than “lamb by-products,” but just plain “lamb” would be bettera. A product made with “organically raised lamb” – if it existed – would be best of all.

Other considerations
The major difference between buying a healthy dog food and a healthy biscuit is that the biscuit does not have to be 100 percent nutritionally complete – presuming, of course, that your dog does not subsist on biscuits alone! On the other hand, your dog’s favorite biscuits shouldn’t be so full of “junk” that they undo all the good work you’ve done by providing him with the healthiest dog food.

There are some not-so-obvious ingredients to avoid when choosing nutritious dog biscuits. These are the very cheap “filler” ingredients with little to no nutritional value. Some of these include beet pulp, wheat middlings, and any by-products.

A word about protein, fat, and fiber. You are the best judge when it comes to your dog. If you have an overweight or less active dog, you probably ought to look for a “light” biscuit lower in protein and fat, and higher in fiber. If you have a very active dog choose a biscuit higher in fat and protein. While you’ll want to consider the cost of Fido’s treats, you can’t use price alone as a guide to quality. While good ingredients generally cost more, the vagaries of the marketplace are many, and the prices of some products are puzzling; who knows why some terrible products are expensive and some good ones are not?

Finally, if buying, rather than making, your dog’s cookies make you feel like a “bad parent,” I’ve included a recipe for bake-them-yourself treats. “Bone” appetit!

-By Valerie Cline

Valerie Cline is the owner of Barney’s Choice, a mail order source for books about holistic care and nutritional supplements for animals. She lives in Montreal.