Treats are, by definition, more delicious, more special, and less plentiful than ordinary food. Treats for humans are usually sweet, but dogs are less particular about dessert; treats that are sweet, meaty, fatty, or any combination of those three will delight and fascinate most canines.
Dogs are individuals, though, and if you have a discriminating dog, you may have to work to find treats that will reliably attract his interest – give him a reason to be a good dog, so to speak. Treats that echo the food he eats every day will not do!
But while a treat should be something special for the dog, it shouldn’t undermine his health, or counter the positive effects of a healthy diet. Artificial preservatives and colors can cause cancer. Too many sweets can contribute to the development of diabetes; fatty treats can trigger an attack of pancreatitis. And an excess of treats can pose serious problems. It can spoil the dog’s appetite for healthier, nutritionally complete and balanced foods. If the treats contain ingredients to which the dog is allergic or intolerant, an excessive allotment can trigger a dramatic reaction. And, of course, a chronic excess of treats can cause obesity, which contributes to many other disease processes.
Regarding treats, then, the goals of the responsible dog owner are threefold:
-Make sure the treats you buy do not contain ingredients that are less than healthful.
-Look for a variety of treats that the dog enjoys.
-Feed treats to the dog in moderation, as a complement to his regular healthy diet.
Whole Dog Journal’s treat selection criteria
Faced with an endless array of treats with cute, appealing packages and clever names, how do we choose which products to bring home to our dogs? First, we seek out products with healthy, beneficial ingredients. We look for:
–Whole-food ingredients. This means whole, named meats, organs, or meat meals – for example (and in order of our preference), chicken, chicken liver, or chicken meal. If the treat contains grain, we’d rather see whole grains than grain “fractions” (whole wheat, rather than wheat flour, wheat bran, or wheat starch). The same goes for fruits or vegetables; apples, blueberries, carrots, sweet potatoes, and the like are delicious, healthy additions to treats.
–Organic ingredients. A product that contains only organic ingredients flies to the top of our list, but one organic ingredient is better than none. The more organic ingredients, the better.
–Natural preservatives – or fresh products without preservatives. Vitamins C and E (the latter is often listed as “mixed tocopherols”) are effective and safe preservatives. Many treats contain no preservatives at all; that’s fine, but the date of manufacture and/or expiration date should be easy to find and interpret.
–Natural, food-based sweeteners. We disapprove of the use of sweeteners in dog food, but we’re talking about treats – something the dog may not get every day, and something he’ll get only a few of. Applesauce, molasses, and honey are better than artificial sweeteners.
Next, read the ingredients list with an eye toward what you DON’T want to see in your dog’s diet, such as:
–Low-quality proteins and fats; poor-quality animal-based ingredients. Meat by-products are even less excusable in a treat than they are in a food. Generic or unnamed sources (such as “animal fat” or “animal protein”) are even worse. Yuck!
–Artificial colors. Dogs don’t care whether their food is blue or brown. Artificial colors fall into the “absolutely unnecessary chemicals” category.
–Artificial or low-quality palatability enhancers. Treats are sort of like candy; they should taste better than the dog’s regular food, but they shouldn’t contain anything bad for the dog. We suggest avoiding treats that use salt as a flavor enhancer, as well as treats that contain sweeteners such as corn syrup, sucrose, and ammoniated glycyrrhizin (in favor of molasses, say, or honey), and artificial flavoring (such as barbecue flavor or artificial smoke flavor). Dogs like the taste of so many healthy and natural foods; there really is no good reason to use artificial flavor enhancers.
–Artificial preservatives, such as BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin.
Chewy treats invite the most chemicals, especially because most contain some sort of meat, which needs to be preserved. Some chemicals preserve the meat and help it maintain its nice red or pink color (keep it from turning grey), such as sodium nitrite, commonly found in preserved meats (and implicated in pancreatic cancer in humans).
We hinted earlier that you have to read the label of any item that crosses your dog’s lips. Don’t be scared; it’s not that difficult! Compare the labels of the treats below; it’s really obvious which products are healthy and which aren’t.
Keep track of the ingredients that are in your dog’s food and treats. If your dog has symptoms of food allergy – such as severe itching (leading to frequent hotspots), goopy eyes, frequently infected ears – or certain ingredients give him painful gas or diarrhea, you’ll naturally want to avoid treats that contain these ingredients, even in small amounts.
Do check the packaging of any treat for any indication of its country of origin. It’s worth a call to a treat’s manufacturer to ask about the country of origin of all of the ingredients in their products.
To fully understand what it means (or may not mean, as the case may be) when a food or treat label indicates that “human grade” ingredients are used.
Finally, be aware that we do not rate or rank-order the treats we have highlighted as examples of good products on the following pages. A treat either meets our selection criteria (outlined above) or it does not; there is no “top pick” or “best on the list.” 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 than we could ever list.