By Heather Beach
It seems as if there are reasons to feed your dog a treat every time his tail turns a corner. He just perfectly executed the sit-stay-down routine you’ve been working on all week? Great, feed him a treat! He didn’t jump on the deliveryman at the door? Good boy, have a treat. Or maybe he simply looked at you imploringly — definitely getting a treat. Unfortunately, all these treats can add significant calories to your pup’s diet and put him at risk for obesity related health problems. Just as with human children, our pets rely on us to make healthy eating decisions for them.
Types of Dog Treats
There is no shortage of dog treat varieties available on the market today. In addition to being available in a variety of shapes, sizes and flavors, dog treats are also heavily marketed to consumers with associated health claims. Treats are marketed as ways to help clean teeth, improve joint function and lower anxiety. They might be organic, gluten-free, or fortified with omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Dr. Deborah Linder, a board certified veterinary nutritionist who heads the Obesity Clinic for Animals at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, warns pet guardians to be realistic when it comes to health claims and treats: “Any product that claims to treat or cure a disease is strictly regulated. Therapeutic diets can be used under the supervision of a veterinarian, but I would be wary of treats that imply that they are intended to manage diseases.” Treats that contain joint supplements, for instance, might cause more harm in an overweight dog because obesity will exacerbate symptoms of arthritis. Because treats should be fed only on a limited basis, they should not be expected to deliver clinically important health benefits to your dog.
Dogs and Human Food
In addition to feeding commercially available treats, many people like to offer human food to their dogs. Humans eat a diverse diet, and many of our foods are extremely high in fat and oils, which can cause gastrointestinal disturbances when fed to dogs. Sharing food with our dogs also can lead to undesirable behaviors such as begging or rummaging through garbage. Dogs that are repeatedly fed human foods, especially those high in fats and oils, might experience a painful and potentially life-threatening disease of the pancreas known as pancreatitis. Healthy human food treat options for dogs include small pieces of raw carrot or green beans, or fruits without their seeds like apples, watermelon, or bananas. Certain human foods can be toxic to your dog — grapes and raisins, macadamia nuts, and foods containing xylitol can be especially toxic. Consult with your veterinarian when choosing human foods to offer as treats.
Tracking Calories from Treats
How can you determine the number of calories your dog is receiving from treats? A limited number of calorie counts for dog treats are available on the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention website. Unfortunately, calorie count information for pet foods is not as readily available as it is for human foods. Dr. Linder says that beginning in 2015, pet food manufacturers will be required to include calorie counts on their packaging, but this regulation will not extend to treats. She recommends that no more than 10 percent of a dog’s total daily calories come from treats. For multiple dog households this can be tricky. A small dog such as a pug or Jack Russell terrier may have an ideal weight of around 15 pounds while a larger dog like a German Shepherd may have an ideal weight of 95 pounds — more than 6 times the size of the smaller dog. Even a small portion of a large dog treat might contain too many calories for the small dog. You should work together with your veterinarian to determine your individual dog’s daily caloric needs and calculate his daily treat allowance.
Obesity and Dogs
According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, an estimated 52 percent of dogs are overweight or obese. The association also reports that as many as 45 percent of guardians of overweight or obese pets are unaware that their animals have a problem. This added weight can directly impact life expectancy and overall health of our canine friends. Dr. Linder works to educate clients about the consequences of obesity in dogs. She reports that obese dogs have shorter lifespans and decreased quality of life. They may also have problems with osteoarthritis. “Obese dogs have more joint pain, but weight loss will improve their lameness,” she says. According to Linder, obese dogs also are more susceptible to heat stroke, airway dysfunction and tracheal collapses. She recommends that you bring your dog for annual veterinary checkups so that your veterinarian can track changes in weight or overall body condition from year to year.