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Are dog treats healthy? How much is too much?

Are dog treats healthy?
(Image credit: Getty)

As a veterinarian, I often have clients ask me, “Are dog treats healthy?” While I would love to be able to direct them toward a wide variety of easily available healthy and flavorful treats, the reality is that most tasty dog treats are not very healthy! Although I’ve certainly encountered dogs that are wild about a particular healthy treat, the truth is that many dogs prefer unhealthy options. How can you blame them? Most humans prefer a milkshake to a salad, and dogs are no different! 

While it may be tempting to eliminate treats completely, treats play an important role in training and bonding. Therefore, it’s important to find a balance between the appealing aspect of treats and their potentially-unhealthy effects. 

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Can eating dog treats make my dog overweight?

In an article on WebMD, Dr. Tami Pierce, a veterinarian at the University of California – Davis, says “If you’re not careful, treats can add a substantial amount of calories to your dog’s otherwise normal, healthy diet.” A dog that eats more calories than it expends through daily activity is bound to gain weight, which means that excessive treats can potentially lead to obesity. 

It’s easy to see how this can happen, when you consider the small size of many dogs and the relatively large size of many dog treats. A typical crunchy dog treat may contain anywhere from 30 to 100 calories, depending on the size of the treat. While this may not sound excessive, given the normal human dietary intake of thousands of calories per day, it’s important to realize that dogs are much smaller than us; therefore, dogs have a much lower caloric requirement than we do! 

If you have a small breed dog, your dog may only need to eat 300 calories per day to maintain her weight. If you give her just two crunchy treats per day, those treats could provide anywhere from 20% to 60% of her recommended daily calories! This would be the equivalent of you eating 400 to 1,200 calories in treats or snacks per day. Imagine eating one or two fast food cheeseburgers twice daily as a special treat, in addition to your daily meals! Clearly, doing so would make you overweight; your dog is no different. 

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Can’t I just feed less dog food to compensate for treats?

On the surface, it may seem like you could just feed less dog food to compensate for calories consumed in the form of treats. Unfortunately, that’s not a good strategy. A well-balanced dog food doesn’t just contain calories; it also contains vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that your dog needs to survive. If your dog is receiving most of his calories from treats and only eating small amounts of dog food, he may be at risk of developing a number of dietary deficiencies.

In general, treats should account for no more than 10% of your dog’s daily caloric intake. This ensures that your dog is still receiving an adequate quantity of balanced food, instead of just empty calories from treats.

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(Image credit: Getty)

Are there healthy alternatives to dog treats?

If you’re seeking a low-calorie treat for your dog, there are a number of different options, ranging from items you may already have at home to treats that are specifically formulated to be low in calories.

Raw baby carrots and canned green beans can serve as a low-calorie treat for many dogs. Baby carrots are loved by many dogs and a single baby carrot typically only contains around 4 calories! They’re also easy to carry on walks or during training sessions. Green beans may be less practical and less portable, but they are preferred by some dogs. 

In addition to low-calorie vegetables, there are many commercially available dog treats that are prepared using a low-calorie formulation. In some cases, these treats are just as low in calories as a baby carrot or green bean. It’s important to read nutrition information carefully, however, as there can be significant variation in the number of calories present in low-calorie treats. Additionally, keep in mind that these treats are typically small, which may require acclimating your dog to a smaller treat size than what they were previously accustomed to. Finally, it can take some trial and error to determine which brand or flavor of treats your dog prefers.

What if my dog is a picky eater?

If your dog will gladly eat low-calorie commercial treats or vegetables, those are easy and obvious options. In some cases, however, you may have a picky dog that is only motivated by certain types of treats. Fortunately, if that’s the case, you don’t need to sacrifice treats completely. 

If your dog insists upon a certain type of treat, focus your efforts on portion control. For example, imagine that your small breed dog will only eat a jerky-style treat that contains 30 calories. Obviously, you cannot reasonably give your dog several of these treats per day! However, if you break each treat into 8 tiny pieces, each of those pieces will contain the same number of calories as a baby carrot or a low-calorie treat. Yes, your dog would have to become accustomed to a smaller treat size, but a picky dog may still prefer a small bite of their favorite treat to a larger low-calorie treat.

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Find a balance

Treats are an important component and bonding and training. Although they can be unhealthy, they can be thought of as a type of necessary evil. In a perfect world, all of our dogs would gladly eat low-calorie treats in place of unhealthy treats. In reality, however, that isn’t always the case. Use trial and error to substitute healthy treats for your dog’s regular treats and focus on portion control.