Nancy Kerns, founding editor-in-chief of Whole Dog Journal, a monthly publication offering advice on responsible dog ownership.
To our pets, food means love, security and reinforcement…and delicious treats can be a great tool for training our furry friends. But: Selecting healthy treats can be challenging. Here’s how to buy the right ones to keep your companion happy and healthy…
Consider the appeal. Treats are simply high-value foods. Try different types to see which ones excite your pet. Their appeal can center around meatiness, fattiness, sweetness and novelty.
Remember it’s food—and should be healthy. Use the same criteria that guide your food purchases. In fact, regular dinner kibble works as a treat, especially when intermixed with sexier fare, such as bits of roasted chicken and feta cheese. Nutritionally, treats shouldn’t be radically different from your pets’ daily diet. And for training purposes, they should be small—pea-sized—so rewards can be frequent.
Think “kitchen foods” first. The healthiest choices are not packaged but single-ingredient, unadulterated items from your kitchen. Examples: Cooked meat—lower-fat, white-meat chicken, especially…eggs—bits of scrambled or hard-boiled…fish—for both cats and dogs…cheese—start with pea-sized amounts and see how it affects your pet’s digestion…fruit—most dogs love chunks of watermelon, apple slices and strawberries…vegetables—carrots, zucchini and broccoli.
Use fatty foods sparingly, mixed in with low-fat treats for training. Cats lack taste-bud receptors for sweetness, but dogs love sweets. Most pets respond to variety, so try a “trail mix” of goodies.
Don’t scrimp. You get what you pay for. Inexpensive foods don’t contain good-quality ingredients. Also: Don’t be lured by cute presentation and packaging.
Read the ingredients. Never buy treats without studying their contents. Start by ruling out artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. Avoid such preservatives as BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin. (“Mixed tocopherols”—vitamin E—is an acceptable natural preservative.) The longer the ingredients list, the more likely it is that a treat contains junk.
By-products and food fragments are signs of low quality. If you don’t recognize an ingredient, don’t buy the product.
After eliminating the bad stuff, look for the good—whole meats, grains, fruits and vegetables. Organic ingredients are best. Look for specificity regarding meats—species of origin and body part. Pets love treats that combine both muscle and organ meats.
Where to buy treats: Grocery stores mainly stock junk foods, so don’t buy there. You’ll fare better by supporting local artisans, buying from an independent pet-supply store or ordering from a reliable online supplier such as Chewy.com.