Dog treats have been around in some form as long as our species has had a relationship with dogs. There’s nothing like the feeling of sharing a favorite snack with a beloved pooch! Treats play a central role in solidifying our bond with our dogs, and in training good behavior.
Commercial dog treats got their start in 19th century England, when an American businessman named James Spratt developed “Spratt’s Meat Fribrine Dog Cakes”, a product he eventually brought back to the USA. This product was the first to fill a need for convenient, ready-to-feed treats that many dog owners didn’t realize they had, and the company was very successful for almost a hundred years until it was eventually acquired by General Mills in the 1950s.
Dog treats have come a long way since then, with a huge variety of different products available. It’s pretty easy to feel overwhelmed about finding the best treat for your own dog, and how much of those treats it’s safe to give your dog.
I’m here to dispel the confusion, with a veterinarian’s perspective on commercial dog treats!
To start with, let’s tackle nutritional content.
You might be wondering, “Why does nutrition matter? It’s just a treat, right? They get the nutrition they need from their regular food.”
On the contrary, treats can have a substantial impact on your dog’s health and nutrition. The worst treats have so many carbs, calories and artificial ingredients that even in moderation they can contribute to an array of health problems: obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and more.
On the other hand, unlike us humans who are drawn to the flavors of junk food, dogs evolved to crave the foods that their bodies need the most: real meat, and lots of it, supplemented by a small amount of foraged berries, grains, and roots. That’s what our dogs’ ancestors ate in the wild, and that’s why it’s the food they want to eat today.
Cheap commercial treat manufacturers use certain tricks to make their snacks seem more appealing to dogs, like spraying fats and salt over the treats after cooking, but these are just unnecessary and unhealthy gimmicks to try to make their treats taste as good as real whole food treats!
Treats aren’t just for fun - they’re also an opportunity to provide more of the nutrition that benefits your dog’s health, to help them thrive and reduce their chances of illness. And since dogs prefer the foods that are good for them, the right treats offer all those benefits without sacrificing flavor – in fact, most dogs who eat high-quality meaty whole food treats prefer them to less healthy treats.
Single-ingredient meat treats are increasingly popular, and are a great option for many dogs. That said, depending on the meat and preparation method used, the calorie and fat content can be a little on the high side.
Calorie content is just as important for your dog’s treat as the use of healthy ingredients, because your dog’s regular food should represent at least 90% of their daily caloric intake. Dog diets are nutritionally balanced to provide the minimum amounts of all the various important nutrients your dog requires, so if your dog eats too many treats, it may lead to a nutritional deficiency.
Let’s drill down into some of the numbers, using a 20-pound dog as an example. In general, an active 20-pound dog should consume up to 400 calories each day. That leaves 40 calories for treats.
The most popular dog biscuit in America is exactly 40 calories per treat. That means that poor dog can only eat one biscuit a day without spoiling their dinner.
Single ingredient meat treats are lower calorie than biscuits, typically between 5-8 calories per treat. So that same 20-pound pup can eat 5-8 meat-only treats per day. Not bad.
The latest and healthiest dog treats use a carefully balanced combination of ingredients: primarily a lean and healthy meat, complemented by a small amount of secondary natural ingredients like roots and berries which are similar to the ancestral dog diet, which their noses and tongues evolved to seek out.
With the right formulation, these treats can provide an even bigger flavor than meat-only treats, but with a much lower calorie count, and with the added benefit of all those vitamins and minerals that are present in their natural secondary ingredients.
For example, in my work with Canine Sciences, we developed a treat product called Nutrient Heaven that I am proud to say leads this new category of treats. It’s composed of 90% whole duck meat, which is a fantastic and lean protein that provides lots of healthy amino acids, iron, B vitamins, and more.
In addition to the meat itself, we included the heart, liver, and other organs to both kick up the flavor and provide taurine and other essential nutrients found only in organ meat, but excluded the fatty skin to keep these treats lean and healthy.
Then we added three perfect superfood ingredients: blackberry, which is packed with just as many vitamins and anti-oxidants as other berries, but with half the sugar and calories; sweet potato, a beloved dog snack that provides a huge fiber boost in a healthy low-glycemic form; and kale, one of the most nutritionally dense leafy greens in existence whose flavor profile is similar to the grasses dogs love to chomp down on in nature.
Because we were so careful about what went into Nutrient Heaven, these treats can compete with any other treat on the market for flavor, while providing a much more complete nutritional breakdown – all at less than 2 calories per treat!
So, that same 20-pound dog I referenced earlier could eat up to 20 Nutrient Heaven treats per day, compared to 5-8 single ingredient meat treats, or one biscuit.
Just imagine how much happier that dog would be with all those extra treats!
And a low calorie count allows you to consistently reward your dog for good behavior, without harming their nutrition, which is vital for training sessions. It’s always terrible to cut training short just when your dog is starting to catch on, because you can’t give them any more treats!
Now that we’ve covered the importance of nutrition in treats, let’s talk about preparation.
This part is actually very simple: whether we’re talking about food or treats, the best cooking method is always as little cooking as possible.
When an ingredient undergoes industrial cooking processes, the intense heat involved destroys many of the nutrients naturally present in that ingredient. In fact, the extrusion process used to make many high-carb foods and treats is so destructive, that almost all dry and canned dog foods have to be supplemented with synthetic chemical nutrients just to meet the bare minimum nutritional standards required by law. So even if those treats include lots of healthy ingredients, your dog isn’t really getting much benefit from them.
In nature, nothing is cooked, so in nature, dogs eat everything raw – which, ideally, is how our dogs should be eating, too.
Unfortunately, raw meat doesn’t have much of a shelf life, but the good news is that freeze-drying offers many of the benefits of cooking; and because heat isn’t involved in the process, that nutrition is still there in a raw form that dogs get so much more out of.
Some folks are understandably concerned about dangerous pathogens like salmonella or listeria in raw meat that is used for commercial dog food and treats. Fortunately for our pups, that concern is overstated, for a couple of reasons.
First, dogs’ digestive system are designed to eat raw stuff that might be dangerous to us humans. Their stomach acid is much stronger than ours – at its most acidic, it’s comparable to battery acid! There’s not much bacteria that can survive in that kind of environment, and it takes a whole lot of it to make our dogs ill.
Additionally, it may surprise you to hear that US regulations surrounding raw pet food safety are actually much stricter than those applied to raw meat sold in supermarkets for human consumption! Raw pet foods and treats undergo a process called HPP that uses pressure to expel pathogens, so it’s safe to serve raw to dogs, while raw meat sold in grocery stores for us humans is intended to be thoroughly cooked before eating, so contamination is quite common.
It’s still a good idea to wash your hands after handling raw foods and treats, since some small amount of pathogens may still be present and we humans don’t have those amazingly strong stomachs dogs do, but it’s extremely rare for any dog to become sick from eating raw foods prepared by reputable companies.
So, to recap, the best dog treats are:
- Made entirely of whole food ingredients
- Based on dog ancestral diets
- At least 80% meat
- Served raw, freeze-dried, or only very lightly cooked
- Low in calories and fat
Wishing you and your dog the best of health,
Dr. Edward Tuk
Canine Sciences' premium Nutrient Heaven freeze-dried treats are uniquely designed by veterinarians using the latest scientific research and the highest quality ingredients from US farms to provide all the mouth-watering meat flavor dogs love, at only a fraction of the calories of other treats.
Try Nutrient Heaven today, or explore any of our life-changing nutritional products, by clicking on one of the products below!