Healthy Dog Treats: Natural, Organic, and Other Treats to Help Keep Dogs Fit

WebMD discusses healthy alternatives to popular dog treats that might be adding a few extra pounds to your pooch.

By Katherine Kam
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed By Katherine Snyder, DVM

Many people love to lavish food treats on their dogs: bacon and cheese snacks, pig ears, and an endless stream of table scraps. But all those indulgences come at a hefty price. Before Fido turns fat, it may be time to consider healthy dog treats.

In other words, skip the cheesy chews and bring on the baby carrots.

Baby carrots? Yes. "Dogs like the crunch," says Ernie Ward, DVM, a veterinarian in Calabash, N.C. Ward is also president of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. He founded the group in 2005 to highlight the growing problem of heavy, out-of-shape pets. He has treated many overweight dogs that come to his practice with osteoarthritis. "That is the number one thing that we see: obese pets that are literally crippled by pain," Ward says.

Heavy dogs also face heightened heart disease and cancer risks, Ward says. About 44% of dogs in the U.S. are overweight or obese, according to statistics from his group's web site. But you can take action. "When you look at obesity-related disorders," Ward says, "they are typically chronic, incurable, expensive, but generally preventable."

Are treats making dogs fat?

Treats have a place in a dog's diet, veterinarians say. Besides spicing up a dog's day, treats -- such as small liver treats or salmon flakes -- are an excellent way to motivate and reward puppies. One example might be during house-training.

But today, Ward says, too many commercial dog treats are loaded with fat and sugar. "This makes these treats almost irresistible," he says. "This is why your dog will dance and howl and yip and run and do amazing things just to get one of these goodies. I call them calorie grenades."

Even a single, high-calorie treat -- such as packaged beef, bacon, or cheese snacks -- can fill as much as one-fourth to one-fifth of a small dog's daily calorie needs. "It's really dangerous," says Ward, "because pet owners are in the habit of giving two or three treats at a time. Voila -- obesity."

Too many owners forget to factor treats into a pet's overall caloric intake.

"A general recommendation is that treats should not make up more than 15% to 20% of the pet's total diet," says Sarah Abood, DVM, PhD. That rule holds for commercial treats or people food, says Abood, who is an assistant professor of small animal clinical sciences at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Certain store-bought treats, such as dried chicken strips, are a better, low-fat choice than some of the heavily processed, high-fat snacks, says Mark Nunez, DVM, a veterinarian in Van Nuys, Calif. and president of the California Veterinary Medical Association from July 2009-June 2010. "I usually tell my clients [that] if it sounds like junk food, it probably is junk food," he says.

Natural Dog Treats

For owners interested in homemade or organic dog treats, Ward says, "It's still better to give natural, whole foods. I look for crunchy vegetables." He suggests offering small portions of snacks such as green beans, celery, or cooked yams, including canned ones. "You have to experiment with your own dog," he says. But avoid onions, garlic, grapes and raisins, which are toxic to dogs.

Some owners have told Ward that their dogs refuse veggies. But he encourages them to keep putting healthy choices before them, as parents would do with children.

In the summertime, Ward freezes small chunks of apples, kiwi, and watermelon into ice cubes for his dog to lick outdoors. "They're great for a hot day. Those are simple things that people can do," he says.

Nunez says chicken hot dogs or tofu hot dogs -- the ones for human consumption -- can also be cut into pieces for dog treats.

It's also easy to concoct delicious, natural dog treats at home, Ward says. Here's one of his recipes:

Lickety Split

1 frozen banana

1 cup rice milk or nonfat yogurt

Place ingredients in blender. Mix until creamy. Serve chilled.

Each 4 oz. serving has about 65 calories. To reduce calories, substitute 2/3 cups strawberries instead of using a banana.

Table scraps and bones

What about feeding a dog from the dinner table? Nunez discourages the habit because it trains a pet to become a mealtime mooch. "You don't want to get the dog used to begging at the dinner table," he says.

In contrast, Ward says it's unrealistic to expect dog owners to avoid table feeding. But that doesn't mean that owners should slip their dogs greasy chicken skins or scraps of fat.

"I think it boils down to having good choices," Ward says. "If you're going to feed from the table, make it vegetable choices."

Both veterinarians agree, though, that contrary to popular belief, dogs should not chew on bones, either from the pet store, butcher's counter, or leftovers from owners' meals.

"It's a common thought that dogs have been eating bones since the dawn of time. But bones can cause a lot of problems," Nunez says. Dogs can fracture a back molar when they crunch down on a bone, or they may swallow bone splinters and suffer gastrointestinal irritation. "As a general rule of thumb, I tell people to avoid bones," Ward says. "I don't see any need from a nutritional standpoint, and it runs an inherent risk."

Compressed rawhide bones, horse hooves, and pig ears can also irritate or obstruct the intestinal tract, experts say.

So what's a bored dog to do? Instead of giving a dog a bone to gnaw, place a few healthy treats inside a rubber Kong dog toy, which makes the pet work harder to dislodge snacks with its tongue. "That occupies a lot of time," Nunez says.

SOURCES: Ernie Ward, DVM, president, Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

Sarah Abood, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of small animal clinical sciences, Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Mark Nunez, DVM, president, California Veterinary Medical Association.

Association for Pet Obesity Prevention: "Pet Obesity Facts and Risks."

Reviewed on May 1, 2010

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