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My dog, like most dogs, goes absolutely crazy when I give her a treat. She sees me walking over towards the shelf with the bags of treats and races after me, head high, eyes wide, a very serious and excited expression on her face.
I wish I could get as excited about anything as my dog gets for her afternoon treat. But why does she get so much more excited for treats than her normal dog food?
Why do dogs like treats so much? Dog treats typically have high amounts of fat, oil, and carbohydrates, giving them stronger flavors and smells than most dog foods. The textures, sizes, and variety make treats an exciting change in your dog’s diet, but selecting the right treats and amounts to give your dog is crucial.
There is actually not a whole lot of differences between what makes “dog food” and a “dog treat.” I was surprised by how much latitude dog food and treat manufacturers are given when it comes to labeling their product as a food or a treat.
In general though, dog treats, just like treats for people, contain more of the stuff that we like but shouldn’t have too much of. Things like oils, fats, carbohydrates, and sometimes even sugar make their way into dog treats, making them irresistible to dogs.
So irresistible that they’ll go jump through hoops for a single mouthful. Check out the determination, the commitment, the poise and grace of these hungry dogs:
There are tons of different types of dog treats out there, big to small, crunchy to soft, natural to highly processed, the list goes on and on.
All of these different varieties of treats can be combined to enrich your dog’s diet, train them to do tricks and new behaviors, or bond with your little furry buddy.
The entire dog treat and dog food industry have exploded in the last couple of decades. Gone are the days when you could just pick up a bag of kibble from the grocery store and not think twice about your dog’s health.
Dog treats and food now come in so many different varieties, many of them making wild claims about fixing your dog’s bad breath, occupying them for hours on end, stimulating brain development, or whatever else some clever marketing department has slapped on the bag.
I’ve researched some of the regulations that treat manufacturers are held to in order to better understand how to pick healthy, safe, tasty treats for my dog. All dogs have different nutritional needs that may change throughout their life, but the following information will be helpful to understand no matter what your dog’s particular diet or stage of life is.
Difference Between Dog Food And Dog Treats
The first step towards making smart decisions about dog treats is to understand what makes them different from dog food. What this mostly boils down to is what a manufacturer was going for when they made the treat and what they ended up putting on the label.
Dog Food And Treat Regulations
The Federal Drug Administration, or FDA, is responsible for regulating pet food in the United States. The FDA holds pet food manufacturers to many of the same standards that they hold manufacturers of human products to.
Some of these overlapping rules are ensuring that all pet foods, including treats, are:
- Safe to eat
- Made in a clean environment
- Free of any harmful substances
- Labeled honestly
The FDA establishes the standards and it is up to states and the federal government to ensure that producers are following the necessary food safety guidelines.
However, the FDA’s regulations are the bare minimum of acceptable. That’s not just my opinion, most states agree.
Most states have modeled their rules on dog food safety based on a model provided by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO.
AAFCO is not a regulatory body like the FDA. It is a voluntary membership association of various agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. Its members, among other responsibilities, have produced an official publication that offers more detailed and strict guidance has regulating the production of dog foods and treats.
In order to be sold as “dog food,” AAFCO must deem that the food is “complete and balanced.”
If the product does not meet all of their standards to be labeled a “complete and balanced” dog food, then it cannot be marketed as “food.”
If it’s still an acceptable product for your dog to eat but simply doesn’t contain all of the necessary ingredients to make up 100% of your dog’s diet, then it will be labeled as “Intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only” – which is what most dog treats are.
The distinction between “complete and balanced” and “intermittent/supplemental” is what separates dog “food” from dog “treats,” and is what allows the manufacturers of dog treats to make products that are so much tastier than food.
Complete And Balanced
On the back of your dog’s bag of food, you should see the words “complete and balanced” printed there. In order for your dog’s food to receive that label, it must have met the standards outlined by AAFCO to be dog “food.”
Earning this label is a very big deal. What they are saying is that the product has the correct chemical makeup to account for 100% of your dog’s diet. Every day, every meal, forever, your dog could eat this food and live a long, healthy life.
AAFCO has two basic profiles, each profile with a different set of standards manufacturers have to meet in order to be called complete and balanced. These two profiles are:
- Adult maintenance – dog food formulated for dogs over one-year-old
- Growth and reproduction – dog food made for puppies under one year old, pregnant dogs, and lactating dogs.
These two groups have specific nutritional needs and as such, they have two different profiles regulating the standards for each one.
These standards are granular. Not only are all minerals, vitamins, proteins, and carbohydrates accounted for but also moisture content acid levels.
Basically, every aspect of the food is scrutinized to ensure that it is healthy and everything is accounted for and in the correct amount to make up 100% of your dog’s diet.
Intermittent Or Supplemental Feeding Only
On the back of a bag of dog treats, you may see this label: The product is intended for intermittent or supplemental use only.
Or something else to that effect.
This label indicates that the product you’re feeding your dog is safe to eat as determined by the FDA, but is not sufficient to make up 100% of your dog’s diet.
Products with this label are still considered safe but they do not have all of the necessary vitamins and minerals present to sustain her dog 100%.
You may also see this label on some products still sold as dog food.
Some raw foods are labeled this way because they are not processed in a way that AAFCO has teamed safe or wholly nutritional.
Or some dogs have medical conditions that require them to eat certain diets that may not be deemed complete and balanced by AAFCO. For example, some low-protein dog food formulas exist to help prevent the buildup of kidney and bladder stones in dogs.
This food is often prescribed by a veterinarian, but it is labeled as a supplement because it does not have the recommended amount of protein as determined by AAFCO.
If your food has this intermittent or supplementary label on it, you should consult with your vet before you continue allowing it to make up 100% of your dog’s food.
But in general, this label is what separates dog food from dog treats.
Why Do Dog Treats Taste Better Than Dog Food?
The simple fact that dog treats are not required to cram in every single vitamin and mineral that your dog needs to survive allows manufacturers a lot more freedom to make more interesting, tasty flavored, and textured snacks.
Treats come in a huge variety of flavors, shapes, sizes, textures, smells, and ingredients. In general, store-bought dog treats have more fat, carbohydrates, and oils than their regular dog food counterparts.
This makes them more flavorful and satisfying than the normally very healthy dog foods that your dog is used to.
The variety itself may be enough to get your dog excited. After all, if you ate the exact same food for every meal every day, you’d probably go crazy for a carrot every now and then too.
How Many Treats Should I Give My Dog A Day?
It depends on the treats you’re giving them, but in general, treats should not make up more than 10% of your dog’s diet. Even very healthy treats should be limited to 10% so that your dog has enough appetite to eat their regular food and get all their daily nutritional requirements.
If you are giving your dog an extremely fatty or low-quality treat, you should give them as little of it as possible. However, some treats, like vegetables, are good for your dog and you can safely push that to the 10% mark.
Another factor to consider is the type of food they regularly eat. Check the back of your dog food bag and see if it is relatively high in fat and calories already.
Dogs who regularly eat rich foods should receive fewer treats in the day than dogs who are on leaner diets.
Your dog’s activity level should also be factored in when giving them treats. If your dog is a total couch potato, they should have fewer treats than your running partner, who burns more calories and may benefit from the extra protein boost from the treat.
At the end of the day, the most important thing to consider is the 10% rule and making sure that you are feeding them healthy treats, which may be more difficult to pick than you’re expecting.
How To Pick The Best Dog Treats
You should look for the same things in dog treats that you look for in pet food: a small number of ingredients that you can pronounce and flavors you know that your dog likes. The most important factor though is getting a variety of treats so your dog is always excited to have one.
Dogs love snacks and variety most of all. While they may develop their own flavor profile, having favorite flavors like salmon and disliking certain flavors like lamb, getting your dog a wide variety of flavors and textures in their treats is the best way to make sure that your dog is getting excited and stimulated every time you get in the treat.
If your dog normally eats wet food, consider going for crunchy treats so that they get stimulation on their teeth and gums that they don’t get when they are eating their wet food.
Similarly, if your dog often eats dry kibble, they may get more excited for a soft, chewy treat or a flaky freeze-dried piece of meat over another crunchy treat.
Dog treats come in lots of different flavors, so you should have fun experimenting with them with your dog. There are lots of wild flavors out there from apple pie to elk, and your dog will love trying lots of new flavors.
Dog Treat Checklists
I will go into some more specifics about the different types of treats that are available below but here is a shortlist of some things to keep in mind when shopping for dog treats.
You want the treats to have the following:
- The list of ingredients should be short. The shorter, the better
- You should be able to pronounce all of the words on the label. The fewer complex chemicals, the better.
- Buy local if you can but at least try to get U.S.-based ingredients to ensure they are produced according to FDA and AAFCO standards
- Look for “whole” ingredients. It should list “chicken” not “chicken by-products”
- Opt for ones labeled “organic,” not “natural”
You should try to avoid
- Sugar. Dogs don’t need it, they don’t taste it the same way that we do, and it’s just plain bad for them
- Vitamin-fortified treats that may provide overnutrition to your dog when used in conjunction with their regular diet
- Overly processed treats that have long ingredients list full of chemical preservatives, flavorizers, and colorants
- Avoid wild claims on the label that overpromise on results like improving breath
- I avoid raw food and I think you should too
Best Types Of Dog Treats
All dogs have particular tastes unique to them, and those tastes may change moment to moment or over time. I suggest having three or four different types of treats on hand and cycling them out regularly to keep your dog interested.
The best types of dog treats complement your dog’s food and get them excited. Therefore, there is probably some experimentation in your future if you are trying to figure out what the best treat is for your dog.
I have categorized traits based on their texture, durability, and source. Going over dog treats in this way makes sure that you are treating your dog to a wide variety of treat-eating experiences and zero in on their favorites.
Crunchy treats are probably what most people think of when they think about dog treats. These are biscuits, typically held together with a high-quality grain like wheat or corn.
When you are shopping for crunchy treats, be sure to pick ones that are molded to the appropriate size for your dog. If you give a large dog too small of a treat, these hard, crunchy snacks can quickly become a choking hazard.
Most people will recognize the classic Milk-Bone as the quintessential dog treat. However, we have learned so much in recent years about dog nutrition, and Milk Bones contain a lot of artificial chemicals as preservatives and even artificial colors. While dogs do love them, it is probably worth upgrading your crunchy snacks.
My dog loves Crunchy Os from Fromm. They come in a few different flavors but she likes blueberry the most. There are only a few ingredients that they list right off the bat for you, and Fromm is my go-to brand when I’m looking for quality.
I usually give these to them as a once a day snack, not as a training treat or as another type of motivation. They are crunchy and once you give your dog one of these, they will lose focus and chew on their cookie rather than wait for the next command.
I don’t recommend crunchy treats for training purposes. You should offer smaller, soft to instead when you are treat-training your dog.
Chewy treats are just that: chewy! These treats are generally small and pressed into a variety of shapes but usually balls, discs, or sticks. They often have the texture of tough meat and are usually flavored that way as well, just listing off a single protein as the flavor like chicken or beef.
This classification of dog treat is among the most versatile. Small round ones can be used to reward your dog while treat training to reinforce behaviors. Unlike crunchy treats, your dog can quickly chew and swallow a chewy treat without dropping crumbs on the floor that will distract them later.
I’ve trained all my dogs using these soft, chewy treats. They are yummy enough to keep my dog’s attention but small enough that I can give them a few in a single sitting, maximizing our training time. They also aren’t crumbly and gross like a lot of these types of soft treats can get.
These traits are usually sticks that are pretty hard to the touch, hard enough to keep your dog occupied for longer periods of time than the chewy and crunchy treats we just talked about.
These are great options if you need to keep your dog inside or want to occupy them for as long as the treat lasts, like a car ride of when you’re having guests over.
There are a lot of different varieties of this type of treat. Some of them are similar to the chewy treats, made of a batter that’s molded into a shape. The main difference being that they are made to be harder and less chewy.
They often have fun textures on them, being braided or pokey to give your dog something to chew at.
Yak chews have become a very popular time-waster for dogs lately. They are extremely hard and totally safe and can keep your dog occupied for up to several days.
Or, you can scratch a few items off your to-do list at once by picking up a bag of Get Naked dental chews. Not only will they keep your dog occupied for up to an hour, but they are also specifically designed to benefit your dog’s dental health. Plus they come in several additional varieties like joint care, skincare, and digestive health.
The joint care variety is a great option for my senior dog, who has arthritis and terrible breath.
It is important to note that, all these are great ways to occupy your dog’s time, you should be very careful when giving them to your dog at first. Having your dog chewing on something intended that they are unfamiliar with can result in pokes, scratches, or chokes.
No, I’m not saying you should make your dog a sandwich. But there are a surprising number of foods you probably already have in your cabinets or refrigerator right now that make great treats for your dog.
So long as you are following the rules we outlined about keeping ingredients short and the products natural, most foods are okay for your dog to eat in moderation.
You need to know what you’re doing, as some popular foods with people, like chocolate, grapes, and onions, are extremely dangerous to dogs. I usually consult this list before trying anything new with my dog.
Vegetables like carrots and broccoli are often popular with dogs. They are crunchy and sweet and broccoli has a fun texture that your dog will enjoy sinking their teeth into.
Fruits like apples and berries are also great options. Just be sure to monitor how much of these they have because fruits are filled with sugar and your dog can quickly have too much.
Meat is a good option if you prepare it specifically for your dog. I do not recommend giving your dog leftover meats because they are often cooked alongside potentially hazardous foods like onions and often contain higher amounts of salt than is good for your dog.
I will simply boil some chicken breasts and tear them into shreds and keep them in a bag in the refrigerator as treats for my dog.
Doing this ensures that I am giving my dog a healthy, lean snack that is often cheaper than buying an expensive bag of treats.
Jerky treats or freeze-dried treats are typically the most natural treat options for dogs. They are typically just one ingredient or part of an animal, so you don’t have to worry about artificial colors or out of chemicals.
Popular jerky treats for dogs include pig ears and other slices of meat I have been dried using a dehydrator.
Almost anything can be jerky, so there are a surprisingly wide variety of options when you start shopping for jerky treats. My dog loves these turkey tendon rings. The funny round shape and chewy turkey tendon keep her occupied for minutes as she tears the peace apart.
In general, jerky treats will take your dog and a medium amount of time to eat, more than crunchy or chewy treats, but less than the long-lasting gnaws and hides that are also available to them.
These braided bully sticks are a great, long-lasting option. Just try not to think too hard about what a beef pizzle is.
Because dog treats are made of just a few simple ingredients, it is possible to make healthy, delicious treats for your dog at home.
Besides just you giving them a carrot or a piece of chicken, you can get more creative with the treats you are getting your dog if you make them yourself. And because they are only supposed to be treats, you don’t have quite the high-stakes that you have if you were trying to make up their whole diet yourself.
I made these yogurt and banana dog treats for my senior dog’s 10th birthday. She really liked them, but to be fair, she really likes everything.
Have some fun experimenting with different ingredients. There are tons of recipes out there to try out and, unless you REALLY screw them up, your dog is probably still going to love them. Again though, just be sure you’re not adding anything toxic.
Dogs Love Treats
Dog treats have become a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Pet owners are caring more and more about their pet’s food and the industry is scrambling to meet every niche market that they can.
Part of this means making tastier and tastier treats to attract returning customers. Your dogs benefit the most from this race-to-the-top market, getting a wider array of healthier treats.
There are a lot of affordable treats out there for you to spoil your dog with. My pup would lose her mind if I gave her a bag of carrots.
The main thing to keep in mind with treats is to limit your dog’s intake to not more than 10% of their diet in a day and to keep variety in your treat repertoire.