Of course, you want to reward your trusty pup for good behavior. Learn how to select the best dog treats for your pal.

By Charyn Pfeuffer
August 24, 2020
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Everyone knows the way to a dog’s heart is through his stomach. In fact, pet parents will spend upwards of $38 billion on food and treats for their pets in 2020 (up from $36.9 billion in 2019), according to the nonprofit American Pet Products Association. Here’s what to know about choosing the best dog treats. 

Whether you’re using treats as a way to show love or as part of a reward-based training program, you want to feed your dog treats that are a healthy part of his overall diet. So we asked veterinarians and dog nutrition experts to weigh in on what pet parents should look for when choosing a dog treat that’s actually good for their dog. Here’s what they had to say.

What to Look for in a Quality Dog Treat

“Just like people, dogs should be eating as close to a fresh, whole food diet as possible,” says Gary Richter, MS, DVM, and founder of Ultimate Pet Nutrition. He suggests dogs should eat diets with no (or minimal) artificial ingredients and/or processed foods. And of course, this applies to treats. 

He suggests the best treats for dogs look very similar to fresh foods. “For starters, if the dog is interested, vegetables like carrots, broccoli, etc. are great treats,” he says. His dogs love cucumber. Raw carrot sticks are another easy sweet and crunchy option. “Veggies are healthy and they can eat as much as they want since they really don't contribute significantly to daily calorie intake.”

Ingredients to Avoid in Dog Treats

Avoid treats (and dog food) with legumes, says Tory Waxman, VMD; co-founder and Chief Veterinary Officer at Sundays. They definitely shouldn’t be in the first few listed ingredients. Legumes may interfere with proper nutrient absorption, and they may be associated with heart disease in dogs, Waxman says. It’s also a good rule of thumb to avoid treats made in China. “Certain treats made in China were found to cause kidney disease and sadly the death of some dogs in the United States,” she says. 

Rachel Barrack, DVM, CVA, CVCH, and founder of concierge practice, Animal Acupuncture, suggests avoiding dog treats that include the following ingredients and items:

  • Corn and wheat gluten
  • Meat and meat meal
  • Grain meals and by-products
  • BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole)
  • BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene)
  • Food Dyes (Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5 and 6, 4-MIE) 
  • PG (Propylene Glycol)
  • Rendered fat(s) 

Lastly, if your dog is sensitive to fat, Welna encourages pet parents to watch out for treats with a lot of added fat. 

Important Ingredients in Dog Treats

So what ingredients are OK for quality dog treats? On the store-bought side, Richter prefers treats that are single-ingredient and freeze-dried or dehydrated pieces of meat. “Dogs love them, and they don't contain any fillers, preservatives, or artificial ingredients. And the minimal processing leads to minimal unhealthy components such as advanced glycated end products,” he says. These kinds of treats come in a wide variety of protein sources so there’s something out there for any dog.  

“From a brand recommendation perspective, Nutra Bites are great,” says Richter, naming one of the products his company sells. “They are single-protein freeze-dried treats, dogs love them, and they check all of the boxes described above,” he says.

When It Comes to Dog Treats, Size Matters

When you’re using treats for training and rewarding your dog, Waxman recommends the smallest treats possible. This allows you to give your dog more rewards during training. 

“For example, if you’re training your dog to sit, you could either give him one big chew once as a reward, or give him 5 to 10 little treats and drastically increase the number of times you can reward your pup for the same number of calories,” Waxman says. If you buy bigger treats, you can cut them up into smaller pieces allowing you to reward your dog that much more. “Dogs don’t realize how big a treat is – just how many times they get one!” she says.

Keep Pet Obesity in Mind

Keeping the quantity of treats in mind is important for helping your pet maintain a healthy weight. Obesity is a huge problem in both dogs and cats. “It’s been shown that obesity is linked to major medical problems in both dogs and cats including cancer, degenerative joint disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and decreased life expectancy and quality of life,” says Savannah Welna, Dogly Nutrition Advocate. The most commonly seen cause of obesity in pets is overfeeding—particularly overfeeding treats. 

Alternative Ways to Reward Your Dog

Treats are a way for owners to show praise and affection, but this can also be accomplished through petting, playing, or a long walk. “If one still feels it is important to still give edible rewards, try setting aside some of your dog’s food to allocate as a ‘treat’ throughout the day,” Barrack says. This will eliminate excess calories. She also encourages families to make sure all household members are on board to avoid overfeeding.

Dog Treats to Try

Based on the criteria these professionals recommend, here are some dog treats to discuss with your veterinarian: