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Choosing the Best Cat Treats

Author: Sarah Wallace, DVM

Published: May 22, 2020

Updated: December 5, 2023

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cat sniffing treatsVeterinarians get asked this question all the time, “Which treat is best to give my pet?” As a veterinarian who has formulated many diets and treats for dogs and cats, I can tell you that if chosen correctly, treats can supplement your pet’s health as well as be very beneficial to their overall well-being.

Not to mention the training that often accompanies treating or the mental stimulation of an interactive game.

Because every pet is an individual with their own personality and preferences, some treats may be accepted readily, whereas some pets require a little trial and error before you find the treats they love. With pet individuality in mind, let’s explore what sorts of treats are ideal for cats.

Top Tier Treats for Cats

Finding cat treats can be a chore. If cats were omnivores like dogs, a suggestion for fruit and vegetable treats would stand. Since cats have more carnivorous tastes, however, finding treats they will accept and are good for them means meat treats are best. Make sure the treats are cooked; they should not have added salt or any preservatives, or artificial coloring.

It is difficult to find appropriate cat treats. The amount of carbohydrates needed to make a crunchy cat treat is a carbohydrate level that is too high for cats. Finding cat treats that are mostly meat and are also cooked is challenging. Any treat that has that crunchy texture is high in carbohydrates and should be given in moderation — not as the sole treat option for your cat.

One of my favorite treats for cats are these Salmon Bark Treats. This meaty treat is 80% meat, 20% yucca root – a hypoallergenic carbohydrate source that gives that chewy texture.

Salmon Bark Cat Treats from Just Food for Dogs
Just Food for Dogs Salmon Bark Cat Treats

Another good cat option is Pet Greens Cat Craves. These treats have meat as the first ingredient, have recognizable ingredients, and contain Omega 3 Fatty acids.

Pet Greens Semi-Moist Cat Crave Treats
Pet Greens Semi-Moist Cat Crave Treats

Good Cat Treats

The treats selected for this category are treats derived from whole foods. Some of my favorites include:

Polkadog Bakery Chicken Littles
Polkadog Bakery Chicken Littles

Honest Kitchen Wishes Fish Filets
Honest Kitchen Wishes Fish Filets

Best Treats for Senior Cats

The treats you select for your senior cat need to be appropriate for their age and body health. As cats age, they develop arthritis in their joints and back; they can have organ disease or develop cognitive dysfunction (brain atrophy).

Talk to your veterinarian about your senior cat’s health and see if they have any nutrient levels or requirements to be aware of when selecting their food and treats. Since some seniors will start to eat less than adult cats, getting food and treats into their bodies that can help support their body’s overall health is recommended.

Joint Support: In general, pets who are aging will likely need joint support. Arthritis isn’t easy to spot at home. If your pet is getting up slower than normal, walking slower, exercising less often, walking stiffly, refusing to climb or descend stairs, is limping or not jumping normally, your veterinarian can perform a physical exam to determine if arthritis has started affecting your pet.

There are a variety of treats that provide fish oil (Omega 3 fatty acids), type II collagen, glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, MSM, and curcumin. All of these supplements help control joint inflammation and pain in different but complementary ways. When given together, these supplements create a synergistic effect and can help improve pain associated with arthritis.

Here are some of my favorite treats that can help with joint care. These treats each have a combination of joint supplements to help keep your pet comfortable:

Nutramax Cosequin Chews for Cats
Nutramax Cosequin Chews for Cats

Dasuquin Capsules for Cats
Dasuquin Capsules for Cats

VetriScience VetriFlex for Cats of all Weight Ranges
VetriScience VetriFlex for Cats and Dogs of all Weight Ranges

Cat Treats to Avoid

Raw food and treats: The high-value meat treats you select should not be raw. If the pet food store tells you differently, do not listen to them. Raw foods come with their own set of possible dangers, especially if your pet is young and does not yet have a fully developed immune system or in older animals with weakened organs and immune systems.

We don’t know what kind of sickness-causing bacteria is lurking on these raw products. Some of the potential bacterial contaminants include E.coli, salmonella, and listeria, amongst many others. Cooking the meat reduces/eliminates this risk. If you have ever had food poisoning, you will understand this concern. In general, cooked treats are safer for you, your family, and your pet.

Freeze-dried raw treats like this one, Vital Essentials Freeze-Dried Minnows, are popular, though.  They are whole ingredients (like some of the rest of their product line that includes heart and liver treats and chicken giblets), so they have high nutritional value. If the treat is grown, harvested, and packaged in the US, which is super important from a product safety standpoint, then honestly, I would rather feed a treat with these whole food ingredients than some of the amorphous blob treats available online and in pet stores.

Jerky Treats: Beef jerky, or any jerky, generally has seasonings, added preservatives, or coloring. These added ingredients are not recommended for your pet’s optimal health.

Not made in the U.S.A: I prefer treats made in the United States because of the country’s quality control standards and labeling standards. Treat ingredients that have been processed and packaged in other countries do not necessarily have the same standards for ensuring bacterial contamination is minimized, there are no heavy metals contaminating the treats, and ingredients like melamine don’t end up in our cat treats and causing illness in our pets.

High-Fat Content: Be mindful of the fat content of any food or treat you are giving to your pet. Your cat does not want to experience intestinal upset any more than you want to clean up their diarrhea or vomit. Unfortunately, the pet food label itself doesn’t tell us much about fat level. Here’s how to determine the fat level in a food or treat:

How to Calculate Fat Content in Cat Treats (grams of fat per 1000 kilocalories)

What's a "kcal"?
The terms kilocalories (kcal) in pet foods and Calories in human foods are interchangeable! For example, a large apple is 120 human calories which, if fed to a cat, is counted as 120 kilocalories.

Source: K9 Weight Challenge

On the treat label, find the fat % and the energy of kcal per kg of food (kcal/kg)

1) Add 1% to the fat % on the label.

2) Take the kcal/kg of the food or treat and divide by 10,000

3) Divide the answer to step 1 by the answer to step 2. This should give you the number of grams of fat/1000kcal. Note: Use the number from step 1, not the percentage. For example, if the fat % was 7%, use 7, not 0.07)

4) Compare your result against the chart below.

Cat treat fat content chart

If you do your calculation as described above and you find that your pet’s treats are high in fat, it’s time to switch treats. (Note: this calculation only works for fat as is. If you want to calculate a high, moderate, or low protein level, then you have to add 1.5% to step 1 instead of 1%.)

Here’s an example of the calculation using a Zuke's dog treat label:

treat label nutritional info

  • Step 1: 6% + 1% = 7

  • Step 2: 2,947 kcals ÷ 10,000 = .2947

  • Step 3: 7 ÷ .2947 = 23.7

  • Result: Low fat!

Poor-quality cat treat ingredients
: Treats that contain artificial coloring, artificial preservatives, or ingredients that you yourself would not eat (or don’t recognize) are not recommended for your pet. If those ingredients don’t serve a nutritional value, then what are they doing once they get inside your pet?

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About the author

Profile picture for Sarah Wallace

Sarah Wallace, DVM

Dr. Sarah Wallace was born and raised in New Hampshire, studied biology at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and attended Western University of Health Sciences in California for veterinary school. Dr. Wallace has worked at Just Food for Dogs and Fuzzy Pet Health, and writes and contributes to many online pet health publications.

Dr. Wallace's passions are: increasing access to veterinary care for all pets across the country, preserving the human-animal bond, and utilizing nutrition to improve a pet's medical condition and quality of life. She is Pet Nutrition Coach Certified, Fear Free Certified, and Human-Animal Bond Certified.