Veterinarians get asked this question all the time, “Which treat is best to give my dog?” 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 dogs – treats that are pretty good, treats to avoid, best treats for puppies, and best treats for senior dogs.
Top Tier Treats for Dogs
Vegetables and Fruits
If your dog enjoys vegetables and fruits, you’ll never have to spend a dime on pre-packaged treats! Which is a great thing as many contain not-so-desirable ingredients like preservatives and artificial coloring.
Vegetables and fruits are low calorie, have lots of vitamins and minerals, and they’re great for hiding medications. Their fiber level can also help your dog feel full between meals.
From personal experience, individual dogs may enjoy carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, butternut squash, summer squashes, winter squashes, celery, cucumbers, and green beans (squash is a vegetable that might be preferred cooked over raw).
Individual dogs may also enjoy fruits including berries, bananas, apples, pears, pineapple, and kiwi.
Fresh Produce Considerations & Warnings
When selecting pet treats from your produce department, be conscious that some fruits and vegetables can be toxic, like onions, grapes, and raisins.
Be mindful of any fruits with pits such as cherries, avocados, plums, and mangos, as the pits are not digestible and if accidentally consumed, can cause an intestinal blockage. High glycemic index foods such as corn, potatoes, and watermelon, should be avoided or fed only in small amounts as treats.
Coconut meat and citrus can potentially cause intestinal upset, and avocado meat can cause diarrhea or pancreatitis if fed in large amounts. Onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, and chives can cause mild to severe anemia when fed to your dog. Grapes, raisins, and currants can cause kidney failure in some dogs.
With these cautions in mind, the produce section is your oyster.
How to Tell if Your Dog Will Like Fruits and Vegetables as Treats
Determine if your pet will accept fresh treats by providing a variety of options to them during your own meal preparation. The next time you prepare a vegetable or fruit at home, try giving your pet a taste.
Try offering a fresh, washed piece of fruit or vegetable and then again after it has been cooked (and cooled to edible temperature – without any seasoning). Depending on your pet’s individual taste and texture preferences, they will either eat what you offer or will not. Continue this process with different fruits and vegetables until you determine your pet’s favorites.
Pro Tip: When cutting the ends off of beans, instead of composting them, toss them to your pooch. And if you want to add some mental stimulation, train this “stay out of the kitchen” behavior at the same time, as demonstrated in the video below.
Homemade Dog Treats
The best thing about cooking at home (for yourself or your pet) is that you know exactly what is going into those treats. You have control. If your pet needs something specific, you have the ability to bake homemade treats – we have recipes below to help get you started.
Check out this low-cal dog treat recipe I formulated. It’s great for any dog but especially great for dogs needing to lose a few extra pounds:
The treats selected for this category are treats derived from whole foods. Some of my favorites include:
Best High-Value Treats for Puppies and Training
All puppies deserve to be trained. Training helps puppies understand what is appropriate behavior in a given situation. Training also helps build your bond with your pup. Not all puppies are treat motivated all of the time, but a high-value treat can help get and keep their attention around distractions, especially when a piece of their regular food isn't enough to keep their focus.
What does “high value” mean when referring to dog treats? What is of highest value to dogs? You probably guessed right, high value = meaty. The main ingredient in high-value treats is protein.
Now, if the high-value treats you are looking at are also high in fat, then keep shopping. Elevated fat levels can cause stomach upset, weight gain, obesity, and a bunch of associated health problems.
Let’s set your puppy up for success in their adult life and keep high fat foods out of their body.
Note: The high-value meat treats you select should not be raw. See why I don't recommend raw treats in the Dog Treats to Avoid section at the end of this article.
These are some of my favorite high-value treats for dogs. They have good whole-food ingredients, vitamins and minerals and can easily be broken up into little pieces for training purposes:
Best Treats for Senior Dogs
The treats you select for your senior dog need to be appropriate for their age and body health. As dogs 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 dog’s health and see if they have any nutrient levels or requirements to be aware of when selecting their food and treats. Since some senior pets will start to eat less than adult dogs, 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 and x-rays 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 and chondroitin sulfate, MSM and curcumin. All of these supplements can 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 and inflammation associated with arthritis.
Here are some of my favorite treats that help with joint care. These treats each have a combination of joint supplements to help keep your pet comfortable:
Available from your Veterinarian
Brain Aging: Another treat consideration for senior dogs is choosing treats that can support their aging brain to keep them aware of their surroundings, minimize confusion, support the ability to problem solve, and otherwise enjoy life. The following treats are packed full of antioxidants and supplements to keep your pet interacting with their environment:
*Available in powder or soft chews
Dog Treats to Avoid
Bones & hard chews: Dogs like chewing on bones. The problem is – bones don’t get along with dog teeth – often causing tooth fractures, pain, and infection. There is an argument that giving bones or other chews with a similar hardness to bones help with dental health.
Bones do help keep the above-the-gum tooth surfaces free of plaque and calculus, however, they do nothing for the health of the tooth under the surface of the gums – where painful bacterial infections develop. Here are three simple steps to choosing the best chews for your dog.
In summary – do not give bones or hard chews as treats to dogs, as it’s just not worth the risk of a tooth fracture, the subsequent expense of the dental care that is needed to care for the fractured tooth, or the dangers of bone splinters. All treats given to your dog need to indent when they are chewed on. A rawhide alternative that is also easier on your dog’s belly (digestible) are Earth Animal No-Hides.
Here is PV's senior pug, Mabel Petrillo, enjoying a salmon Earth Animal No-Hide chew:
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. It is a favorite of many of the Preventive Vet dogs. They are whole ingredient (like some of the rest of their product line that includes heart and liver treats, and turkey 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, then some of the amorphous blob treats available online and in pet stores.
Here's Daisy, Preventive Vet senior pup, going nuts for her freeze-dried minnows:
Jerky Dog Treats: Beef jerky, or any jerky, generally has seasonings, added preservatives, or coloring. These seasonings and 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 dog 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 pet 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 Dog Treats (grams of fat per 1000 kilocalories)
"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 dog, is counted as 120 kilocalories.”
Source: K9 Weight Challenge
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.
Dog Treat Fat Content
Grams of fat per 1000kcal
Fewer than 30
Greater than 50
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 fat content calculation using the Zuke’s puppy treats I recommended above:
- Step 1: 6% + 1% = 7
- Step 2: 2,947 kcals ÷ 10,000 = .2947
- Step 3: 7 ÷ .2947 = 23.7
- Result: Low fat!
Poor-quality dog 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?
If your pet loves a certain brand of treats, share it with us in the comments below!