How to Identify and Pick Top Quality Dog Treats

Surely there is no such person as a dog owner who never gives his or her dog a treat. We all like to see our dog’s tail wag, and his face lights up with attentive anticipation, right?

But how do you know that the treats you give him are healthy? It’s actually pretty simple. As with every food you buy (for yourself or your dog), it’s all about the ingredients.

If you do not already read the label of every food item you consider buying, get in the habit! Most of the information you need to know in order to determine the product’s quality is legally required to appear on the label.

What to Look for in Dog Treats

We suggest that you start with the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed on the label by weight; there is more of the first ingredient on the list present in the treat than the second ingredient, and so on. (One exception: If equal amounts - by weight - of different ingredients are present, the manufacturer can list those ingredients in any order; that is, as long as they are still in order relative to the other ingredients). The first few ingredients on the list are the most significant; since they comprise the majority of the content, they should be especially high in quality.

These are just a few examples of some top-quality treats, containing organic ingredients, grass-fed meats, and natural sweeteners and preservatives.

What constitutes quality in a pet food ingredient? Actually, the same attributes that indicate quality in human food denote quality in pet food. Top-quality ingredients are as fresh, pure, and minimally processed as possible; whole food ingredients are better than by-products or food “fractions.” For example, “wheat” is better than “wheat flour.” “Wheat flour” is better than “wheat bran and wheat germ.” The more highly processed and reconstituted an ingredient is, the more opportunities it has for adulteration and contamination, and the more nutrients it loses.

It stands to reason that the freshest ingredients available to U.S. food makers will be grown in the U.S. While some manufacturers argue that their oversight of foreign ingredient providers is reliable, we strongly prefer domestic ingredient sources. The only exception may be those ingredients that are near-impossible to obtain from U.S. sources, such as free-range, organic venison. Even so, if we found a treat that contained domestically sourced free-range, organic venison, we’d favor it over a product containing free-range, organic venison from New Zealand.

Ingredients that are sourced as close as possible to the manufacturer (locally sourced ingredients) are good. Again, they are necessarily fresher than ingredients that require shipping from across the country. That’s good for the environment, too.

Every ingredient on the label should be an easily recognizable food; there should be no question what the source is. For example, “meat meal” or “animal fat” could come from just about anywhere. In contrast, “chicken” comes from chickens, and so does “chicken fat.” If you can’t determine what species of animal meat or fat came from, you should not feed it to your dog.

Organic ingredients are good; they are less likely to be adulterated with contaminants, and they receive extra scrutiny from inspectors. The more organic ingredients, the better.

If a sweetener is used, it should be natural and food-based, and used in moderation. Applesauce, molasses, or honey are better than artificial sweeteners. We disapprove of any sweeteners in dog food, but we’re talking about treats here: something the dog may not get every day, and something he’ll get only a few of. A little natural sweetening in a treat is okay.

If a treat is preserved, it should contain a natural preservative. Vitamins C and E (the latter is listed as “mixed tocopherols”) are effective and safe preservatives. Some treats contain no preservatives at all; these should be stored properly and used promptly.

DOG TREATS: OVERVIEW                      

We make it a point to say this every single time we discuss treats: Don't buy dog treats at the grocery store, unless you also do each of the following:

  1. Read the ingredients panel of any treat you consider buying. Pass it by if it contains artificial preservatives and/or colors, animal products from unnamed species, or animal by-products.
  2. Check the ingredients list for foods your dog may be allergic to or intolerant of.
  3. Don't forget that you can use real, fresh food for treats! Offer your dog bits of cheese, cooked meat, and pieces of fruit and vegetables, and determine which he likes best.

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