For many of us, enjoying the holidays means indulging in rich, calorically dense treats. And as the holidays are a season of giving, it makes sense that we would indulge our pets as well. As a result, our pets — like their human counterparts — often begin the new year with a post-holiday paunch.
Whenever I suggest a pet lose weight, a common objection is often, “But what about her treats?”
When it comes to training and behavior modification, I’m a big fan of food rewards. We use them in our clinic to teach anxious pets to associate us with more than just procedures.
When used mindfully, and in tiny portions, food rewards are a godsend. It’s the size, frequency and pointlessness of treats that contribute to America’s pet obesity problem.
Many pet owners fall into the habit of mindlessly doling out commercial pet treats. Adding to the problem is the fact that pet food manufacturers are not required to list nutritional information and calorie contents on their products — and very few do so voluntarily.
Our dachshund Zohan requires roughly 350 calories per day. So a single, 17-calorie commercial dog treat provides him with just under 5% of his caloric needs. And the 45-calorie treats he really likes account for nearly 13% of his body’s needs.
Those numbers might not sound terrible, but many of my patients are about his size, and eating several such treats every day.
Dr. Ernie Ward is the founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention and author of the book “Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter - A Vet’s Plan To Save Their Lives."
In his book, Dr. Ward reveals the calorie content of some of the most popular commercial dog treats and details what a human would need to eat in order to achieve the caloric equivalent.
Here are just a few of Dr. Ward’s findings:
For a 10-pound dog, a single, best-selling bone-shaped treat is the caloric equivalent of a human eating two chocolate-iced glazed doughnuts. One chewy, bacon-shaped treat equals a human eating a popular fast-food cheeseburger.
For a 20-pound dog, one popular dental health chew treat is equivalent to us drinking three 16-ounce, fast-food chocolate milkshakes. Another “light” variety of dental health treat equals us eating a fast-food hot fudge sundae.
For a 40-pound dog, one peanut butter and apple flavored treat is the equivalent of a large order of fast-food french fries for a human.
For a 60-pound dog, one large “wholesome” treat is like us eating four fast-food fried chicken breasts.
Yikes! Perhaps by now, you’re thinking the solution to snacking sensibly is to substitute “people food” for commercial pet treats. HIll’s Pet Nutrition collected some interesting data as well. Let’s see what they discovered about sharing our food with our cats:
For a 10-pound cat, a single potato chip is the caloric equivalent of half of a hamburger for us. And seriously, who eats just one potato chip? My generation was taught that a saucer of milk (8 ounces) was the ultimate way to show Kitty how much she was loved. This is the caloric equivalent of a human eating FIVE king-sized milk chocolate bars!
Ready for a few more fun facts from Dr. Ward?
For a 40-pound dog, just half of a beef hot dog is equal to us eating an 8-ounce T-bone steak as a snack.
For an 80-pound dog, a scrambled, Grade A large egg is the caloric equivalent of a slice of French toast with butter for us.
Let’s face it: most of the foods we eat are far more calorically dense than we realize. When we factor in our pets’ vastly different nutritional needs and combine it with their natural instinct to preserve energy, it’s easy to see how those empty calories become problematic.
That being said, I am routinely reminded that to pet parents, treating is important. So let’s talk about how to give treats mindfully.
Yes, My Dog Gets Treats!
There are many situations in which treats can be your friend. Small food rewards are great motivational tools for teaching new behaviors. Such behaviors can alleviate one of the most common causes of begging and overeating: boredom.
If the behaviors you teach also burn calories, even better. We use treats to teach Zohan how to perform tricks and track scents. Each treat, however, is about the size of a pencil eraser. Crunchy treats are placed in sealed bags and mercilessly crushed into tiny pieces.
The emphasis is not on the treat itself, but rather on the treat event. Accompany each food reward with lots of praise. By doing so, you can cut back on the number of rewards given, until your praise is the only reward your pet seeks.
While treats are allowed at Casa Kupkee, the caveat is that they must be earned. This might mean running through a repertoire of learned behaviors or holding still for a nail trim or an ear cleaning. Zohan never gets treats by demanding them, and if you are a new pet owner, my best advice is to nip this behavior in the bud. It gets annoying quickly, and it is simply too tempting to toss pets a high-calorie treat just to shut them up. This rewards the behavior, and a rewarded behavior is a repeated behavior. Don’t give it a chance to take root. It nearly always leads to frazzled owners and overweight pets.
If “people food” is your treat of choice, there are plenty of healthy options.
With some exceptions, small pieces of fruit can be safely enjoyed by our pets. Never give grapes or raisins, or anything containing pits or seeds. That said, the flesh from these fruits is fine. Apples, bananas, blueberries and pineapple chunks seem to be popular with pets. Again, remember to keep the portions small.
Unseasoned vegetables, either cooked or raw, can be given as well. Never give veggies that have been flavored with butter, and avoid anything in the allium family. This includes, but is not limited to, garlic, onions, chives, scallions, and leeks. Remember, some of Miami’s most popular go-to seasonings, sofrito and mojo, are loaded with onions and garlic, so do not give your pet anything flavored with these local favorites.
If only a “cookie” will do, try substituting plain rice cakes. Avoid sweetened, salted, or flavored varieties. An entire rice cake contains about ten calories, and only a tiny morsel is needed. They are always in season and cheaper than dirt. A client recently quipped that this is because dirt is exactly what they taste like! Fair enough, but more often than not, our pets don’t care. Why? Remember the mantra: It’s not the treat, it’s the treat event.
Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic.