South Florida

Paunchy Pet? Trade In Those Treats!

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE Mmmmmmmm…..look at all that yummy, fatty goodness!  We Americans love this stuff.  You know who else loves it? Your pet.
I know what you’re thinking. “How dare he? I would never give that to my pet!”
Breaking news: in a manner of speaking, it’s likely you already do.
If you’ve been following this series, you know by now that over half of America’s pets are either overweight or obese. What’s more, nearly all of their owners incorrectly identify their pet’s body condition as “normal.”  
Whenever I suggest a diet change, one of the first questions I tend to hear is, “But what about her treats?” 
Treats are very important to pet owners.  Indeed, they are important to pets too, but not for reasons you might think. In fact, when I sat down to write this article, I began with the title “Trash Those Treats!”  While it’s catchy enough, I was fairly certain that nobody would read it.  We simply do not want to hear it. Truth be told, neither do I.  That’s because when it comes to training and behavior modification, I’m a huge fan of food rewards. We use them in our clinic to redirect the attention of frightened cats, and to teach anxious dogs to associate us with more than just needles.  When used mindfully, and in tiny portions, food rewards are a godsend.  It’s the size, frequency, and pointlessness of treating that is contributing to America’s pet obesity problem.
Many pet owners fall into the habit of doling out commercial pet treats just because.  Worse yet, we give them because our pets demand them.  And those little tidbits and leftovers from the table? They’re okay right? After all, it’s the same food we eat.  But bear this in mind: a human requires roughly 2,300 calories per day.  Naturally, this number fluctuates wildly when you factor in age, gender, muscle mass, activity levels, etc., but bear with me. 
My little dachshund, Grendel, requires less than 200 calories per day.  So a single, 17-calorie commercial dog treat provides her with 11.7% of her body’s caloric needs.  And the 45-calorie treats that she really likes account for nearly one quarter of her body’s needs!  Many of my patients are about her size, and most of them get these same sized treats.  Worse yet, most of them get several of said treats. Every. Single. 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 have to eat to acheive the caloric equivalent.  I’m not going to drop names or single out brands, because frankly, I don’t want to get sued! If you want to know if Fluffy’s favorite treat is on what I’ve dubbed “the OMG list”, you’ll have to buy the book.  Kidding aside, it’s the best book I’ve read on the subject and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Here are just a few of Dr. Ward’s findings:
For a 10-pound dog
A single, popular bone bone-shaped treat is the caloric equivalent of a human eating TWO chocolate iced glazed doughnuts.
One chewy, bacon-style treat equals you eating a popular fast food cheeseburger.
One “teeny” edible dental health chew is the equivalent of TWO 12-ounce colas for you.
For a 20-pound dog:

One popular dental health chew treat is the same as you drinking THREE 16-ounce, fast food, chocolate milk shakes.

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 you.

For a 60-pound dog:

One large “wholesome” treat is like you eating FOUR fast food fried chicken breasts.


Perhaps by now you’re thinking the solution to treating 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 you. 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 equivalent of you eating FIVE king-sized milk chocolate bars! That’s a lotta love.

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 you eating an 8-ounce T-bone steak.

For an 80-pound dog:

A scrambled, Grade A large egg is the caloric equivalent of a slice of French toast with butter for you.

Let’s face it - most of the foods we eat are far more calorically dense than we realize.  When we factor in our pet’s vastly different nutritional needs, and combine it with their natural instinct to preserve energy, it’s easy to see how those empty calories add up.  That being said, I am routinely reminded that to pet parents, treating is important. Besides, I’m not a total killjoy! So let’s talk about how to give treats mindfully.

My Dogs Get Treats

Like I said, I’m not a total killjoy.  And there are many times when treats can be your friend.  Small food rewards are great motivational tools for teaching new, fun 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  Grendel how to track scents.  But as I’ve mentioned before, each treat is about half the size of a pencil eraser.  Crunchy treats are placed in sealed bags and mercilessly crushed into tiny pieces. Remember, it’s not the treat, it’s 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 they seek.

While treats are allowed at Casa Kupkee, they come with strings attached.  Our dogs must earn them.  This might mean running through their repertoire of learned behaviors, or it might just be holding still for a nail trim or an ear cleaning. They never get treats by demanding them, and if you are a new pet owner, I strongly advise you to nip this behavior in the bud.  It gets annoying quickly, and it is simply too tempting to toss your pet a high-calorie treat just to shut her 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 fat pets.

If “people food” is is your treat of choice, there are plenty of healthy options there as well.  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 being said, the flesh from these fruits is fine. Apples, bananas, blueberries and pineapple chunks seem to be popular choices.  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. Let me emphasize PLAIN! Nothing sweetened, salted, or flavored.  An entire rice cake consists of about 10 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 guess what? Our pets don’t care! Let me say it one last time - it’s not the treat, it’s the treat event.  When I first met my wife, she had a boxer with thyroid disease, a condition that made weight management especially challenging. Max’s rice cake treat events were the highlights of his day, and only cost him about three or four calories per event.  I’ll talk about similar conditions in another article, as they often act as obstacles to weight loss. But these too are manageable. 

Just stay away from the fast food equivalent biscuits.

Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic

Do you have a question for Dr. Kupkee? Send him an email by clicking here.

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