A dog opens wide for a treat.

How to Fit Treats into Your Pet’s Diet

Treats are a great way to enhance the bond you have with your pet and to reward good behavior. Too many treats can contribute to excess weight gain and consumption of an unbalanced diet. Pet owners should balance the amount of treats provided daily while still engaging with their pet.

What Is the 10% Rule?

90% of a pet’s caloric intake should come from a complete and balanced diet. 10% of a pet’s caloric intake can come from everything else, including treats, table foods, supplements, and foods used for medication administration.

A complete and balanced diet means that all the nutrients for your pet are present and in the correct proportions. When calories from food items that are NOT complete and balanced exceed more than 10%, it is likely your pet is not eating a balanced diet.

What Food Items Fall in the 10% Category?

How Do I Find Calorie Information on My Pet’s Treats?

Calorie information is required on pet food labels. This will be labeled as kilocalories (kcals) per kilogram AND kilocalories per familiar unit (i.e. treat or piece). A kilocalorie is the same as 1 Calorie listed on a human food label. If you do NOT see calorie information listed on the pet food label of the product you are feeding or thinking of buying, find something else.

Supplements (flavored chews, fish oil, etc.) do not usually list calories on their label, but they are often available through the manufacturer. Fish oil products typically contain 40 kcals per teaspoon. Some treats like bully sticks, hooves, pig ears, and other chews are exempt from including calorie content on the label. These do, however, contribute significant calories to your pet’s diet and can be difficult to factor into a diet plan when calories need to be adjusted.

How Do I Figure Out Calorie Counts for Human Foods?

Calorie information may be listed on the Nutrition Facts label. You can also find calorie information on the FoodData Central database, which is provided by the USDA for foods that don’t typically come with a Nutrition Facts label, like fruits, vegetables, and certain protein sources.

Calorie counts for foods commonly given to pets include:

How Many Calories Should My Pet Consume on a Daily Basis?

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association provides tables with the caloric needs for healthy adult cats and dogs. Your veterinarian can also help calculate your pet’s caloric needs, especially if they are over or underweight. These calculations are a good place to start, but may need to be adjusted over time based on your pet’s body condition score.

For example, a 20lb ideal body weight dog needs to eat around 500 Calories (kcals) per day. This means 450 kcals should come from a complete and balanced diet, with no more than 50 kcals coming from anything else.

What If My Pet Is Getting More than 10% of Their Calories from Treats?

  1. Make sure any commercial treats you are giving them include caloric content written as kcal/piece.
  2. Look for treats that contain fewer calories.
  3. If you need to use treats for daily training or behavioral purposes, look for treats with ≤ 5 kcals per piece.
  4. Consider making a daily treat bag or box, so that everyone in the household is treating from the same place without providing excess snacks.
  5. If you are using high calorie bones or chews, consider reducing how often these are given as a special treat.

What If My Pet Keeps Begging for Treats?

Keep in mind that begging is a learned behavior that is positively reinforced when given a high-value food. If you reward a negative behavior with a high-value food, this only reinforces their behavior. Our pets come to us as the providers of their food, so it is only natural for them to display begging behaviors towards their food source.

What If I Want to Feed My Pet Homemade Human Foods?

Most home-prepared recipes for dogs and cats found online or in books are NOT complete & balanced. A consultation with a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist® is recommended for pet owners interested in preparing their pet’s food. This includes owners who would like to provide a combination of both commercial and home-prepared foods that exceed 10% of their pet’s daily intake. For example, an owner may wish to feed a commercial food in the morning, a complete & balanced home-prepared meal at night, and then have 10% remaining to provide treats throughout the day.