Are We “Treating” Our Pets to Death?
Food treats for pets are popular. I found nearly 1,000 food treats and chews for dogs, and more than 100 for cats for sale during a recent search of a few popular pet product websites. Pet food manufacturers like treats because they are profitable, and owners like them because they attract the attention of their pets. Unfortunately, the association between treat feeding and obesity and its attendant problems in pets raises the possibility that we may be killing our loved ones with kindness.
A Billion in Bon Bons
Treats for our pets are big business. According to Newhope360.com, a consumer and trade website for the natural products industry, “U.S. retail sales of pet supplements and nutraceutical treats totaled $1.3 billion in 2012,” and that amount reflects only a slice of the pet treat market as a whole. Treat and treat-type products of all kinds make for serious profits; small wonder there are so many in the marketplace. The products are formulated for maximum palatability, or tastiness, including through the addition of large amounts of sugar, according to Dr. Ernie Ward, who runs the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention website.
Marketers have cleverly used the term “treat” rather than “snack,” presumably to enhance the emotional appeal of their products to buyers. To me, a treat is something provided occasionally to create happiness, like an ice cream on a hot summer day or a holiday present. As we know, giving a treat to ourselves or to another makes both the recipient and us happy. Food treats, however, too often are given frequently and between meals. They become more a form of regular interaction between the owner and the pet than a special treat. What do treats look like from the pet’s point of view? Probably like rewards for specific behavior, which may be what we call begging. If we praise a pet and give it a food reward, it is more likely to repeat the begging behavior to get another reward.
Treats Don’t Always Equal Love
Positive interactions are the basis of strong relationships and can take many forms. To the extent that we can separate snack feeding from healthy forms of interaction that won’t promote begging or obesity, we can sustain both a healthy relationship and a healthy weight in our pets.
Dogs seem to enjoy interacting with us regardless of the form of the interaction, so we have many options. For example, dogs love being students, so we can teach them to do a vast range of behaviors other than begging. If you are still not convinced, just type "dog tricks" into any Internet search engine. Are food rewards necessary to teach tricks? Not at all. In addition to food rewards, verbal praise, physical contact, toys and games all can be rewarding to dogs. Our challenge is to find out what our dogs find individually satisfying.
In addition to learning, dogs like to play with us. Regardless of age – ours or our dog’s – physical activity increases health and well-being, so walking is always welcome. And as our pet ages and stops bringing the leash to us, that is our cue to take the leash to her. Studies have shown that, while spontaneous activity declines with age, stimulated activity does not. Walks also can be opportunities to socialize if they include visits to parks and other areas where dogs and people congregate. Who knows, they might even lead to a “pet play date.”
More active dogs love to play games with us like tug-of-war, fetch, hide and seek, and chase. Some dogs and their owners enjoy participating in sports such as flyball, agility, dancing (really!) and hunting.
For cats, play is like hunting. In the wild, cats hunt small birds, mammals, reptiles and insects. Owners can learn about their cat’s “prey” preferences by offering toys that mimic those prey animals. A piece of paper tied to a string can mimic bird behavior for most cats, while numerous toys can imitate mice. A piece of dry food rolled across a floor can seem like a bug and stimulate some cats to give chase. While certain felines may like all three types of toys, others have definite preferences and getting them what they enjoy will get them moving. Cats like movement, which means they will be more likely to enjoy a toy that you manipulate rather than one that just lies inert (dead to them) on the floor.
A variety of puzzles are available for dogs and cats, including food puzzles. Pets that must entertain themselves for long periods of the day can be fed entirely from such puzzles, which stimulate their minds as well as their bodies. My colleagues and I find that puzzles are very popular with the clients in our veterinary practice, most of whom have pets that live indoors. There are so many puzzles available that we usually invite clients to go to a pet store and choose one they think will work for their pet, or to type “food puzzle” and "dog" or "cat" (depending on their pet) into an Internet search engine and click on the image tab to get ideas. We then recommend that they introduce whatever puzzle they choose on a nonwork day by placing it next to the pet’s food bowl at mealtime with some of the pet’s usual food in the puzzle. Once the pet understands that the puzzle is a food dispenser, the bowl can be withdrawn. Food puzzles provide the stimulation of activity without teaching begging and permit us to interact with our pets in a positive way.
For some pets and owners, active play is not possible, but that does not mean that pleasant interactions that don’t include food can’t still be enjoyed. Animals can be groomed, including with brushing and nail trims, and petted, which can be fulfilling for both of you without being filling for your pet. For pets not used to such activities, introduce the interactions slowly and patiently until the animal understands that they are safe and pleasant. Most will find such interactions enjoyable.
There are many ways to treat our pets well without overdoing it on treats or inadvertently teaching them to beg for snacks. Our animals thrive on interaction with us, as we do with them. We will enjoy each other longer and better when our interactions are fun, contribute to a healthy weight for our pets and promote activity.
Tony Buffington, DVM, M.S., Ph.D., Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, is a professor of clinical sciences and adjunct professor of urology at the Ohio State University. One of his primary areas of interest is the role of stress and disease in companional animals and humans. His interests have also led him to study clinical nutrition in small animal patients as well as lower urinary tract disease in cats.
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