Article By Dr. Stan Kunin
Doggy treats. What kinds of treats to give a dog is, believe it or not, a very controversial topic. Most dog owners feel that their dogs need to chew on something to keep them busy, or the owner feels that treats are a necessary part of their diet, training, or just to show that their pet is loved. Be careful. There are many products sold today that tout the effectiveness of giving treats for maintaining oral hygiene, health and emotional care. In reality, many of these products can be dangerous and in the long run, unhealthy.
For example, rawhide, cow hooves, pig ears, chicken jerky, bully sticks, Greenies and a few others all have potential dangers. Rawhide, no matter what is said on the internet (and you will find positive feedback on any treat if you look hard enough), is a major cause of gastro-intestinal problems. Most domesticated dogs are not made to handle rawhide and the above mentioned treats. Yes, occasionally a dog can handle them without a problem, but most will not.
Many dogs will not only have vomiting and diarrhea because of their inability to digest these chews well, but they will also gain weight. If that lucky dog is able to chew on these products without upsetting their stomach, then there is still the danger of a piece of rawhide breaking off, allowing the dog to potentially swallow it whole. Cow hooves can break off too, and cause irritation to the stomach and small intestine. Along with this, there is the risk of these causing an obstruction and a possible perforation of the bowel. Pig ears carry the danger of bacterial contamination, such as Salmonella, along with the mechanical danger of swallowing it in large pieces. You may have heard about chicken jerky causing many problems in dogs, including death. This is the jerky that originated from China, whose regulation of food health is nonexistent. Many of their products are laden with chemicals such as melamine, plus other preservatives in order to withstand the travel from their country to the United States. Greenies have been touted as being a great tarter removal for the teeth, but in reality, most dogs will break off pieces of the Greenies and swallow them whole rather than gnaw on them for long periods of time, as originally intended by the manufacturer. Even Nylabone can be fraught with danger if the dog breaks off a piece and swallows it. Unfortunately, I've seen a dog die from a bouda bone being lodged in the esophagus. Bouda bone is another potentially dangerous treat.
Bully sticks are actually made from a bull's penis. These and some of the other treats listed above are advertised to be a natural product. There is no such thing as a natural treat in this form. Although treats may be made of natural animal parts and actually contain 100% of the product, what you don’t know, unless you do diligent research, is from where these treats originate. The United States has a very strict regulation of these products but with that comes increased cost. So, many suppliers will buy from outside the U.S., to keep their costs down, but in doing so, they distribute a lesser quality product. Not many products are natural. When a pack of wolves bring down an elk, they don’t strip the body of the skin and penis and let it dry out before eating them. Wolves are opportunist animals and any part of their prey is fair game to each individual wolf. If the store bought products were truly natural, they would decay and become brittle as time went by. Products processed by humans can be preserved, but only through artificial means.
When a coyote or a wolf goes after their prey, they eat the entire body their victim. They pull on the skin of their kill in order to get to the muscles and organs. They have to gnaw the muscle off the bone. These actions help to keep their teeth clean. Domesticated dogs are different. When you hear of a product that helps keep your dog’s teeth clean, you need to be skeptical. Many dogs don’t gnaw on these treats. Sometimes they are very aggressive gulpers and can finish these treats in a matter of hours instead of days. Aggressive eaters are at high risk for choking and for gastro-intestinal problems. If a dog doesn't take its time to chew on a treat, then the animal must be watched carefully. As when the treat becomes smaller, it could then be swallowed whole. Once the chew gets to this point it is important to throw the treat away. It's especially risky when an owner has a large dog and a small dog. The larger dog could go after the smaller dog’s treat if the owner is not paying attention. When a dog takes its time to chew on a treat, this may help keep the molars clean but won’t do anything for the canines (fangs). Remember, the fangs from coyotes and wolves are kept clean because of the tugging effect they must do to tear the skin off the body of their prey.
One must remember that nature did not intend for dogs to stay indoors all day. Keeping them inside increases the risk of boredom, having furniture and other objects chewed on and destroyed. A well intentioned owner may feel that leaving a treat, like rawhide, will keep them busy. Not only can the this cause gastro-intestinal problems and obesity, but it can also cause food allergies. Nothing is more upsetting than coming home to see a very ill dog and having to rush them to the veterinary office or emergency clinic.
Milk bone biscuits also cause problems, as they aid in canine obesity and food allergies. Some owners feel they’re doing their dogs a favor by giving them biscuits. Unfortunately, biscuits are a major contributing factor in weight gain, especially for those dogs that don’t exercise. One cookie, to a dog, is the equivalent to 9 cookies for a human. If a dog gets 2-3 cookies a day, it's the same as a person eating 18-27 cookies a day. Owners say they walk their dogs every day but in reality, dogs need to be running a certain distance in order to burn off the excess calories they get from treats.
Dogs in the wild, such as coyotes and wolves don’t have the luxury of having food and treats available every day. In fact, wild canines have to travel far and wide to search for food. Once they locate their food, they have to chase, kill, and tear up their prey. All this helps them to burn off calories. Even locating and eating road kill will help keep these wild canines trim and fit. These animals can go days without a major meal, surviving in between by eating only vegetation and insects.
So what can you give dogs to chew or eat? A large rope toy, a large Kong toy stuffed with food such as cream cheese, or a large raw knuckle bone from a butcher can help keep dogs busy. A tennis ball can be used, but must be thrown away once the skin begins to peal off or if the ball shows signs of being worn or torn up. A raw knuckle bone has its advantages but it also has some disadvantages. For example, an overzealous dog can break a tooth on the bone, plus, the bone can stain carpet. Also, once the bone becomes dry and brittle, it must be thrown away. A partial list of good treats for dogs include raw carrots, banana slices, slices of apples, rice cakes, watermelon (no rind), and even ice cubes. If you have any question about whether a different treat can be given, always call your veterinary office.
Owners must always pay attention to their dog’s chewing habits when choosing a toy or treat, and it is better to never to leave certain items out for them to chew on without supervision. The owner must know the origin of the treat. The chewing action must be slow and deliberate. Otherwise, it is better not to give "long lasting" types of treats to them. Paying close attention to what dogs are allowed to chew and eat, can prevent any sad consequences. This article is solely the opinion of the author and his 34 years of experience as a veterinarian.
About Dr. Stan Kunin
Stan Kunin DVM graduated from UC Davis in 1978 and has had his own practice in Woodland Hills, California since 1986. Dr. Kunin is a special veterinarian who was born 80% deaf, but the weakness in his hearing has helped to give him a 6th sense about animal care and the wellbeing of his patients.
In a regular series of articles for the Jason Debus Heigl Foundation, Dr. Kunin shares his thoughts, opinions and advice on animal matters.