Pet owners love showing the love with a treat, whether it's for good behavior, for learning a new trick or just because.
This is particularly true during the holiday season.
On the up side, occasional treats strengthens the bond between you and your companion. They're also a great motivator for training and positive reinforcement. But treats that aren't chosen carefully can cause illness, obstruction and obesity.
Studies show 25 to 40 percent of American household pets are overweight or obese. That trend is leading to a steady increase in obesity-related pet illnesses and increased veterinary costs, according to Veterinary Pet Insurance, one of several such carriers.
Just like human obesity, complications can lead to arthritis, diabetes, orthopedic ailments and heart disease.
VPI reports that heart-related claims have risen more than 47 percent in the past two years. Claims for other obesity-related illnesses have increased steadily.
There are a few reasons for the problem.
First, many pet owners rarely stop to think about portion size. For instance, a typical treat for a human might be two to three cookies. Most pets are much smaller than people, though. If you weigh 150 pounds and your dog is 15 pounds, he's just 10 percent of your size. Therefore, his treat quantity should be about 10 percent of what you would consider a light snack.
Second, many pet treats are packed with calories. The average dog biscuit has about 70 calories. A small dog or cat may burn only 400 to 700 calories a day. So a few treats a day can easily make up nearly half the total calories they need. And that's before their regular diet.
Feeding pets people food can also pose problems. The best leftovers from the table are high in fat and calories, but low in nutritional value for your pet. Too many scraps can cause anything from a mildly upset stomach to painful pancreatitis, often leading to a trip to the veterinarian. And cooked poultry bones become brittle and potentially can puncture your pet's stomach or intestines.
Feeding from the table just a couple of times can teach your pet to lurk nearby at dining time, even when you have company. Pets are more reluctant to eat their regular diet when they have been spoiled by the great taste of people food.
Place your pet in another room while you dine, or establish a firm family policy to never feed pets from the table.
Follow these tips to treat your pet right:
Ask your veterinarian how many calories your pet needs per day. Then add up the calories his/her food provides and never let treats exceed daily caloric needs.
A good rule of thumb, treats should constitute 10 percent or less of a pet's daily diet.
Choose treats specially made for your type of pet. Specialty stores offer formulations for all kinds of animals including dogs, cats, ferrets, reptiles, birds and more. Consult your veterinarian if your pet has food allergies or special dietary needs.
Don't let pets fill up on treats before mealtime.
Look for snacks that benefit your pet's overall well being: cat treats that prevent hairballs, treats that clean teeth, add vitamins and minerals, or antioxidants. An arthritic pet can benefit from treats with glucosamine added.
Fresh veggies are good snacks for pocket pets such as gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, etc. Always consult with your veterinarian first to make sure the foods are acceptable. For instance, lettuce can cause diarrhea in rabbits.
Veterinarians warn that the several foods are potentially toxic, even fatal to dogs: alcohol, avocados, chocolate, macadamia nuts, fatty, moldy or spoiled foods, onions, grapes and raisins, salt and yeast dough.