Treats, table scraps, and food toppers

Food is love! Most pet parents like to spoil their furry companions with treats and other tasty morsels. However, too many treats can cause health problems. Learning how to choose treats, how much to feed, and how to recalculate your pet’s daily caloric intake based on the treats they receive is very important for preventing obesity and nutrient deficiencies.

Treats

Commercial treats

Commercial pet treats come in many forms: biscuits, chews, kibbles, and pastes are among some of the many options out there. These types of treats are usually safe to feed your pet, but make sure you take a look at the label and make sure it contains nutrition information such as a nutritional adequacy statement, calorie content, and ingredients list. If the package doesn’t have these elements, it’s better to avoid the product! See How to read a pet food label for more information.

Pet treat manufacturers also sell raw products such as bones, rawhides, bully sticks, pig ears, and other freeze-dried meat products. These treats are not recommended, as they can cause various health consequences such as broken teeth, digestive obstruction, bacterial infection, and much more. Check out Raw diets for more information on the dangers of raw products.

Human foods

Some human foods make great treats for our pets. Many raw fruits and veggies can be a healthy substitute for commercial pet treats, and, when fed in small amounts, are usually low-calorie. Other human foods like peanut butter are usually safe to feed pets as well, as long as they don’t contain toxic ingredients like xylitol. Additionally, you’ll want to make sure you know how many kilocalories (Calories) are in a human food item before you give it to your pet.

Most human foods are unhealthy for our pets. This includes anything that is high in fat or salt, or foods that contain toxic ingredients. You’ll definitely want to check out What not to feed: unsafe foods for pets to make sure you’re avoiding these products!

Table scraps

Table scraps are generally not safe to feed pets. They often contain lots of fat or salt, which can cause digestive upset such as vomiting and diarrhea. Food items high in fat, like bacon or poultry skins, can cause a serious illness called pancreatitis. Additionally, table scraps often contain toxic ingredients, such as garlic and onions, which can be fatal to our furry companions.

Another problem with table scraps is that they often contain lots of kcals, and it is often impossible to tell how many kcals are in a certain amount of food. Pets should never be given food that has an unidentified calorie content, because this can alter their nutrient intake and contribute to obesity.

Food toppers

Commercial food toppers

Commercial food toppers usually come in a can or a bag. They can be patés, purées, kibbles, sauces, gravies, etc. Food toppers are usually not complete and balanced; always look for a nutritional adequacy statement. Most food toppers will say “This product is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only,” which is how you will know it is not complete and balanced. Don’t be fooled by the pretty packaging: some products look like they could be a complete diet, but they are not balanced and can cause severe nutrient imbalances if they are fed as the sole diet.

Food toppers that contain raw ingredients are not recommended.

Do-it-yourself food toppers

Some pet parents top off their pet’s food with things like canned pumpkin, baby food, canned vegetables, or other human foods. None of these products are complete and balanced for dogs or cats, since they are made for humans and do not have nutritional adequacy statements. However, if the product label lists calorie content and does not contain toxic ingredients, using it as a food topper is usually safe as long as you follow the “How much can I feed?” directions below.

Unsafe do-it-yourself food toppers include raw meat or egg products, cooking grease, products high in fat or salt, dairy products (like yogurt), or any product you cannot determine the calorie content of.

How much can I feed?

Remember, you should only feed treats and food toppers that have nutrition information on the label. This includes calorie content and ingredients, as well as a nutritional adequacy statement for pet-specific products. You want to have this information so you can make sure it is safe to feed your pet (i.e., doesn’t contain toxic ingredients), and so you can determine how much is a safe amount to feed in terms of calories.

Less than 10% of your pet’s daily kilocalorie intake should come from treats. This is because treats, table scraps, and food toppers are not complete and balanced. Dogs and cats require over 40 nutrients in their diets so they can live a healthy life. Normal pet diets are formulated to meet the complex nutrient requirements of dogs and cats, but treats are not. (Learn more about Nutrient requirements here.) Feeding too much of an unbalanced food item to your pet can harm their health significantly, and the dangers may not be obvious: it can take weeks, months, or years for symptoms of nutritional imbalances to show up.

Treats can also contribute a significant amount of kilocalories to a pet’s daily intake. The most common cause of feeding too many treats is obesity. (Learn How to body condition score here.) This usually happens when pets are being fed the right amount (or more) of a complete and balanced diet, and their owners add in treats without taking calories into account.

When treats are fed, the calories definitely need to be taken into consideration. The number of kcal you feed your pet in treats should be 1) less than 10% of their daily kcal needs, and 2) be subtracted from the total kcals they receive from their usual diet. Both of these things need to be done, because simply adding up to 10% more kcal than what your pet needs can cause significant weight gain.

Step 1

First, calculate how many kcals your pet needs to eat on a daily basis. To learn how, head over to How to calculate your pet’s calorie needs.

Step 2

Next, find out how much 10% of the total is. This is the line you should not cross when feeding treats or food toppers.

Example #1:

    • Bruin needs 1,700kcal per day

    • 1,700 x 0.10 = 170 → 170kcal or less should come from treats

Example #2:

    • Fawn needs 600kcal per day

    • 600 x 0.10 = 60 → 60kcal or less should come from treats

Example #3:

    • Raven needs 200kcal per day

    • 200 x 0.10 = 20 → 20kcal or less should come from treats

Step 3

Then, you will need to figure out how many total kcals are in all the treats and/or food toppers you gave your pet today. Subtract this amount from their total needed kcals to get the number of kcals that should come from the main diet.

Example #1:

    • Bruin ate 170kcal worth of treats and food toppers today (this is 10% of his daily requirement)

    • 1,700 – 170 = 1,530kcal should come from his main diet

Example #2:

    • Fawn ate 50kcal worth of food toppers today (this is about 8% of her daily requirement)

    • 600 – 50 = 550kcal should come from her main diet

Example #3:

    • Raven ate 15kcal worth of treats today (this is 7.5% of her daily requirement)

    • 200 – 15 = 185kcal should come from her main diet

Step 4

Finally, calculate how many cups, grams, or ounces of the main diet your pet needs by again visiting How to calculate your pet’s calorie needs and scroll down to Step 7.

Specific examples and calculations

Treats

Read the label to find out how many kilocalories are in one treat.

Example #1 – a dog treat is 80kcal

  • Bruin needs 1,700kcal per day

    • 80kcal treat ÷ 1,700kcal total = 0.0471

    • One treat is about 5% of Bruin’s total daily kcal requirement

    • Bruin can eat up to 2 of these treats per day

  • Fawn needs 600kcal per day

    • 80kcal treat ÷ 600kcal total = 0.1333

    • One treat is about 13% of her total daily kcal requirement

    • Fawn should not eat this whole treat, since it is more than 10% of her daily caloric intake

    • Fawn can eat half of this treat, and it would be about 7% of her daily total kcal requirement


Example #2 – a cat treat is 4kcal

  • Raven needs 200kcal per day

    • 4kcal treat ÷ 200kcal total = 0.02

    • One treat is 2% of her total daily kcal requirement

    • Raven can eat up to 5 of these treats per day

Food toppers

Read the label to see how many kcal are in a specific unit of the food topper (e.g., per oz, per mL, per can, per gram, etc.).

Example #1 – a food topper for dogs is 45kcal per ounce

  • Bruin needs 1,700 kcal per day

    • 45kcal per ounce ÷ 1,700kcal total = 0.0265

    • One ounce of this food topper is about 3% of his total daily kcal requirement

    • Bruin can eat up to 3oz of this food topper per day

  • Fawn needs 600kcal per day

    • 45kcal per ounce ÷ 600 = 0.0750

    • One ounce of this food topper is 7.5% of her total daily kcal requirement

    • Fawn can eat up to 1oz of this food topper per day


Example #2 – a food topper for cats is 5kcal per mL

  • Raven needs 200kcal per day

    • 5kcal per mL ÷ 200kcal total = 0.0250

    • One mL of this food topper is 2.5% of her total daily kcal requirement

    • Raven can eat up to 4mL of this food topper per day


Example #3 – a food topper for dogs is 110kcal per can

  • Bruin needs 1,700 kcal per day

    • 110kcal per can ÷ 1,700kcal total = 0.0647

    • One ounce of this food topper is about 6.5% of his total daily kcal requirement

    • Bruin can eat up to 1 can of this food topper per day

  • Fawn needs 600kcal per day

    • 110kcal per can ÷ 600 = 0.1833

    • One ounce of this food topper is about 18% of her total daily kcal requirement

    • Fawn should not eat a whole can of this food topper, since it is more than 10% of her daily requirement

    • Fawn can eat up to ½ of this can, which would be about 9% of her total daily kcal requirement