Many of us maintain a little stockpile of our favorite snacks in a cupboard somewhere. And plenty of pet owners feel that their beloved four-legged companions deserve their own stash of treats as well. But does the habit of giving treats actually benefit our cats — or is it more a matter of anthropomorphism than anything else?
“Cats don’t require treats,” says Cailin Heinze, MS, VMD, assistant professor of nutrition in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “But they can be appropriate if your cat is healthy and you watch calories. Giving treats to cats is less common than with dogs. That’s probably because it’s also less common to train a cat than a dog.”
However, training is actually a great reason to introduce treats to your cat, she says. While it’s tempting to toss your cat a treat because she just looks so cute curled up on the couch, “the best use of treats is as a reward for good behavior — specific good behavior,” says Dr. Heinze. “If you want your cat to come when you call her, or to sit, or not to be in your face when you eat your cereal in the morning, you can train her. Food that is not in a bowl can be a powerful motivator. It’s amazing what cats can be trained to do with positive rewards, and treats are one easy way to reward them. It takes a little more patience than with dogs — you have to convince them that it’s in their own interest.”
Even if you just want to give your cat an occasional treat for doing nothing in particular, you’ll want to choose treats, either store-bought or home-made, that are safe, nutritious and integrated into an overall diet. Here’s how.
Healthy Cat Treats to Look For
Different cats like different treats, so you’ll want to experiment to find one that your cat especially likes. “If the manufacturer has good quality control, and the treat is fully cooked and low in calories, there’s a lot of flexibility in what you choose,” says Dr. Heinze. “Most commercial treats, fed in small amounts to healthy cats, are unlikely to cause harm.”
Because treats should only make up a small part of the daily diet, there’s no reason to chase after specific nutrients such as copper or iron. But calories do count. If calories aren’t listed on the label, suggests Dr. Heinze, call the company and ask them about calorie information. “If they can’t provide it, choose another company.”
Even for a healthy-weight cat, calories from treats should make up no more than about 10 percent of the total daily caloric intake. If your cat weighs eight or 10 pounds, she may need only 200 to 250 calories a day — so treats should provide only 20 or 25 calories a day. “Yet even the smallest commercial treats are three or four calories a piece,” notes Dr. Heinze. “Owners often underestimate, or ignore, calories that come from treats.”
So make treats special — and rare. What matters most is portion control. That’s especially true if your cat is heavy. “Obesity is quite a big problem, with one half to two thirds of cats being overweight or obese,” explains Dr. Heinze. “Cats are designed to eat small amounts frequently, with lots of exercise in between. In our environments they don’t get a lot of exercise catching what they eat. If your cat is already overweight, treats can obviously make things worse.”
Kinds of Cat Treats to Avoid
While there’s no need to search for specific nutrients when buying a commercial treat, there are some things to avoid. “Don’t feed your cat raw treats,” says Dr. Heinze. “Even freeze-dried raw treats can cause food-associated illness, such as campylobacter or salmonella.” Bottom line: “Meat treats should be appropriately cooked to kill pathogenic bacteria.”
Sugar is another ingredient to skip. “Cats don’t taste sugar, like dogs do, so it has little benefit to a cat,” says Dr. Heinze. “Nothing in the natural diet of wild cats is sweet — not mice, not shrews, not snakes.”
Dog treats should not be given to cats. “There may be ingredients in dog treats that aren’t safe for cats,” explains Dr. Heinze. “For example, ethylene glycol — the main ingredient in antifreeze — is sometimes added to dog foods in small amounts to keep it moist. The quantities aren’t a problem for dogs, but could be for cats.”
Homemade Cat Treats
“I use meats from my kitchen when I’m training my cat,” says Dr. Heinze. “I use small cut-up bits of chicken breast, or pork loin — tiny little pieces. I always use cooked meat. These make nice treats for healthy cats.” Calories count here, too. If you bake a small three-ounce piece of chicken breast, don’t add fat, and remove the skin, that’s about 140 calories. So if you cut it up into 70 tiny pieces, each one is about two calories.
If you want to make homemade treats, beware of certain potentially dangerous ingredients:
Onions and garlic:“Onions are more of a concern than garlic, but both are potentially problematic. They cause oxidative damage to blood cells in cats.” All types of onions, including green onions (scallions) and shallots, should be avoided.
Processed meats:Simple cooked chicken is one thing, but avoid lunch meats, deli meats and processed meats for cats. They’re high in fats and sodium.
Baby food:“Some people give cats meat-flavored baby food,” says Dr. Heinze. That may be okay, “but some are flavored with onion or garlic powder, so they can be a problem.” Check labels.
Cat Treats and Special Diets
“If your cat is on a diet for health reasons, always talk to your veterinarian so she knows what your treats are, and if they are appropriate,” says Dr. Heinze. “For example, if you have a cat with heart disease, you and your vet should know the sodium content of the treat. If your cat has kidney disease, you may want to avoid meat treats, because they are too high in protein.” Some cats can also have food allergies. “Allergies aren’t common in animals, but if you have a cat that is allergic to chicken, you’re not going to want to give that cat a chicken treat.”
Age alone isn’t really a factor in whether to feed treats. “You may have a 19-year-old cat with no health problems, and treats are fine,” she says. “Or you may have a 12-year-old cat with health problems on a special diet, who needs special treats — or no treats.”
Appropriate Times for Cat Treats
“Giving your cat treats can make your relationship with your cat better,” says Dr. Heinze. That’s especially true if you use treats to teach your cat a little good behavior. Even kittens can learn. “If you’re training your kitten, that’s a good time to introduce treats in limited amounts.”
Don’t want to start the treat habit for your cat? That’s fine too. “There’s no reason cats need treats,” says Dr. Heinze. “If you never teach your cat that treats exist, you don’t have to worry about her begging you for them.”