Are We “Treating” Our Pets to Death?

Dog begging for treat

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, 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.

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