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How to buy the best dog treats, according to veterinarians

Giving your dog treats in moderation can be a great way to reward them while still keeping them on a healthy, balanced diet.
A dog being given a dog treat outside; Here's how to shop for the best dog treats including brands like Purina, Rachel Ray, Castor & Pollux and more.
Veterinarians and dog experts explain how to shop for the best dog treats and dental treats in 2022.manushot / Getty Images

Many pet owners love to spoil their dogs with toys and treats, especially when they need a boost of energy or a reward for good behavior. Treats can be appealing to dogs for a variety of reasons, mostly because they’re not something they typically get with their regular dog food. “It's different [than what they’re used to], whether it's due to the smell, flavor or texture of the treat,” said Caylee Freels, a licensed veterinary technician at VCA White Lake Animal Hospital.

SKIP AHEAD How to shop for dog treats

But if you’ve just been giving your pup the scraps from your plate at dinnertime, you might want to rethink what you’re feeding your dog — and how much you’re feeding them. “Some human foods — even in small treat-sized amounts — can take up too many of your pet’s daily calories and quickly add up to extra pounds,” said Dr. JoAnn Morrison, director of veterinary science at Banfield Animal Hospital.

Treats that are specifically designed for dogs have the calories clearly stated on the label, so you don’t have to worry about overfeeding them. We consulted veterinarians and pet experts about how to shop for the best dog treats and where to find the best ones. We also compiled a few highly rated options and Select staff favorites to consider based on our experts’ advice.

13 dog treats to consider

In line with our experts’ guidance, each of the following dog treats we list features a nutrition label on its packaging that indicates the number of calories and fat content per serving as well as the ingredients. Most of the treats listed below also come in different sizes (or can be broken up into smaller pieces) to accommodate different size dogs and breeds.

Zuke’s Mini Naturals Chicken Recipe Dog Training Treats

Dr. Kristen Nelson, a board-certified veterinarian author of “Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life,” recommended Zuke’s Mini Naturals as a great training treat option — they come in tiny morsels, so you don’t have to break them up as you’re working with your dog on a new skill. Mini Naturals are wheat-free and corn-free for dogs who may have stomach sensitivities or allergies, and they contain no added animal fat, artificial colors or artificial flavors, according to the brand.

Greenies Regular Dog Dental Treats

These dental treats have a stamp of approval from the Veterinary Oral Health Council, which means a group of veterinary dentists and dental scientists reviewed data from the manufacturer’s trials and confirmed that the treats reduce plaque and tartar build-up. The treats can help maintain gum health as well as help freshen your pup’s breath, according to the brand. They’re made with easy-to-digest ingredients, vitamins and minerals, Greenies says. I’ve been feeding the Teeny Greenies to my dog Bella — a 4-year-old Havachon who weighs 15 pounds — since she was a few months old, and she’s never had any issues with her teeth (she also loves the taste of them).

KONG Easy Treat Peanut Butter Flavor

This semi-soft peanut butter-flavored treat from Kong — which makes some of our experts’ favorite dog toys — comes in a dispenser that works like spray cheese and can be put inside of a chew toy to keep your dog entertained. The brand says you can also place a treat-filled toy in the freezer before handing it to your pup to make it last longer. Select senior editor Morgan Greenwald said she often fills a Kong with a combination of Easy Treat and kibble to give to her 1-year-old pit bull mix Suzie as a post-dinner treat.

Redbarn Bully Slims Dog Treats

Greenwald also gives Suzie these Rebarn Bully Slims, which were recommended to her by Suzie’s rescue since they are less tough than regular bully sticks. Slow-roasted with a natural smoky beef flavor, these treats are high in protein and low in fat, according to the brand. They’re also highly digestible and provide a natural source of chondroitin and glucosamine, which Redbarn says can promote better joint health.

Pet Botanics Training Reward Bacon-Flavored Dog Treats

The Pet Botanics Bacon-Flavored Dog Treats — which are just 3 calories each — are made with real pork liver, according to the brand. I give Bella these treats when teaching her new commands and to reward good behavior — she loves the bacon flavor and since they come as small, low-calorie pellets, I can give her multiple treats at a time while still keeping track of her nutritional intake for the day.

Blue Buffalo Blue Bits Dog Treats

These meat-flavored training treats from Blue Buffalo — which Select social editor Sadhana Daruvuri said she feeds her 7-month-old Maltipoo, Bandit — can be great for both puppies and adult dogs, and they come in an easily portable bag to take on the go, according to the brand. The treats are formulated with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for skin and coat health and don’t contain soy, wheat or artificial flavors and preservatives, Blue Buffalo says.

Rachael Ray Nutrish Burger Bites

Daruvuri said Bandit also loves these beef-flavored Rachel Ray Nutrish dog treats, as well as the roasted chicken-flavored ones from the brand. The treats are soft enough to break apart easily for smaller dogs and are made without artificial flavors or meat by-products for sensitive stomachs, according to the brand.

Pup-Peroni Rounds Beef Brisket Dog Treats

Select’s manager of editorial operations Shari Uyehara feeds her 11-month-old King Charles Cavalier, Loki, these beef brisket treats from Pup-Peroni, and he loves them. According to the brand, these treats are made with real beef and feature a fun, round shape that resembles real human-grade pepperoni. The treats contain no artificial flavors, fillers or added grains, according to the brand.

Zuke's Hip Action Hip & Joint Natural Dog Treats

Another option from Zuke’s, these treats come in both a beef and chicken flavor and are a good option for dogs with joint issues, according to the brand. Select writer Zoe Malin said she feeds these to her 9-year-old yellow lab Chance since they contain egg shell membrane, which the brand says can help improve hip and joint health and mobility. These soft treats also contain antioxidant-rich whole food berries as well as essential vitamins and minerals for dogs, according to Zuke’s.

Old Mother Hubbard Original Mix Oven-Baked Dog Treats

Old Mother Hubbard offers a variety of fun treat flavors, ranging from peanut butter and apples to bacon and cheddar cheese. I give this small-sized assorted mix to Bella, who loves the diversity of the flavors. This mix comes with the brand’s original flavor, along with chicken, cheddar and Char Tar (a mixture of oatmeal, apples and carrots).

Spot Farms Turkey Meatball Recipe With Cranberries

These treats from Spot Farms contain a blend of turkey (the first ingredient), high-fiber rolled oats, honey and cranberries. Free from fillers, artificial flavors, preservatives and colors, according to the brand, these treats can be given to your dog whole or you can split them up into small training-sized treats to give throughout the day.

SmartBones Pork Stuffed Twistz

These rawhide-free treats are filled with a pork-flavored chew center to add a surprise boost of palatability for your canine friend — they're also made with real chicken and vegetables, according to the brand. The treats are enriched with vitamins and minerals and are easy for dogs to digest, SmartBones says. SmartBones also offers a peanut butter option with a pork-flavored center, as well as beef- and chicken-flavored options. If you have a smaller dog, you may want to consider the brand’s mini treats, instead — these chew sticks may be hard for them to break into pieces.

DreamBone Chicken Classic Bone Chews

DreamBone’s treats shouldn’t splinter while your dog chews them, so they’re safe and can be enjoyed across a long period of time, according to the brand. DreamBone says these treats are made with corn, sweet potatoes, peas and carrots, as well as real chicken. They’re available in a four-count, eight-count and 24-count package.

How to shop for dog treats

The experts we spoke to suggested looking at treats as one part of your dog’s daily diet and giving them in moderation, which may mean your dog doesn’t get them on a daily basis. “Too many treats can interfere with the balance of your pet’s core diet — it’s recommended that treats make up no more than 10% of a pet’s daily calorie intake,” said Dr. Lori Teller, a board-certified veterinarian and president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

To determine what treats are best for your dog, our pet experts recommended looking at the ingredients, size and calories of each treat. They also discussed other types of treats — like dental treats and grain-free options — and whether they can actually be beneficial for your pet.

Determine nutritional balance

It’s important to remember that treats aren’t usually designed to be nutritionally balanced. The biggest consideration when it comes to researching treats for your dog is how to add them into your dog’s diet: “If you start feeding your dog a lot of treats and cut back on their kibble, you start running into nutrient deficiencies,” said Dr. Joe Wakshlag, professor of clinical nutrition and sports medicine and rehabilitation at Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine.

Too many treats can also result in diarrhea and occasional vomiting, so it's important to choose brands that clearly state the calories contained in each treat and include feeding recommendations on the back of the packaging, according to Freels. If you’re in doubt, The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center also offers a handy daily calorie calculator for pets.

If you want to be extra sure the treats you’re giving your dog are healthy, keep an eye out for the Association of Feed Control Officials’ (AAFCO) nutritional adequacy label (which is usually in small print on the bag). However, unlike dog food, treats don’t have to have the AAFCO label on their packaging — the association says it recognizes that treat products don’t meet the nutritional adequacy requirements for a complete and balanced meal, which is why they must clearly display the terms “snack” or “treat” on the front label.

Analyzing good (and bad) ingredients

Freels noted that dog parents should avoid artificial sweeteners like xylitol in the dog treats they buy. Other things to avoid include artificial colors, excessive salt (which will increase thirst) and syrups and molasses (which are high in sugar). Nelson advised to be mindful of foods like grapes or raisins, which can be healthy for people but toxic to dogs. If you’re not sure about a certain food, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) maintains a list of foods that can be harmful to your pet.

If you want to reduce their calorie intake, dog-safe fruits and vegetables — including bell pepper, carrots, green beans, apples and bananas, to name a few — offer very few calories and have some good nutrition to them, according to Wakshlag. “And it's not diluting down the calories that they get from their food — those are things you can get a lot more of as treats than commercial treats or pieces of steak that are going to be calorie dense,” he added.

Find the right-sized dog treat

While watching a puppy struggle with an oversized bone looks adorable, giving a dog a treat that’s too big or too small for them can be dangerous. “The size of the treat should be appropriate to the size of your dog — very small dogs shouldn’t have large treats and [vice versa],” Nelson said. She also suggested keeping an eye on your dog while they’re chewing larger treats like rawhide chews that can break and turn into choking hazards and recommended breaking up big biscuits to cut down on the calories per treat.

Size also depends on what you are using the treat for: training versus mental stimulation or enrichment. Training treats are going to be very small, which means more can be given as a reward for positive behavior. Regular treats, on the other hand, are larger in size, such as bully sticks, bones and dog chews, and should be used only for enrichment or mental stimulation, according to Freels. Too much of a large treat can cause GI Issues, so these enrichment treats should be given less regularly. If you’re using treats for training, “very small treats — the size of a thumb nail — are going to be best so more can be given without causing any GI indiscretion,” Freels said.

Should I get my dog dental treats?

While regular brushing is the best way to keep your dog’s gums and teeth free of plaque, dental treats can help tone down your dog’s breath and clean their teeth. “Dental treats can help remove some plaque buildup and can be a valuable addition to your at-home oral health care for your dog,” Morrison noted. Freels suggested looking for the Veterinary Oral Health Council label since it indicates that the dental treat has met pre-set standards to help reduce tartar and plaque development on their teeth.

You should also consider what type of chewer the dog is to see if they’d actually benefit from dental treats, according to Dr. Megan Shepherd, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and owner of Veterinary Clinical Nutrition, PLLC. “My older hound is extremely food motivated and will inhale (and not chew) a dental treat with a small surface area,” which means it won’t be as effective, she said. Dog owners should also be sure to count the dental treat calories as they add up fast, Shepherd added.

What about grain-free dog treats?

A grain-free formula — which is made without wheat, barley, rye and corn — isn’t usually better for your dog. These ingredients are fine in moderation and can provide good calories, extra fiber for better digestion, important vitamins and minerals and antioxidants in your dog’s diet, Dr. Brian Roberts, a board-certified veterinarian and regional medical director in the Mid-Atlantic region with VCA Animal Hospitals, previously told us in our guide to dog food.

The FDA opened an investigation in 2018 to examine a potential link between grain-free diets and a heart condition called canine dilated cardiomyopathy. Nelson recommended avoiding grain-free treats but noted you should ultimately consult your veterinarian. “The grain-free phenomenon is a fad from human nutrition,” she said. “When the grain is removed, other ingredients, like higher glycemic carbohydrates or fat, may be added — and those lead to other issues.”

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