Vet Talk

Safety First with Treats, Toys and Earthworms

The key to offering treats is moderation

October 14, 2019 (published)
Other dogs make fun of Spike, not for his radar ears, but for his culinary delight about earthworms. Photo by Dr. Nathan Mueller.

He’s going to find them, like it or not. Every dog deserves the opportunity to roam in a back yard or dog park, sniff around, and taste a couple blades of grass or a dandelion. Our little dog Spike doesn’t stop there. After a good rain, he hunts and eats the earthworms that have made their way out from the soil. Death awaits the ones that can’t find their way back down quickly enough.

Imbibing in earthworms usually causes a short-lived tummy ache and a skipped meal, but occasionally it leads to vomiting and diarrhea. Maybe Spike simply isn’t satisfied with the dry kibble he eats every. single. day. of his life. Without a better solution in sight, can I curb his compulsive worm eating with a small nutritious treat here and there?

Spike, a Chihuahua and mini poodle mix, is not the brightest toy in the toybox – by far – and thus he always follows the lead of Shug and Macie, our other two dogs. But he is cuddly and sweet, has the biggest heart, and I couldn’t love him more. He first flunked out of school and then, adding insult to injury, the other pups didn’t want to have anything to do with him when he started eating earthworms on the playground. Poor Spike was ostracized for his culinary preferences.

Not to worry, however, he gets safe treats at home.

Full embarrassing disclosure here: I’m not very strict when giving our dogs treats, so what I’m about to say might surprise you. Sometimes, I feed our dogs human foods from our refrigerator or pantry. (Please pick yourself up off the floor.) On rare occasion, I might even toss them a little piece of lean meat left over from dinner. The key to offering treats is moderation. Eating too much, or the wrong types of human food, can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, or even pancreatitis in pets. I only offer one or two small bites of a treat at any one time, and never more often than two or three times a week.

“Doc, if the treat is the size of my dog’s head, is that okay?”

Nope! In all seriousness, if you have to ask yourself if it’s a safe or appropriately sized treat, don’t give it. For a Maltese or a Chihuahua, an acceptable treat is much, much, much smaller than what would be acceptable for a German shepherd or a Great Dane.

Besides the typical commercial dry food, what kinds of treats are okay for dogs to eat? Meat trimmings like steak or pork fat, and fatty meats like bacon, are a no-no as they can cause pancreatitis in a lot of dogs. I swear there was a never-ending stream of sick schnauzers in the ER whose owner reported feeding fatty meat prior to becoming sick. There we were, the owner harrumphing over their own indiscretion and me going, “Let’s get some IV fluids and antibiotics started, and we’ll call you in the morning.”

What about treats made with flour and sugar? These treats are going to increase your pet’s carbohydrate intake for the day. Eating a few extra carbohydrates may not be a big deal with the young, healthy, or still-growing pups, but with adult pets it’s a different story. Avoid offering carbohydrate-rich treats to overweight or diabetic pets and ask your veterinarian about acceptable treat options if your pet has a health condition or food sensitivity.

Are dairy products an acceptable treat for dogs? This one is a little more complicated. Pets aren’t able to break down the milk sugar called lactose in their gastrointestinal tracts very well due to a deficiency in the lactase enzyme. Dairy products like cheese and yogurt, however, contain less lactose than milk and are generally fine in small quantities. Additionally, disguising a pill or capsule in dairy products can be a simple way to get pet medications down an uncooperative gullet.

When you walk in the door after work, is your dog giving you sideways glances to draw your attention to the refrigerator? Some human foods that can be safely offered as treats when given in moderation include:

  • Cooked carrots, green beans, green peas, snow peas, or miniature cherry tomatoes
  • Blueberries, raspberries, slices of apple with the seed removed, and banana
  • Cheese and yogurt
  • Lean chicken or turkey
  • Popcorn or mini rice cakes
  • Whole-grain crackers

Some foods are not safe for pets because they have known toxic effects, including:

  • Grapes and raisins can cause kidney failure.
  • Onion, garlic, and chives can cause damage to red blood cells, resulting in anemia.
  • Raw meats, or raw-meat diets, can be contaminated with parasites and bacteria (i.e., Neospora, Toxoplasma, and Salmonella). Several raw food-containing diets have been recalled this past year due to bacterial contamination. 
  • After a run of recalls, the FDA recently recommended pig-ear treats not be purchased or fed due to the risk of infection to dogs and humans with multidrug-resistant Salmonella.
  • Pet illnesses and death are associated with consuming jerky treats. The adverse events have most often, but not always, been linked to products imported from China. Even when packaging states "Made in the USA," the product might be assembled in the USA but prepared with ingredients sourced from China.
  • Want to give your pet a sweet treat? Check to make sure it does not contain the sugar substitute xylitol as it causes liver injury in dogs. Sugar-free gum is a common source of xylitol. Any products that contain xylitol should be placed in a safe location where your dog cannot serve himself.
  • The theobromine and caffeine found in chocolate can have effects on the heart and gastrointestinal system, potentially leading to seizures and death in severe cases.

No bones about it, putting pet safety first means resisting the temptation to offer your dog bones as treats or chew toys. Whether they’re part of the remnants from a meal (e.g., chicken bones), or purchased at the pet store as a chew toy, feeding bones is a bad idea for a couple reasons. The act of chewing on a bone can damage the tooth enamel, as well as chip or fracture a tooth. Bones fragment into smaller pieces or shards as chewed upon and when swallowed, the sharp bone edges can slice or puncture your pet’s esophagus or intestine.

Recommended toys? Try finding a toy not likely to be rapidly destroyed by your dog’s teeth, as is often the case with rope toys and the quickly disemboweled toys containing stuffing or air-filled squeakers. Swallowing chewed pieces of these toys can cause a blockage in the intestine that requires surgical extraction.

Have you purchased a toy that was marketed as “indestructible” yet it never had a chance when meeting your dog’s jaws? Toss out the partially chewed ones before your dog swallows any more pieces. It took some time, but we eventually found a couple of truly indestructible rubber toys, which incidentally passed the lawn-mower test too.

A less obvious risk to your pet’s health are hard dental chews and rawhides. Dogs who eat ravenously, or without chewing, can get a large chunk of rawhide stuck in their esophagus. If a piece of treat or toy gets lodged at the entry of the airway, it can suffocate a dog. If your pet is a fast eater, these types of treats are not for him.

The act of giving treats to your furry family member supports the human-animal bond. Perhaps it even supports their psychological and behavioral health by promoting pet (and owner) happiness.

As with all things, moderation is key. Man and dog cannot live on treats alone and too much of a good thing really is a problem. Go forth and make everyone happy with healthy, appropriately sized treats!

Spike, come here - want an earthworm, boy?

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