Treats … What’s “Healthy”?

My cats love treats; with the exception of Posey, who doesn’t eat anything that isn’t official cat food from a bag or a can with a cat on it, the Team can be considered certifiable treat-a-holics. The only treats they kitties have ever refused to eat were the Lean Weight Control and Tartar Control treats our vet gives us when we visit, and that stopped when the “littles” — the three youngest members of the team — arrived. They decided they liked those treats just fine, and that made the older cats reconsider their position. Peer pressure among felines appears to be very strong.

I don’t treat that often, but I do like to have some on-hand for play sessions or to reward very good behavior. There are a zillion different types of cat treats out there, and most of them are marketing themselves as “healthy.” The way the team goes nuts for them, I can’t imagine that they are terribly healthy … think of yourself eating a nice plate of steamed cabbage versus a bowl of ice cream.

So what constitutes a “healthy treat”?

The nice people over at recommend that you look for the following in your chosen treats:

  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Protein sources that are easy to digest, like chicken, salmon, or trout.
  • High-quality grains
  • Flaxseed
  • Potato flour

Ingredients to avoid:

  • Preservatives BHA, propyl gallate and nitrates
  • Non-food ingredients, chemical additives
  • High sodium and sugar content
  • Artificial flavors or by-products

So, let’s take a look at one of the Team’s favorites, Temptations. These treats are made in Canada and distributed under the Whiskas brand by MARS Petcare in the US (yes, the same company that makes the candy bars). They brag about containing only 2 calories per treat, and the team does love them … Tiny Love in particular will pretty much take my hand off if I don’t give them to her fast enough (hence her Pterodactyl nickname):

Chicken by-product meal, ground corn, animal fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols), dried meat by-products, brewers rice, wheat flour, natural flavors, grain distillers, dried yeast, potassium chloride, choline chloride, salt, titanium dioxide color, catnip powder, sodium copper chlorophyllin, taurine, dl-methionine, calcium carbonate, vitamins (DL-alpha-tocopherol acetate [a source  of vitamin E], vitamin A acetate, niacin supplement, vitamin B12 supplement, riboflavin supplement, thiamine mononitrate, d-calcium pantothenate, vitamin D3 supplement, biotin, pyridoxine hydrochloride [vitamin B6], folic acid), salmon meal, minerals (zinc sulfate, copper sulfate, manganese sulfate, potassium), mixed tocopherols, iron oxide, shrimp meal, and dried cheddar cheese.

As daunting as that list sounds, it’s not entirely dissimilar from the ingredients list on the healthy treats that our vet provides, although there are a LOT of extra things, like catnip powder and dried cheddar cheese, in the Temptations. For the most part, though, it looks to a layperson like a difference primarily in quality of ingredient. Instead of chicken or dried meat “by-product,” our Nutrisentials Treats (by Butler Schein Animal Health)  lists recognizable food items like skinless chicken, chicken meal,  and chicken liver. I don’t see reference to any kind of “acetate” on the vet-provided treats; those, as it turns out, are synthetic vitamins (people consume them too), and it may just be that the Temptations label is more detailed: the Nutrisentials Tartar Control treats simply say “Vitamin A Supplement” which could easily be the very same thing.  Both types of treats meet the AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profiles (if you ever want to start a pet food or treat business, you’ll get a lot out of the AAFCO web site … otherwise, not so much).

The team evaluates some treats. Work is so hard.

The team evaluates some treats. Work is so hard.

As for crude protein, crude fat and crude fiber, the Temptations have lots more than Nutrisentials … think “ice cream versus cabbage” again. The Temptations brag about 2 calories per treat, but don’t say how many treats you should ideally give your feline friends; Nutrisentials doesn’t specify calories per treat, but recommends giving your pet up to 12 treats per day.

Going by the Pterodactyl’s behavior as I wrote this, the Temptations are the immediately preferred treat, but the Nutrisentials are delicious and definitely worth many paws’ up.  Temptations are basically available everywhere, from convenience stores to pet food chains. The Nutrisentials have labeling that reads “available only at your veterinarian,” but I’ve seen them all over the Internet and the prices are pretty low.  Oddly, the Nutrisentials Lean Treats ARE preserved with BHA, with VetInfo recommends avoiding. Their tartar control cat treats, which apparently have been discontinued, did not have BHA but also had a much longer ingredients list that included a variety of vitamins and minerals not found on the Lean Treats ingredients list. Bizarre.

The take-away from this is, neither type is harmful to your cat, and might be beneficial if you have a finicky eater or are trying to reward good behavior or create a positive association for your cat (like going into his or her carrier).  If you are trying a new type of treat for the first time, give just a few and keep an eye on your kitty to make sure there are no negative reactions before taking a more liberal treating approach.

Do you treat? If you do, what is your cat’s favorite food treat? Let me hear from you!