We all enjoy a little indulgence from time to time, so why not our cats?
Treats are enjoyable but not essential to life… just like chocolate. (Not that cats can eat chocolate, which means all the more for us!) It’s natural that a cat guardian wants to reward their pet from time to time, but how to do so healthily without your feline-friend gaining weight or damaging their health?
By their very nature treats are tasty and moreish. But the downside is they often contain high levels of fat, sugar, salt, or other substances to make them irresistible.
Why Cats Need Treats
Treats aren’t all bad.
As well as being super scrumptious, when you reward a cat with a treat, you send them a message. For some cats this builds their confidence, it reassures an anxious animal, or reinforces a behavior they’re learning. Offering a treat helps a cat to bond with you or guide them towards good manners.
When is a Treat, Not a Treat?
A treat stops being so when it makes up more than 10% of a cat’s daily calories. Above this level it becomes a food. Think of this in human terms and how it feels to replace meals with chocolate binges…nice as a novelty but a slippery slope to pimples, weight gain, and diabetes.
To protect your cat’s health, give treats in moderation and keep them below 10% of the daily food allowance.
Hunting Down Healthy Treats
As well as limiting the quantity of treats, it’s beneficial to select the healthiest options available. So let’s discover what these are:
- Commercial treats
- Prescription diet treats
- Fresh foods
- Home baked
Walk into any pet store or browse for pet products on the internet and you can’t avoid seeing rows of cat treats. Many of these are exceedingly tasty, but not necessarily healthy. That’s OK if you stick to the moderation rule and give only as a special reward.
If you like the convenience of a shop bought treat but want a healthy option, don’t despair because there are healthy varieties available. Look for a snack that contains a single ingredient, such as a named meat, that has been freeze-dried. The latter is a method of food preservation first developed to get nutritious meals to front line troops. Freeze drying prevents meat spoiling whilst preserving its nutritional value.
Look for a snack that contains a single ingredient, such as a named meat, that has been freeze-dried.
Freeze-dried cat treats are not only nutritious but they usually smell great too! This means the cat can enjoy the anticipation of the treat as well as the taste explosion on the tongue, and all without loading the cat up with additives such as flavor enhancers, artificial colorings, and preservatives.
You’ll find steak, chicken, and fish options, but if you choose the latter read the packaging to check it has been sustainably sourced (such as rod and line fishing for tuna) so it’s healthy for the planet as well as your cat.
If a specific commercial treat caught your eye, check the label because for good health, fewer ingredients are best. Ideally select products that have a high percentage of meat content and are free from artificial colors, flavors, sugars and preservatives. If you cat has dietary sensitivities, then you may wish to also look for gluten-free treats.
Prescription Diet Treats
Is your cat on a special diet?
Cats with health problems such as diabetes or kidney disease, should stick to eating their prescription diets. Giving treats has to potential to destabilize their condition, which is a shame, because cats on a restricted diet would appreciate the change.
Why not make your own healthy cat treats, using their prescription food?
For canned prescription diets with a ‘loaf’ like texture, remove the loaf from the can and slice it to ¼ – ½ inch thickness, and then into cubes. Place on a microwaveable plate and heat on ‘Hi’ for 2 ½ to 3 minutes. Allow to cool then reward your cat’s patience with a treat!
With dry kibble, blitz some in a blender and then slowly add water to form dough. Two cups of kibble require just over one cup of water to make the dough a workable consistency. Form it into walnut sized balls and flatten with the back of a spoon to form ‘cookies’. Bake in a pre-warmed over at 350 F for around 30 minutes. These keep in an airtight container for around 5 – 7 days.
Fresh Food Treats
If your cat snacks on house plants then they crave added fiber.
Cats are carnivorous and struggle to digest raw vegetables, but lightly steamed veggies make a good treat. Consider baked carrots or steamed broccoli florets, asparagus, green beans or winter squash for a healthy natural vegetable treat.
Cats are carnivorous and struggle to digest raw vegetables, but lightly steamed veggies make a good treat.
Being carnivorous, cubes of meat make a tasty treat and great motivation when training a cat. However, feeding raw meat is controversial (a debate beyond the scope of this article). The nub of the argument against is the risk of infection from worm cysts or bacteria such as salmonella, campylobacter, and E.coli. For example, feeding raw fish carries an increased risk of infecting your cat with tapeworm.
For peace of mind, cooked meat cut into treat-sized cubes is a safer option. However, keep in mind too much of any one food, even something natural like tuna, carries drawbacks. For example:
- Carnivorous fish (tuna, swordfish, and salmon) at the top of the food chain may contain high levels of mercury
- Tuna is high in polyunsaturated fats which can deplete the body’s vitamin E reserves
- Oily fish such as pilchards and mackerel are high in thiaminase, which is an enzyme which breaks down the essential vitamin thiamine
- Liver is high in vitamin A and when fed to excess causes bones to fuse together
The healthiest way to give fresh meat treats is to offer a wide variety of flavors, which keeps things in balance.
Home Cooked Treats
When you make home-baked treats you know exactly what the ingredients are. One drawback is that many recipes are wheat-based, which opens the argument about how appropriate it is to give cats carbohydrate. But if you are comfortable using wheat then adding cat nip or milk powder can make that treat extra attractive (provided they are dairy tolerant.)
Keep the following in mind when looking to give your cat a tasty treat:
- Not all human foods are safe for cats. Avoid the following!
- If cheese is your cat’s favorite treat just be sure it doesn’t upset their tummy. Cheese contains the milk sugar lactose, which some cats find hard to digest
- If your pet has a health problem, check with your vet if a treat is safe to feed
- Remember, a treat is just that…and save them for special moments.