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What's in your dog's treats?

What's in your dog's treats?

Choosing dog treats for our pups is a very personal choice that can be daunting. In fact, it's almost as daunting as choosing the best food.

Many, if not all, pet parents equate giving treats to their pooches to providing edible love. Thus, the idea that this edible love could have anything unsafe in it is unsettling and reading many articles online about what can be found in treats can be downright horrifying.

In this article, we're going to cover some ingredients found in many dog treats (and foods as well) that are questionable and controversial. Some of the controversy is certainly warranted as we'll discuss, though some is not. Our main goal with this article is to provide a balanced approach to these ingredients so that you can make your own decision about what you feel is appropriate for your pooch.

Fortunately, for each of these ingredients, there are alternatives and some companies eliminate them all together. Consider Barkz treats, for example. Barkz eliminates all the guesswork from choosing simple but savory treats for your pup, with only one ingredient and none of the other additives or components we'll be discussing.



Preservatives are commonly added to many processed foods, both human and pet, to prevent ingredients from going rancid and spoiling. There are a few you may read about, but we'll be discussing 3 main ones, BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin.



Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are antioxidants that preserve food by slowing the process causing fats to go rancid. They are classified as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but at very specific levels, which can all be found on the FDA website.

The research about these two compounds is very variable and leads to conflicting conclusions. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Toxicology Program has concluded that BHA is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." Granted, this is at very high doses that far exceed the levels accepted as safe by the FDA, but similar concerns in Europe and a couple other countries have led these antioxidants to be banned from being added in food at any level.



Similar to BHA and BHT, Ethoxyquin is also an antioxidant used to prevent spoiling as well as "scald" spots on apples and pears. Ethoxyquin is also "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA, at certain levels.

An article in the International Journal of Food Science from 2013 suggests that there is no better antioxidant in terms of how long ethoxyquin preserves the foods it's added to. However, at higher levels, it has demonstrated several effects including weight loss, kidney changes, and liver changes in our canine friends

So the real takeaway is that all three of these antioxidants could be beneficial at low levels, just like any other antioxidant. But at high levels, they can cause a variety of health problems. Even if included at low levels, many folks have justifiable concerns about accumulation. If a dog ingests minimal levels of these preservatives, but does so every day for several years, could the compound accumulate to toxic levels? This idea is what makes so many uncomfortable.

The reason these are still used so much in pet foods is that there are no better preservatives that stay stable for as long. But the good news is that there are natural alternatives to them, like Vitamin E (often labeled as tocopherol) and Vitamin C (often labeled as ascorbic acid). Many companies looking for a more natural image have turned to these alternative choices, in combination with obtaining more domestic/local ingredients to cut down on how long they need to be preserved for.


Meat Byproducts

You will often find the term "if you wouldn't feed it to yourself, don't feed it to your dog", quoted in many internet articles. But the real truth is that dogs are not small human beings and have palettes for things that we as humans would find distasteful. Dogs in the wild today, like coyotes and wolves, certainly have no restrictions when they catch prey and you won't find them gingerly picking just the muscle off the thighs of a deer.

The word "byproduct" by itself sounds distasteful to us. But a byproduct is simply anything that we as American consumers consider distasteful to eat. Generally, this means anything other than muscle, like your breast meat, pork loin, ribeye, etc. Liver for example is technically a byproduct, despite its high nutritional value. In other countries and cultures besides our own, many meat byproducts are considered delicacies. Consider tripe (beef stomach) and sweetbreads (beef pancreas and thymus).

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has very clear regulatory language excluding hair, hooves, horn, hide trimmings, intestinal contents, plus anything else not part of a carcass from being included in pet foods. Thus, any sources that suggest these items are most likely finding their way into pet foods are just wrong.

There is also a lot you might read stating that your pup's food "probably" contains the ground up remains of diseased animals. But consider where most byproducts are processed. According to Dr. Cailin Heinze from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, there are 2 types of rendering plants. The first type receives its products from the same USDA inspected slaughterhouses that serve people and is what most large reputable pet food manufacturers use. These are the parts "not fit for human consumption" that get ground into meal. "Not fit for human consumption" is not the same as "inedible", but when is the last time you as a human had a hankering for cow pancreas? Not me. But a dog would love it.

Your other kind of rendering plant is where diseased animals and our poor roadkill wind up. But these poor creatures don't end up in the food supply. They go into garden fertilizer, cosmetics, and other industrial uses. Because using renderings from this second type of plant is not specifically prohibited by law, many pet parents become nervous that they're probably being used. But according to Dr. Heinze, this is very unlikely, even from a pure business standpoint. "…a huge company that makes 10,000 pounds of dog food at a time is not going to go that route. They need more volume…and those odds-and-ends batches also won't meet their quality control. They need consistency to be able to reach a specific nutritional standard."

For extra reassurance that other cats and dogs are not in our common pet foods, consider that a few years ago, the FDA did a very comprehensive and sensitive study to detect if any dog or cat DNA was found in finished pet feed destined for pet foods and none was found.

For me, avoiding animal byproducts on a pet food label is really more of a personal preference than a necessity, but the way they are included on food labels can be confusing and distasteful enough for any pet parent to just say "I'll have none of that, thanks."


Treats Are Important Too!

In addition to an actual diet, puppy love wouldn’t be the same without treats. Sometimes, this is the hardest part of dietary restriction for pup parents. You have to remember that if you’re attempting dietary restrictions and limited ingredients, this has to go for treats as well. But it doesn’t mean treats are out at all! Fortunately, finding limited ingredient treats can actually be an easier task, as a treat does not have to be nutritionally balanced, like a diet.

For treats that have only a single ingredient that helps to take the guesswork out of what may be causing an allergy or digestive issue for your pup, why not take a look at Single Ingredient Treats? Barkz treats are made with only 100% all natural meat. Or, if we’re avoiding common meat proteins, try the 100% sweet potato treats instead. You can’t beat treats with only one, all-natural ingredient.


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Humectants are used to moisten or soften processed foods. Think of your treats with that slightly chewy consistency. Propylene glycol, also “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA at certain levels, is the most commonly used.

But why is it so controversial?

Much of that can probably be blamed on it sounding very similar to ethylene glycol, which is the main ingredient in generic antifreeze and is a potent toxin to cats and dogs alike, leading to acute kidney failure.

Propylene glycol by contrast, does not have the same concerns for toxicity, according to veterinary toxicologist Ahna Brutlag, as quoted in a 2015 article from DVM360. “Propylene glycol is one of the least toxic glycols.” says Brutlag. “As with any chemical, it’s the dose that makes the poison. If a cat or dog ingests a large amount of propylene glycol, it can become poisoned. The amount of propylene glycol that a dog would be expected to ingest in a commercial dog food containing propylene glycol would not be considered enough to cause poisoning.”

While propylene glycol follows the same pattern as our preservatives–a little is probably okay but a lot is not–there are alternatives. Molasses and vegetable glycerin are more natural humectants that achieve the same goal of moistening and softening food, so avoiding propylene glycol altogether is possible.


Artificial Colors

An article in Forbes magazine from 2012 stated at the time that there were 11 artificial color additives still approved by the FDA.

Currently there are only 9, meaning that within the last six years, two more have been knocked off the list. But even of the 9, there are a couple that have some bad connotations. A 2010 paper from the Center for Science and the Public Interest showed that Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 contained carcinogenic contaminants and caused allergic reactions in mice and rats.

It really comes down to this. Color additives are, and have always been, a marketing tool to make foods look more appealing to the consumer. What would certain candies or breakfast cereals be without their rainbow of colors, after all? But when’s the last time you saw your pup really contemplate the color of her kibble before eating it? They have no nutritional benefit.

Fortunately, there has been a steady movement over many years, in accordance with public concern over the health implications of artificial colors, that has led companies to find natural alternatives. This has included pet foods. Just recently this past fall, Petco announced that they would be completely phasing out any pet foods containing artificial colors (as well as flavors and preservatives).


Artificial Sweeteners

Snacks with simple sugars have been implicated (among other underlying causes) with the out of control obesity trend in America. This trend also spilled over into our pet population, with over 50% of pets being clinically obese according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

There really is no good reason why simple sugars, like high fructose corn syrup, really need to be in dog treats. And again, there are less problematic alternatives. Molasses and applesauce are both used as natural sweeteners.



Barkz & Single Ingredient Treats

At Barkz we focus on single-ingredient treats. Our treats have:

  • No Preservatives
  • No Additives
  • No artificial Sweeteners
  • No Meat-Byproducts

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