Q&A With tails.com Head Vet Sean McCormack

Dogs get fed treats at almost half of human mealtimes, a new study by dog food company tails.com reveals.

A separate study by researchers from the University of Liverpool estimates that 59 percent of dogs in Britain are overweight and this could shorten their lifespan by 2.5 years.

tails.com Head Vet, Sean McCormack offers advice and tips on feeding treats to dogs in a safe and healthy way, in this Q&A.

What is the best way to count treats properly within a dog’s daily balanced diet?

It’s confusing, isn’t it? My best advice on counting treats is to take out some of your dog’s food from their daily allowance and use that as treats throughout the day rather than adding more food into the mix. This is really easy with a dry kibble diet, but can be done with a little cooked meat taken out on a walk too. Tinned food, not so much!

If you’re going to add additional treats on a daily basis then just realise they all add up as extra calories. If your dog’s getting too many calories and not burning them off with activity and exercise, they’re going to gain weight. So reduce the amount you are giving your dog in their regular mealtimes.

How best to know you’re doing it right? Measure out their food, and learn to measure your dog’s weight and body condition score (BCS). If their weight is creeping up and scoring as overweight on a BCS assessment then you know you’re feeding a bit too much. That’s when to cut down on treats.

Are dog owners giving treats when they don’t need to ie: how can an owner spot the signals of a dog wanting to play or go for a walk instead of giving lots of treats?

Yes, I think we’re all guilty of succumbing to those puppy dog eyes and giving treats when we shouldn’t. Or tipping just that extra bit of food into the bowl. It’s a great point, very often dogs are not looking for food or tasty treats, they’re looking for fun and social interaction. So getting out with them, playing games, going for a walk, allowing them to stop, explore, sniff; these are all a reward in themselves and stimulate our dogs’ minds as well as tiring them out.

I always say “a tired dog is a happy dog”. And one great way we can change our own and our dogs’ relationship with food and treating, is to make eating and finding food a game in itself.

Ditch the food bowl! Your dog will actually enjoy working for their food if it’s given in puzzle feeders or toys, or by scatter feeding the food across the floor or garden. Hiding the food in the home or garden. Having a daily portion of their allowance kept aside for some fun, reward based obedience training. All great fun!

What our dogs really want most is fun interaction with us their owners, not always treats. Just because a dog asks for food doesn’t mean they are hungry. They’re hardwired to eat when there’s food available, as their ancestors didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.

When can ‘human’ food be given as treats? What human treats can owners feed safely?

Some ‘human food’ is totally off limits as they can be harmful to our dogs, like chocolate, raisins and grapes, garlic and onions for example. But there are many healthy foods we don’t always associate with dog treats that can be a great alternative to some of the calorific dog treats on the pet food market.

If your dog needs to lose weight, sweet carrot sticks or green beans are a firm favourite of most dogs. They’re low in calories, yet high in fibre so your dog will feel fuller. Fruit or berries can be good, but do contain natural sugars so go easy; sugar = calories.

Lean cuts of cooked meat are also a great, high value treat that most dogs will do back flips for! So use sparingly when you’re teaching them new tricks or trying to correct certain unwanted behaviours. Avoid fatty, processed foods which are highly calorific.

Did you know that a single human biscuit for a small dog could be the equivalent of us eating a whole packet, or a sneaky sausage from your breakfast might be the equivalent of us eating three cheeseburgers? So these types of human foods are best avoided altogether.

What factors should owners take into account when feeding treats?

There are a whole range of factors to think about when feeding our dogs the right amount, including knowing if we’re overdoing it on treats and making them gain weight. First off, age is a factor because young, growing dogs have higher energy needs than adult or senior dogs.

Many people claim that their dogs got fat when they were neutered or spayed, but in reality the effect of these health benefiting procedures is minimal. They’re usually carried out at precisely the time dogs have grown up and no longer needed extra calories to support their rapid growth period as pups. So if we don’t dial down how much food and treats we give at this stage it’s only natural that they’ll gain excess weight. Neutering isn’t an excuse for an overweight pet.

Your dog’s current weight and body condition is the most important factor in deciding how many treats to give, or to give them at all. If they are overweight, then you’ll need to really pull back on treating, find less calorific alternatives or reduce their daily food allowance. Perhaps a combination of all three.

Finally, activity level will determine how much food and calories your dog burns off each day. If something in your lifestyle changes and your dog is doing more or less exercise and activity than usual, adjust the amount you’re  giving them accordingly, and use regular weight checks and Body Condition Score (BCS) to find the right balance.

More information on Body Condition Score (BCS) in our video here.

How can owners stop feeling ‘mean’ for not treating there dog, or feeding fewer/smaller treats?

Reframe treats to mean head and belly scratches, verbal praise, an extra walk, some games, using feeding time puzzle feeders or hide and seek feeding.  You’re not doing your dog any favours if you’re overfeeding or over treating.

Unfortunately you could be doing a lot of harm and setting them up for health problems, a poorer quality of life, or even a shorter life if they end up becoming overweight or obese.

What can you do if your dog is fussy, are there any tricks to make them enjoy healthier treats?

Hunger is a great one! If your dog’s not keen on a treat, don’t force it, just move on. And skipping a meal is not a major thing to worry about on occasion either if your dog is at a healthy weight.

Too many people are obsessed with feeding their dog and if they have an off day or are just not hungry it’s not the end of the world.

Are there any treats you can give a hyperactive dog to calm them down?

It depends on the level of hyperactivity, as sometimes behavioural training is needed. Diet can only do so much. But turkey and pumpkin are rich in an amino acid called tryptophan, which the body converts into one of the happy hormones, serotonin; good for stressed, anxious or hyperactive dogs.  It’s important to say that for behaviour, diet is normally an aid rather than a whole solution.

How can treats fit into a training or reward system for your dog?

Treats are a super important part of the relationship we have with our dogs, when it comes to training but also when it comes to showing our love for our dogs and when we want to make them happy.

I’m not one to say “no treats” but just be mindful of the type and amount of treats we’re feeding, and take into account the effect of treats on daily calorie allowance by reducing food portions alongside treats.

Everything that passes your dog’s lips counts, so make those treats count when it comes to training and reward.












About Sean McCormack  BSc (Hons), MVB, MRCVS (Head vet):

Sean studied Animal Science as an undergraduate learning about anatomy, physiology, husbandry and nutritional management of a range of domestic animals, followed by his Veterinary Medicine degree (MVB) at University College Dublin.

Having spent six years in private practice at various first opinion and referral small animal clinics, he has a great understanding of dog owners and the concerns they face when trying to choose the best diet for their pets.