Trick or Treat? Choosing Treats That Aren’t Just Empty Calories

Have you ever stood in front of the treat section of your pet store and felt a little dumbfounded by the incredible selection of options for your dog?  Even "big box" retailers offer a dizzying selection of items ranging from small crunchy training treats to large basted chews…and everything in between!  I’ve seen recovery gels, ice creams in a variety of flavors, electrolyte replenishing tablets, and freeze-dried bits of just about anything imaginable.  Wait—are we still in the pet treat aisle?

We want to offer our dogs the healthiest, tastiest treats that we can find and afford.  So how do we go about choosing an item that best suits our furry friends?  Let’s take a stroll down the dog treat section together, and I’ll help you sort out the good from the bad. 

It’s Still About the Calories

I do need to remind you we’re talking about treats.  Just as with you or me, most of our daily calorie allotment should come from a well-balanced diet.  Treats should comprise no more than 10% of your dog’s caloric intake. I probably don’t need to tell you that this adds up quickly! To help stretch rewards throughout the day, opt for low-calorie treats or break large ones into smaller pieces.

Empty Calories

Let’s define this concept before we go any further.  An “empty” calorie is still a calorie, but it doesn’t pack any nutritional punch.  Minimal fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and amino acids are invited to the nutritional party with these guys.  Think of 100 calories of a jelly donut vs. 100 calories of sautéed kale and sweet potatoes.  They both provide the same number of overall calories, but your nutritional bang-for-the-buck is no comparison.


When you are trying to maximize the nutrition of every bite when choosing a treat, you want to avoid a product with too many fillers.  A common source of empty calories, these are usually simple carbohydrates (think white rice, wheat, and corn).  They raise the blood sugar rapidly, causing an insulin spike and other hormonal signals to the body to store fat.  Long-term consumption of large amounts of these can lead to obesity and metabolic derangement.  While corn and rice are digestible sources of carbohydrates, better (more nutrient-dense) sources of carbohydrates are oats, barley, potatoes/sweet potatoes, and tapioca.

Power Protein

In addition to the carbohydrate source, you must consider the type of protein in a treat.  Look for treats that have recognizable proteins in the first few ingredients.  Also look closely at the geographical source of the protein. When in doubt, choose meat that is sourced from the U.S. or New Zealand. They have the greatest safety record.


Almost any packaged treat will have some type of preservative in it to help extend shelf life.  I recommend looking for natural ingredients like tocopherols, (vitamin E) vinegar, citric acid, ascorbic acid, (vitamin C), oregano, and salt.

Keep it Simple

The most nutritious treats are usually the simplest.  For example, Zuke’s PureNZ Steaks contain New Zealand beef, carrots, apples, vegetable glycerin, salt, and tocopherols.  That’s it.  The new Enhance Endurance Functional Chews have chicken (from the U.S.), chickpeas, coconut oil, cordyceps and reishi mushrooms, and spirulina.  That’s a pretty impressive combination of superfoods all in one 8-calorie chew.  No empty calories here! 

If you’re still confused about which ingredients pack more nutritional “punch” into every bite, check out  It helps you sort out the benefits of different ingredients used in Zuke’s products. 

 It pays to be choosy about your dog’s treats.  In addition to training time and treating them outside of their regular meals, it’s a great opportunity to provide a little extra (tasty) nutrition! 

Dr. Jen Deming

Jennifer Deming, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and member of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition. She strives to improve her patients' wellness through nutrition counseling and preventative medicine. Dr. Deming lives, works, and plays in the beautiful community of Durango, Colorado.

Image by Trevor DeHass, @trevorandkahlua, who is road tripping around North America with his best friend Kahlua.