New publications: Treat feeding with dogs and cats

We are excited to announce four new publications from our colleagues in OVC’s Department of Population Medicine! Dr. Shelby Nielson, Dr. Deep Khosa and others recently published several articles surrounding their research on treat feeding:

  1. “Dog caregivers’ perceptions, motivations, and behaviours for feeding treats: A cross sectional study” in Preventive Veterinary Medicine
  2. “Cat caregivers’ perceptions, motivations, and behaviours for feeding treats: A cross sectional study” in PLoS One
  3. “Reporting perceived capability, motivations, and barriers to reducing treat feeding amongst dog and cat caregivers” in Topics in Companion Animal Medicine
  4. “Talking treats: A qualitative study to understand the importance of treats in the pet-caregiver relationship” in Preventive Veterinary Medicine

Read on for a short summary of their research and findings below.


The overall aim of this research was to explore and understand dog and cat caregivers’ perceptions, decisions, and experiences with feeding treats. Specifically, the research sought to describe how dog and cat caregivers consider the term ‘treat’, identify when, how, and why caregivers choose to feed treats to their pet, and identify caregivers’ motivations and barriers to reducing treat feeding with their pets.


This cross-sectional research involved two main phases. First, dog and cat caregivers were recruited through various social media platforms to complete an online questionnaire about their perceptions and behaviours concerning treat feeding. Survey responses were analyzed, including descriptive statistics and multivariable logistic regression modelling. In the second phase, online focus group interviews were conducted with dog and cat caregivers to delve deeper into their perceptions and practices regarding treat-feeding, and inductive thematic analysis was conducted to identify themes and subthemes.


How caregivers consider the term ‘treat’:

Caregivers exhibited varying perspectives on what constitutes a ‘treat’, with dog caregivers often viewing treats within a nutritional context, while cat caregivers embraced a broader definition, expanding their scope to include anything they may give to their pet that they enjoy. For many caregivers, ‘treats’ were not limited to commercial pet treats but included any food items enjoyed by their pets.

Identify when, how, and why caregivers choose to feed treats to their pet:

Training and reinforcing desired behaviour emerged as common motivations for treat provision. Though caregivers also perceived treat feeding as a means to enhance the human-animal bond, reflecting their desire to make their pets happy, and show them love. Further, caregivers shared their value for treats as an important aid in achieving health-related behaviours with their pet, such as delivering medicine and conducting nail trimmings.

Overall, dog and cat caregivers reported feeding a variety of different treat types and varieties to their pets, often serving different purposes. On average, both cat and dog caregivers estimated that treats comprise 15% of their pet’s diet, based on estimated quantity. Caregivers expressed tendencies to feed their pet human food and table scraps on a frequent basis, and these habits were indicative of caregivers perceiving their pet to be overweight or obese.

Identify caregivers’ motivations and barriers to reducing treat feeding with their pets:

Our results highlighted some interesting differences between dog and cat caregivers concerning their perceptions about reducing treats. Dog caregivers were primarily motivated to reduce treat feeding upon recognizing themselves that their pet is overweight, whereas cat caregivers relied more on being told their pet is overweight from their veterinarian. In addition to their recognized role in training and obedience, caregivers also highlighted potential feelings of guilt and lost bonding opportunities as perceived barriers to reducing treats with their pets. 


The findings from this research highlight valuable opportunities to enhance veterinary-client communications. Given that veterinarians are perceived as trusted information sources by caregivers, these insights can inform more effective discussions regarding companion animal diets between vets and caregivers, aiding in personalized recommendations to optimize animal health and well-being. Moreover, there is potential for these findings to shape caregiver education initiatives, offering valuable guidance for helping caregivers to make informed decisions for their pets, promoting healthier feeding practices. By addressing the observed tendency of caregivers to offer human food and table scraps, there’s an opportunity to advocate for mutually beneficial food options for caregivers and their pets to enjoy together. Overall, this research not only advances our understanding of treat-feeding dynamics, but also presents actionable strategies to foster healthier relationships between caregivers and their beloved pets.

Key takeaways for dog and cat caregivers:

  • Prior to your next veterinary appointment, consider keeping a detailed food log, including all treats provided to your pet. This can help ensure an accurate understanding of your pet’s overall diet during discussions with your veterinarian.
  • Consider introducing activities with your pet that do not center around food. For example, play can often serve as an effective reward for many dogs and cats!
  • Incorporating enrichment feeders into your pet’s routine can offer numerous benefits. These feeders such as food puzzles or toys not only promote portion control but also allow for the inclusion of a variety of nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables. Moreover, they can provide both physical and mental stimulation, catering to the well-being of pets at any age.

Written by: Dr. Shelby Nielson, BSc.H., MSc., PhD

Reviewed by: Dr. Deep Khosa, BSc, BVMS, MANZCVS (Small Animal Medicine), PhD, Academic Co-ordinator, Hill’s Pet Nutrition Primary Healthcare Centre, Associate Professor, Dr. Adronie Verbrugghe, DVM, PhD, Dip ECVCN, Associate Professor and Royal Canin Veterinary Diets Endowed Chair in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition, Shawna Morrow, BSc.H, MSc candidate

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