Dogs and Sugar: Good or Bad?

Dogs have taste buds that react to sweets just as we do.

This means dogs tend to be attracted to sweets, just like us. In addition to enjoying the taste of sweet foods, dogs can also suffer from sugar addiction just like us. When sugar is consumed, the nucleus accumbens area of the brain releases dopamine which makes us feel good. When sugar is consumed often and in increasing amounts, less dopamine is released, and to get that good feeling, more sugar needs to be consumed. In other words, sugar is addicting.

We share more than just sugar addiction with our dogs, though. Unfortunately, dogs can also suffer the same harmful effects of sugar consumption: diabetes, obesity, dental problems, and more.

This discussion is about sugars or sweeteners that are added to your dog’s foods or treats. It’s not about the sugars naturally found in carbohydrates that might be in your dog’s daily diet. When you share an apple slice with your dog, for example, that contains fructose. Those naturally occurring sugars can be the basis of another discussion. Right now, let’s talk about added sugars.

Dog Foods Often Contain Sugar

It might surprise you to know that many dog foods contain sugar. Sugar in the food can mask the bitter taste of some other ingredients, can make the food more palatable and changes the texture of the food.

Most importantly to many dog food manufacturers, however, is that adding sugar to the food creates an addiction to a particular brand of food. After all, if your dog wants to eat one brand of food (and only that brand), then you’ll buy it over and over again. Plus, when dogs become addicted to dog foods containing sugar, it can be difficult to convince the dog to eat a healthier food or a food without the added sugar.

Sugar is Added to Many Dog Treats

Over the last several years, more and more dog treats have been found to have sugar in one form or another included in the recipe. Because sugar makes the treat more palatable, just as it does in dog foods, the dog will be more eager to eat it. When the dog appears to really enjoy the treat and gobbles it down, owners are more likely to give the dog a second treat.

Sugar in the treats will also mask tastes your dog might otherwise avoid. Many treats are made with less than stellar ingredients, including animal by-products, fillers, chemicals and other additives, so the sugar will increase the possibility your dog will eat it.

Identifying Sugars in the Ingredient List

When reading the ingredient list on dog food and treats, you can see sugar listed in various ways. The word ‘sugar’ usually applies to cane sugar (table sugar) but may also include sucrose, caramel, corn syrup and other forms of sugar. Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol derived from fruits and berries, but it can also be created synthetically. Beet pulp is the by-product of sugar production from sugar beets. Fructose is very sweet and is derived from fruits.

Although honey and molasses have often been said to have medicinal properties, keep in mind they are both still sugars.

©istockphoto/monkeybusinessimages

©istockphoto/monkeybusinessimages

Let’s Talk About Beet Pulp

When discussing beet pulp, don’t think about the purple vegetable. Instead, this is a sugar beet which is used in the production of candy, baked goods and other sweets. Once the sugar has been extracted, the pulp, which is high in fiber, is often used in animal feed.

The benefits of adding beet pulp to dog food is highly debated. Although fiber is important, and beet pulp fiber is considered beneficial to gut health, other experts feel that fiber added from other sources is better, especially a fiber that isn’t associated with sugar. Although the processing of the sugar beet is said to remove most of the sugar, it’s impossible to remove all of the sugar. If you wish to avoid added sugar in your dog’s diet, don’t use any foods that contain beet pulp.

Avoid Xylitol

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol derived from plants, including the birch tree. It is very sweet and has dental benefits, so many that it is often used in toothpastes and mouthwashes. It can also be found in gum, some nut butters, hard candies, and baked goods. People can metabolize xylitol well, however, this is extremely toxic for dogs. Xylitol will never be added to dog foods and treats as it’s toxicity is well known, however, in any discussion of sugar the toxicity of xylitol must be shared.

Canine Obesity is an Epidemic

Many veterinarians have said that 50 percent of their client’s dogs are overweight with far too many considered obese. A lack of exercise is certainly a part of this problem as is too much food. But foods and treats containing sugar, which create an addiction, are also a part of the problem. Addicts (human or canine) want more of what makes them feel good. If the food or treat makes the dog feel wonderful, he is going to beg for more of it and few owners can resist a pleading dog with big, brown eyes.

To combat obesity, increase the dog’s daily exercise. If your dog is obese, talk to your veterinarian first and work up a plan for the exercise, beginning gradually so the dog doesn’t hurt himself.

Change foods to one without any added sugar. Take a look at any of The Honest Kitchen’s foods. When you find a food you like, change foods gradually, doing so over a couple of weeks and don’t be surprised if your dog is initially unexcited about the food change. That sugar addiction comes into play here, as a food without sugar won’t be as appealing. However, if you’re changing to an Honest Kitchen food, mixing the Honest Kitchen recipe with warm water may make the food more attractive to your dog.

Choose dog treats that are exciting for your dog but without added sugar. Small tidbits of cooked chicken, an apple slice, pieces of carrots, a few blueberries or a strawberry are all good treats.

So is Sugar Good or Bad?

Small amounts of naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in the foods that make up your dog’s foods, are not bad. Sugar provides energy for the dog’s bodily functions and for activity. However, added sugars, especially those added to dog foods and treats, are not good for your dog. They can create an addiction and lead to health and dental problems.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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