Should Your Dog Eat Sugar? Reasons Why Popular Sweeteners Can Be Bad For Your Pooch

Dogs have a sweet tooth just like we do. Although they don’t have as many taste buds as humans, they can taste sweetness — and become addicted to sugary foods just as easily.

So is sugar bad for your dog? Not always. Small amounts of naturally occurring sugars, like those found in bananas, sweet potatoes, and carrots, aren’t harmful in moderation. Sugar provides essential energy for your dog’s brain and body.

This article focuses on another culprit: the sugars or sweeteners added to your dog’s foods and treats. Keep reading to understand the risks of a sugary diet for your dog and learn how to identify sugars that could be tucked away in product ingredient lists. We’ve also included some better, healthier food options for your pooch.

4 Reasons Why Sugar Is Bad For Your Dog

Added sugars can cause a host of issues for dogs, from dental problems and diabetes to sugar addiction and obesity. Let’s examine these health risks, one by one.

1. Sugar Is Linked to Weight Gain and Obesity in Dogs

Weight gain and obesity is on the rise among pets. According to an annual survey by the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention, 56% of dogs were either overweight or obese in 2018. Veterinarians are echoing this. Banfield Pet Hospital, the nation’s largest provider of preventive vet medicine, reported that more than 50% of their canine patients were overweight or obese.

A lack of exercise is certainly a part of this problem, as is overfeeding. But dog foods and treats containing sugar, which can create a powerful addiction, make it hard for pet owners to correct it.

Addicts (human or canine) want more of what makes them feel good. If a sugary food or treat makes your dog feel wonderful, they’re going to beg for more, and few owners can resist a pleading dog with big, sad eyes. Before you know it, you may be looking up weight loss plans for your dog.

If your dog is overweight or obese

To combat weight gain or obesity, choose dog foods without any added sugar and gradually transition over the course of a few weeks. (We recommend trying something from The Honest Kitchen’s nutritious dog food lineup.)

Don’t be surprised if your dog is initially un-excited about the change — that’s the sugar addiction coming into play. You can give them some snacks without added sugar to ease the switch. Small tidbits of cooked chicken, an apple slice, pieces of carrots, a few blueberries or a strawberry are all good treats.

Also, increase your dog’s daily exercise. If your dog is obese, talk to your veterinarian first and work up a plan, beginning gradually so your dog doesn’t hurt themselves.

2. Obesity Is a Leading Cause of Dog Diabetes

The relationship is clear: Too much sugar can lead to obesity, and obesity is one of the leading causes of pet diabetes. According to VetSource, 1 in every 300 dogs will develop diabetes, a number that’s already far too high. Although Type I diabetes is the most common type of diabetes in dogs, it’s Type II that’s most closely related to weight issues.

Type II diabetes, or insulin-resistance diabetes, occurs when hormones in the dog’s body prevent insulin from functioning correctly. These problematic hormones can be produced by excess body fat, which is why it’s so common with overweight and obese dogs.

In other words, added sugar can lead to lifelong health challenges for your dog, so stay on guard. Learn more with our guide to recognizing and caring for diabetic dogs.

3. Sugar and Sweeteners Can Be Toxic to Dogs

While most added sugars and sweeteners should simply be avoided or eaten in moderation, some have negative side effects or are downright toxic to dogs.

Xylitol is one of the most dangerous sugars for dogs. It’s a sugar alcohol derived from plants, including the birch tree. It’s very sweet and has dental benefits for humans, so it’s often used in “sugar-free” toothpastes, mouthwashes, gum, nut butters, hard candies, and baked goods.

People can metabolize xylitol well, but it’s extremely toxic to dogs. These facts are fairly well known, so xylitol generally isn’t added to dog foods and treats. As a pet owner, however, you should check for xylitol before offering any human foods to your dog. Learn the signs of toxic exposure in dogs so you’re prepared for anything.

4. Sugar May Lead to Dental Damage

Dental disease is all too common, affecting as many as 80% of dogs and 70% of cats by their third birthday. While canine cavities and tooth decay are rare, you’ve still got to keep a close on eye on your dog’s oral health.

Dogs can run into a whole host of dental problems due to overconsumption of sugar. Bacteria in your dog’s mouth can feed on the sugar and weaken their tooth enamel, doing serious damage. Something as common as plaque and tartar build-up can lead to more significant health problems very quickly.

So, it’s important that you reduce added sugars and invest in your dog’s oral health. We recommend brushing your dog’s teeth on a daily or weekly basis. Dental chews or dog chews like The Honest Kitchen’s Beams scrape build-up off your dog’s teeth and massage their gums, creating clean, pearly whites.

Why Dog Foods and Treats Often Contain Sugar

You may be surprised to learn that many dog foods contain added sugar. We don’t exactly think “sweet” when we hear “dog food.”

But sugar in food can mask the bitter taste of poor-quality ingredients, make the food more palatable, and improve the texture of the food. It smoothes over tastes and smells your dog might otherwise avoid, including less than stellar ingredients like animal by-products, fillers, chemicals, preservatives, and other additives.

For some dog food manufacturers, the main reason that sugar is added is that it creates an addiction to their 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 them to eat a healthier food. The same goes for dog treats, food toppers, and even dog chews.

Identifying Sugars in the Ingredient List

©istockphoto/monkeybusinessimages

©istockphoto/monkeybusinessimages

When reading the ingredient list on dog food and treats, it can be challenging to figure out which ones are sugars. The word “sugar” usually applies to cane sugar, but may also include sucrose, caramel, corn syrup, and other forms of sugar. Here are some other terms you may encounter on dog food labels:

  • Fructose is very sweet and derived from fruits.
  • Sorbitol is sugar alcohol derived from fruits, but it can also be created synthetically.
  • Beet pulp is the by-product of sugar production from sugar beets.
  • Honey and molasses are often described as healthier substitutes, both they’re both still sugars.

Check out Healthline’s list of 56 different names for sugar to learn how to recognize these sweet ingredients.

Let’s Talk About Beet Pulp

When you hear about “beet pulp” in pet foods, don’t think about the red-purple vegetable. What’s actually used is a different vegetable known as a sugar beet. It’s white and looks like a long turnip.

More importantly, it’s high in sucrose — also known as “table sugar” — and is used to make other sweets like candy and baked goods. Beet pulp is what’s left over once the sugar has been extracted. It’s a popular choice to bulk up animal feed.

Beet pulp as a dog food ingredient is hotly debated. On one hand, beet pulp fiber is beneficial for your pet’s gut health and digestion. Sugar beet processing reportedly removes most of the sugar, so it’s not a sweetener. On the other hand, some experts feel that fiber from other sources is better, especially one that’s lower in sugar to begin with.

If your goal is to eliminate added sugar in your dog’s diet, we’d recommend avoiding foods that contain beet pulp.

Check Out Some of Our Healthy, Naturally Sweet Treats for Your Dog

The best thing you can do for your dog is provide them with high-quality, age appropriate food and offer the occasional sweet treat. Here are some tasty treats and recipes (with only natural sugars) that your dog is sure to love:

Don’t forget to check out more of The Honest Kitchen’s dog foods, toppers, and treats.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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