Do Cats Really Need Treats? The Truth About Feline Snacks


Cat treats have become an incredibly common part of many cat owners’ routines. According to one survey, over 50% of cat owners provide treats to their feline companions. This widespread use of treats has become a standard practice for cat care in many households [1]. However, some cat owners and veterinarians have begun questioning whether treats are truly necessary for a cat’s health and wellbeing. While treats undoubtedly provide enjoyment, the actual nutritional benefits are up for debate. This article will analyze the pros and cons of cat treats – their ingredients, purposes, benefits, and alternatives – to determine if they are an essential element of feline care or simply an unnecessary indulgence.

History of Cat Treats

Commercial cat treats first became popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As cats became more common as indoor pets, the market for specialized cat products grew. Companies like Whiskas and Friskies introduced a variety of cat treats during this time period.

According to a report by Grand View Research, the global cat treats market size was valued at USD 5.11 billion in 2020. It is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.7% from 2021 to 2028. The market has seen steady growth over the past few decades as pet owners look for ways to pamper and indulge their cats.

Some key developments that led to the rise of cat treats include the commercialization of cat food starting in the late 19th century, the increase in cats as indoor pets needing stimulation, and food companies recognizing the profit potential of specialty cat products. Today, there are countless treat options marketed for dental health, skin and coat, digestive regularity, and more.

Nutritional Composition of Treats

Cat treats can be made from a variety of ingredients including meat, fish, vegetables, and artificial flavors. Natural treats tend to have simpler ingredients and fewer additives.

Meat-based treats like chicken, beef, or turkey can provide protein and fat. Fish treats like tuna and salmon also supply protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Veggie treats may contain pumpkin, carrots, peas, and other fruits/veggies which offer fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants.

Artificial treats are typically made with by-products, plant-based protein, and synthetic vitamin supplements. They often contain corn, wheat, soy, artificial colors, and chemical preservatives. While cheaper to produce, these treats lack the nutritional value of whole food ingredients.

When comparing treats, look for whole animal proteins like chicken meal rather than by-products. A shorter ingredient list with recognizable ingredients like fish, meat, or veggies is best. Avoid treats with artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.

Overall, natural cat treats made from quality ingredients provide the most nutritional value for cats. But artificial treats can still be fed occasionally in moderation.


Benefits of Treats

Treats can provide some benefits for cats when given in moderation. One benefit is that treats can be used for positive reinforcement during training. Giving a cat a treat immediately after displaying a desired behavior helps reinforce that behavior. Treats are commonly used in clicker training and other reward-based training methods.

Treats can also provide supplemental nutrition. Many cat treats are formulated with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients. This can help complement a cat’s regular diet. It’s important to check the nutrition facts label and ingredients list when choosing treats.

Finally, treats can provide cats with enrichment and mental stimulation. The act of getting and eating a treat is enjoyable for many cats. Treats add variety to a cat’s routine and gives them something to look forward to. Treat dispensing toys that make cats work to get treats offer extra mental stimulation.

Overall, when used in moderation, treats can positively reinforce desired behaviors, provide supplemental nutrition, and give cats enrichment. However, it’s important not to overdo it on treats since too many can lead to obesity and other health issues. Checking with a veterinarian on appropriate treat amounts for an individual cat is recommended.


Potential Downsides of Treats

While treats can provide positive reinforcement during training, overuse of treats can lead to some potential downsides for cats.

One major downside is that overfeeding treats can contribute to obesity in cats. Treats are calorie-dense and lack the balanced nutrition of a complete cat food. Feeding too many treats can lead to weight gain and nutritional imbalances.

Additionally, frequent treating can encourage food-begging behavior in cats. Cats may start pestering their owners for treats anytime they are around food preparation. This can lead to frustrated owners and overweight cats.

To avoid these potential downsides, treats should compose no more than 10% of a cat’s daily caloric intake. Following feeding guidelines on treat packaging is also recommended.

Treats in Moderation

When giving treats to cats, pet owners should keep moderation in mind. According to experts, treats should make up no more than 10% of a cat’s daily caloric intake (1). For the average 10-pound cat, this equates to about 20-30 calories per day from treats (2). Excess treat consumption can lead to weight gain and associated health problems in cats.

Here are some tips for keeping treats in moderation for cats:

  • Follow package recommendations for treat amounts based on your cat’s weight.
  • Break treats into smaller pieces so your cat gets just a taste.
  • Use treats primarily for training purposes.
  • Substitute playtime or petting for treats when possible.
  • Store treats out of reach to avoid free-feeding.
  • Monitor your cat’s weight and adjust treats if needed.
  • Consult your veterinarian about appropriate treat amounts.

Keeping treats occasional and portion-controlled is key to maintaining cats’ health and preventing obesity. With some care and planning, treats can be an enjoyable part of most cats’ diets.



When Treats May Be Necessary

While treats should always be given in moderation, there are some instances where using treats can be beneficial for your cat’s health and wellbeing:

Finicky Eaters
Cats who are picky eaters or refuse their normal food may be enticed to eat by offering a small amount of treats. The palatable flavors and textures can stimulate their appetite when mixed into their regular food. However, be careful not to create a habit of relying on treats. Purina recommends gradually reducing the number of treats mixed into food over time.

Medicating Cats
It can be challenging to give cats oral medication. Wrapping pills in an enticing treat or paste can make the process easier and reduce stress for both you and your cat. Just be sure to account for the extra treats when calculating your cat’s daily calorie intake.

Reward During Training

Treats are very useful for reinforcing desired behaviors during cat training. The reward helps your cat associate the behavior with something positive. Giving treats immediately after the behavior helps your cat learn faster. However, Temptations recommends keeping training sessions short to avoid overtreating.

Alternatives to Treats

While treats can be enticing for cats, they are not a necessity and may even lead to health issues. There are many alternatives to giving cats treats that provide enrichment.

Increasing playtime is an excellent alternative to treats for cats. Using cat toys such as feather wands, balls, and catnip filled mice can provide exercise and mental stimulation. Interactive play satisfies a cat’s natural hunting instincts. Multi-tier cat trees, tunnels and scratching posts also encourage physical activity and are treat free options.

Petting and brushing are relaxing activities that most cats enjoy. Dedicated one-on-one grooming time promotes bonding and provides affection without calories. Investing in grooming tools such as brushes and combs gives the cat’s coat a massage.

Catnip toys are another alternative to treats that many cats respond positively to. Safe, non-addictive catnip can stimulate energetic playtime for cats. Catnip-filled balls, stuffed mice or catnip sprays encourage cats to play. Growing and drying fresh catnip can yield inexpensive, homemade catnip toys as well.

Owner Mindset with Treats

Some cat owners experience feelings of guilt when they have to say “no” to giving treats. They worry that denying treats will upset their cat or make them feel unloved. However, cats do not have an understanding of treats in the same way humans do. Saying “no” to treats is not withholding affection from a cat’s perspective (Meowtel). Moderating treats is an act of care, not deprivation.

Other owners fear underfeeding their cats by limiting treats. However, cats’ nutritional needs can generally be fully met through a complete and balanced main meal (Meowtel). Treats are not a required part of a cat’s diet. As long as your cat is eating a nutritionally balanced diet, occasional treats in moderation pose little risk of underfeeding. The key is keeping treats to 10% or less of total daily calories (Meowtel).

The guilt and fear around limiting treats are natural but unfounded. With a healthy mindset, owners can feel confident that a treat-free diet does not equal an unloved or underfed cat. Moderating treats is part of being a responsible cat owner.


In summary, treats are not essential for a cat’s diet, as all of their nutritional needs can be met through a complete and balanced cat food. However, used mindfully and in moderation, treats can provide mental stimulation, enrichment, and rewards for cats.

When feeding treats, aim to limit them to no more than 10% of the daily caloric intake. Look for high-quality treats with more protein and fewer fillers. Avoid too many high-calorie, high-fat treats. Only give treats occasionally, not with every meal or snack. Save treats for rewards during training sessions or for special occasions.

Make sure treats do not replace regular, balanced meals. Monitor your cat’s weight and adjust treat amounts if needed. Consider alternatives like playtime, petting, or praise as rewards too. Overall, be mindful and selective with treats, and they can be a fun part of your cat’s routine.

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