DIY Trail Snacks/Treats for Your Dog

It seems a no brainer—protein or trail bars are good for you so why not your dog, right? Do your dog a healthy favor and resist the temptation to share these snacks with him. Take a close look at the ingredient list on bar wrappers and you’ll see why.

First, a Bit of Science
Most protein bars and snack bars (especially so-called granola or trail bars) contain a load of simple carbohydrates, particularly refined sucrose. Even though simple carbs are easily and quickly used for energy, the simple structure of these carbs can also spike blood sugar levels. Eating simple carbs triggers the pancreas to release insulin. The insulin release prompts cells in the body to convert the sugar to glycogen, and then absorb it for energy or store it for later use (in healthy individuals, this process also helps regulate blood sugar levels). The pancreas then starts making glucagon, a hormone that signals the liver to start releasing glycogen, or stored sugar. This interplay ensures that cells throughout the body and brain have a steady supply of blood sugar.

This is how carbohydrates are processed by most humans (not diabetics)—but most dogs don’t need or use carbohydrates (puppies and post-pregnant females are the exceptions). A dog’s short digestive system simply doesn’t convert carbs to energy like our longer, more complex one does. Instead, a dog’s liver converts the amino acids from protein and the glycerol from fats into energy. So when dogs eat simple carbs, they can experience a rapid increase in blood sugar quickly followed by a rapid decline. Depending on the dog and the amount of sugar, the result can be a sleepy and lethargic, or worse— irritable dog.

Not All of Your “Good” Food is Good for Your Dog
Sugar isn’t the only reason to avoid sharing these highly-processed food products with your dog. Snack and protein bars made for humans also typically contain nutrients, like herbs, vitamins and minerals, that while healthy for humans are at best questionable additions to a dog’s diet, and at worst, dangerous.

But before you grab those chicken strips designed specifically for dogs, you should also take a closer look.

As of September 30, 2014, the FDA has received around 5,000 reports of illnesses (and many deaths) related to consumption of the chicken snacks (treats, jerky, tenders and strips), and duck, sweet potato, and other snacks that include chicken or duck jerky wrapped around dried fruits, sweet potatoes, or yams. The illnesses have been linked to a variety of brands, but the one common factor these cases share is a Made-in-China label. Keep in mind that manufacturers do not need to list the country of origin for each ingredient used in their products. Some U.S. made dog treats may contain ingredients that are sourced from China or other countries, exported to the U.S. and used in American-made products.

©istockphoto/rez-art
©istockphoto/rez-art

If you’re someone who loves to cook, you might want to consider making your own dog treats. A variety of recipes and books on preserving foods through dehydration are just one Google search away. Here are some tips to get you started:

Dry It
Dehydration is the healthiest, easiest, and most economical way to preserve foods, including dog treats. Drying concentrates flavors and aromas, and maintains nutritional integrity without the use of chemical preservatives.

Use a Dehydrator
Yes you can make dog snacks and treats using your gas, electric, or convection oven, but a food dehydrator is far more efficient, effective, and safer. An excellent and affordable option is the Excalibur. It has an adjustable thermostat, ranging from 95°F to 165°F, which makes it possible to dry a wide variety of food for both you and your dog. Load the trays and set the temperature: the consistent top-down 550-watt airflow system distributes air evenly whether you use one tray or all five. The trays are removable and easy to clean, and the mesh liners (that keep smaller bits from falling through the trays) are strong and durable. Other brands are widely available but this one has a particularly stellar reputation among dehydrated food fans for efficiency and value.

Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 concerns
The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline’s current recommendation for making jerky that is safe for both humans and animals is a two-step process of pre-cooking beef to 160 °F and poultry to 165 °F. This step assures that any bacteria present is first destroyed by wet heat. Then you proceed to drying the meat to turn it into jerky. Most dehydrator instructions do not include this step, and many do not reach temperatures high enough to heat meat to 160°F or 165°F. Most home food dehydrators lack adjustable temperature controls or lack a way of maintaining a steady temperature of at least 130°F to 140°F throughout the entire drying process. So it’s best to first steam, heat or roast all meats to their proper temperatures, and then continue processing in a food dehydrator, using a thermometer to keep a safe check on the process. (The Excalibur, incidentally, is one of the few dehydrators that let you both heat the meat to its proper temperature and then dehydrate in one step).

Jerky: The Ideal Dog Treat
Few treats are as great as dried poultry strips or jerky. This high-protein snack will help satisfy your dog’s rumbling tummy when you’re on a road trip or finishing a long run or hike. When it comes to chicken or turkey jerky, breast meat is best. Thigh meat will work but the higher fat content means considerably longer drying times. Also, keep in mind that the leaner the meat, the longer the jerky’s shelf-life. To make it easier to slice the poultry breasts thin and evenly, use slightly frozen meat. Depending on your dryer’s settings and how thick you cut the meat, it’ll take between 3 and 12 hours to make jerky. Check the meat strips hourly. After several hours, remove one strip from the dehydrator and cut it. When the meat is completely dried, you won’t see any moisture and it will be the same color throughout. If it needs more time, put it back in for another hour. As it gets closer to being finished, check every half hour. Finally, to ascertain complete “doneness,” remove a strip and put it into a covered glass dish or a plastic bag, and observe for a few minutes. If you see large droplets of moisture collecting, put the meat back in the dehydrator and continue drying.

Sweet Potato or Yammy Trail Snacks
When you’re on the trail or road, instead of sharing a trail bar, offer your dog some sweet potato or yam chews. They’re super easy to make. First scrub/clean fresh sweet potatoes or yams, and then parboil them. (To parboil, place the food in a stockpot, and fill with cool water until completely immersed. Bring water to a boil over high heat. Once the water begins to boil, turn off the heat, but leave the pot on the burner for 8-10 minutes. Test doneness with a fork; the outer portion should be easily pierced, while the inner portion remains firm. Pour the water off and transfer to a large bowl and immediately cover with cold water to stop the cooking process.) Slice cold parboiled sweet potatoes or yams with a mandolin slicer, or a sharp chef’s or Santoku knife—about a half-inch thick or more (any smaller and they won’t provide the “chew” dogs enjoy and they snack will just quickly dissolve in their mouth). After slicing, place on food dehydrator trays and dry according to your dehydrator’s suggested settings (typically 130°F to 140°F).

Storage
When done, store DIY jerky, snacks or treats in airtight glass container (lead-free Italian “FIDO” jars are ideal). Refrigerate jerky for even longer shelf life. Repackage to BPA-free plastic bags for trail travel. Both Ziploc® brand bags and Saran® brand plastic wraps are BPA-free.