Dear Doctor - Can rawhide make a dog fat?
Letter to Tufts Veterinarians
Q I am doing my best to control the weight of my dog, who loves to eat. One of the treats she enjoys is rawhide. I assume there are no calories in it because it isn’t digestible, and even if there were calories, the chewing would work them off. My wife says rawhide is full of calories because it is made of protein and that dogs do in fact digest it and assimilate those calories. Who’s right?
Tamworth, New Hampshire
Dear Mr. Smart,
A If you made a bet with your wife, you lost. Rawhide is digestible and does contain calories that are not burned in the chewing. Made from the skin of animals, usually cattle, rawhide is mostly protein, like your wife says. It also contains a little bit of fat and fiber. A single rawhide treat that’s approximately 2 inches by 6 inches and just an eighth of an inch thick generally contains somewhere between 50 and 100 calories. Other rawhide snacks, such as those that are rolled, have calorie counts that are much, much higher.
Giving your dog rawhide as a treat is a mixed bag. On one hand, dogs like to chew. As the ASPCA says, “dogs appear to find chewing a pleasurable way to pass the time when they are bored or restless,” and rawhide certainly provides them that opportunity.
On the other hand, because rawhide is not calorie-free, it pays to keep in mind that chewing on it is not like chewing sugarless gum. That is, rawhide is not a nutritional freebie that can’t impact your dog’s weight. You have to factor it in. But there are issues beside the calories.
Aggressive chewers might swallow chunks that are too large for their bodies, resulting in intestinal discomfort and, in rare cases, obstructions that require surgical intervention. Pieces that are small can also be a problem, leading to choking or blockages in the esophagus that necessitate a visit to the veterinarian so she can use a special instrument that goes far enough down the throat to pull them out. It’s a good idea to monitor your dog while she eats rawhide, especially at first, to see if she lazily tugs at it little by little or works to bite off and swallow chunks with gusto that could get stuck somewhere between her throat and the other end of her GI tract. If she does, rawhide is probably not a good idea for her. There are plenty of toys you can give her to satisfy her chewing instinct. Providing raw vegetables as treats works, too, as does feeding your pet from a Kong.
It’s also important to keep in mind that because rawhide is raw (it contains the word “raw” after all), it may be contaminated with bacteria such as salmonella. At the very least, always wash your hands after handling rawhide treats so you don’t spread any potential pathogens throughout your household.
Finally, be aware that rawhide is often not an appropriate treat for dogs with certain medical conditions — kidney or liver disease or heart disease, for example. Depending on the type of rawhide and whether it contains salt, it may have a nutrient composition that could exacerbate the condition or work against various medications prescribed to treat the problem.