Good Boy! Have a Carrot: Battling Pet Obesity

I’m sure everyone has heard the phrase “Killing Them with Kindness” used several times during their lives. The phrase literally means to cause discomfort to someone by treating him or her in a way that is extremely kind or helpful instead of returning an insult or wrong. Have you ever though that the same phrase, with a slightly different meaning, could be used to describe how many loving pet parents are treating their pet? Pet obesity in the United States is at an all-time high and is primarily caused by very well-intentioned pet owners providing significantly more nutrition than their animals need. 

I remember early in my career it wasn’t unusual to find dogs and cats suffering from diseases caused by inadequate or improper nutrition, but obesity was unusual.  It was worse for the non-traditional animals I was treating, such as birds and reptiles, who were more often than not ill due to inappropriate nutrition.  Things have changed dramatically for the good. The availability of correctly balanced and appropriate nutrition for our pets is at an all-time high.  It is very easy to go to your local pet store and find hundreds of brands and selections of pet food for your beloved friend.  There are certainly differences in quality between products but for the most part, pet food sold in the United States is complete and balanced, nutritious and easily obtainable.

The Numbers are Big

            So, what’s going on?  Let’s look at some statistics.  According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) 59.5% of cats and 55.8% of dogs are overweight or obese.  In their October 2018 clinical survey, 25.7% of cats and 36.9% of dogs were classified as Overweight (body condition score (BCS) 6 to 7 on a 9-point scale). 33.8% of cats and 18.9% of dogs with Obesity (BCS 8 to 9) by their veterinary healthcare professional.

That equals an estimated 56 million cats and 50 million dogs are Overweight or Obese, based on 2018 pet population projections provided by the American Pet Products Association (APPA).

APOP also found pet owners were confused by conflicting pet nutritional advice and continue to struggle to help pets achieve safe and ideal weights. APOP President, veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward stated that “Veterinarians need to offer more obesity treatment options than: Feed less and exercise more.” and “The majority of pet owners are overwhelmed with pet food choices and conflicting dietary advice and desperately want help and nutritional recommendations from veterinarians.”

When pet parents and veterinary professionals were questioned about pet obesity, diet and nutrition, and pet weight loss 80% of veterinary professionals reported they had tried to help their pet lose weight, along with 68% of pet owners. The leading pet weight loss method was “calorie reduction/smaller portions” favored by 68% of all respondents, 61% tried an increase in exercise, 29% tried a low-calorie or low-fat pet food, and 19% fed a therapeutic or “prescription” diet from their veterinarian.

When all respondents were asked what weight loss method was most effective, 38% rated calorie reduction/smaller portions as “very effective” and 33% ranked it as “somewhat effective.” 36% reported increased exercise as “very effective” along with 30% reporting it was “somewhat effective.”

Only 9% reported low-calorie or low-fat diets as “very effective” while 23% reported it was “somewhat effective.” “Prescription weight loss diets” were given a 13% “very effective” rating and 14% “somewhat effective.” Further analysis of “prescription diet” revealed 50% of veterinary professionals and 70% of pet owners reported they “never tried” this weight loss method and 27% of veterinary professionals and 9% of pet owners ranked it as “very effective.”

Pet owners were asked, “Please rank where you receive the best dietary recommendations for your pet.” Their rankings were: 1) Veterinary clinics, 2) Online/internet/website, 3) Pet store or Friend (tie), 4) Trainer, 5) Breeder, 6) Groomer, and 7) Other.

            Why are so many pets overweight? Experts from the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) have come up with 6 reasons why we are seeing this alarming and unhealthy trend.

  1. Food = love? Food is often associated with love, and because we love our furry family members, we want to show them that love by giving them extra food, treats, and sometimes food intended for human consumption, which is generally higher in calories and fat than pet food.
  2. Early spay and neuter. While experts agree that early spay or neuter is good for population control and for the long-term health of pets, science is demonstrating that the hormone changes associated with early spay and neuter lead to decreased caloric requirements. Because of slower metabolic rates, animals who are spayed and neutered require less food to maintain a healthy weight.
  3. Lack of exercise. As we lead busier lives than ever before, many pet owners hope a run in the yard for Fido is enough exercise to keep him healthy. For most dogs, this isn’t adequate. Dogs require our participation and interaction. Some dogs love to swim, others prefer to fetch, and some breeds, especially herding breeds, do best with a physical job. For many dogs, however, a simple daily walk is all that is required for them to stay at their ideal body weight.
  4. Exercising a cat isn’t quite as simple. The experts agree that cats are healthiest and safest indoors, but an indoor-only kitty can become a lazy kitty, which can lead to weight gain. One way to exercise your indoor cat is to hide a small percentage of her food in a food puzzle or food-dispensing toy. Her innate prey drive will be activated as she “hunts” for her food, forcing her to be more active. Play is important for cats, too. Use toys that require your cat to chase and jump.
  5. A change in the norm. Over the years, our idea of a normal weight has changed. As the waistlines of both pets and humans have expanded, we’ve become accustomed to weighing more. What was once an animal of average weight today may seem to be underweight because our perception has evolved. The problem is, this new “normal” isn’t healthy.
  6. Lack of pet owner knowledge or understanding. To complicate the pet obesity problem, many pet owners don’t know their pets are overweight. The APOP survey also revealed a “fat pet gap,” in which 90 percent of owners of overweight cats and 95 percent of owners of overweight dogs incorrectly identified their pets as falling within the normal weight range.

People don’t gain weight overnight, and the same is true for our pets. Because weight gain is gradual, and we see our pets every day, it can be difficult to notice when a pet has become overweight. They don’t wear pants and we can’t see when their pants get tight…  And for cats and small dogs especially, a few pounds can make a big difference.

So, what’s the big deal.. are there consequences… does being overweight really hurt our pets?

The answer is overwhelmingly YES!!!

Overweight and obese dogs and cats are more likely than their healthy weight counterparts to suffer from arthritis earlier in life. The accelerated wear and tear on joints is real and also makes it more difficult for them to get up and walk later in life without pain. Like in humans, some types of cancer are also more prevalent in overweight and obese pets. Among overweight cats, diabetes is rampant. In addition, fat cats can have difficulty grooming themselves, which is bad for their skin, physical well-being and their psyche, as self-grooming is a fundamental part of being feline. Not fitting easily into the litter box can cause some overweight or obese cats to have accidents outside the box. The most well-known complication is heart and respiratory disease, which can eventually lead to heart failure. What’s more, obese pets live up to 2 years less than their healthy counterparts.

Veterinary behaviorist Karen Overall, DVM suggests that some obese dogs and cats are actually clinically depressed. Their daily activity is often limited to taking brief jaunts in the yard or to the litter box for bathroom breaks, eating, sleeping, and eating some more.

            Did you ever think that having an overweight pet could be viewed as an act of negligence?  Well, multiple pet owners in the UK have been prosecuted for cruelty to animals due to their pets being dangerously obese In the UK in 2006, one case revolved around a chocolate Labrador retriever that was allowed to become so obese that he looked like a seal and only able to waddle like one instead of walk.

            So, what do we do about this serious epidemic that is threatening the health of our beloved animal friends? Owners who don’t know what obese looks like will benefit from learning how to score their pet’s body condition.

Body condition score guidelines can become specific for each type of pet, but the general vet’s advice is to try and feel a pet’s ribs. The ribs should be easily located without having to put pressure on the pet’s body. If this cannot be easily achieved, chances are the pet is fat. Another way to tell is to look down at the pet from above and see if the pet has a bulging waistline or a circular shape.

Your veterinarian should play an important role in the health of your pet and can help you keep your furry friend at a healthy weight. Yearly health check-ups are very important as your pet will be weighed at each veterinary visit. If your veterinarian notices your pet’s weight is increasing, she will discuss it with you.

Your veterinarian can provide guidance about the right diet for your pet, including the type of food, appropriate amount, and frequency of feedings. Exercise should also be discussed with your veterinarian.

If your pet is already overweight, it is important to consult with your veterinarian about the proper way to help him get back into the healthy weight range. Crash diets aren’t healthy for anyone, but for cats especially a crash diet can trigger a sometimes-fatal liver disease.

Losing weight is never easy, but it can be done safely and effectively with assistance from your veterinary health care team and other knowledgeable and caring animal care professionals.


Meet Petland’s Consulting Veterinarian, Dr. Thomas Edling, DVM, MSpVM, MPH:
Dr. Edling received his BS in Industrial Engineering from Texas A&M University in 1981 and his degree in Veterinary Medicine (DVM) from Colorado State University. He previously served as Vice President of Veterinary Medicine for Petco and was on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. In addition, Dr. Edling completed the American Board of Veterinary Practitioner’s residency program for Companion and Wild Avian Medicine and Surgery, at North Carolina State University, where he also received his Master in Specialized Veterinary Medicine (MSpVM) in 2001. In 2011, Dr. Edling completed the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at Johns Hopkins University. As a veterinarian, Dr. Edling works closely with the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians (NASPHV).

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