Pudgy pugs and flabby tabbies

The growing problem of pet obesity

Created date

December 11th, 2018
Fat cats and dogs are another example of the obesity epidemic.

Fat cats and dogs are another example of the obesity epidemic. 

There’s no doubt about it, we love our pets. In many homes, cats and dogs are an integral part of the family, receiving the same care and attention traditionally reserved for children. Whether it’s for pet daycare or luxury spa and grooming services, people spare no expense when it comes to their beloved animals.

According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent $69.51 billion on their pets in 2017, with $29.88 billion going to purchase food.

Pet food is a big business. Go into any supermarket in America, and you’re bound to find a long aisle packed with choices.

On the Petsmart website, dog owners can choose from 1,648 different sizes, flavors, and brands of dog food and treats. Cat owners are relatively limited with only 1,369 options.

There are raw pet foods, freeze-dried pet foods, and foods that accommodate special diet needs with grain-free or gluten-free options.

As for flavors, your basic beef, chicken, and liver products now share shelf space with those made from wild boar, guinea fowl, and alligator. Read the labels and you’ll find other premium ingredients like quinoa, pumpkin, berries, and pomegranate.

With all the care, attention, and expense that goes into feeding our pets, you might expect that today’s dogs and cats are healthier than ever—but they aren’t. In fact, they’re fatter than ever.

Pet obesity epidemic

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), 56% of dogs and 60% of cats were classified as clinically overweight or obese in 2018. Just as troubling is the fact that the number of obese pets has been steadily increasing for the past ten years.

“The number of pets with clinical obesity continues to increase,” says APOP founder and veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward. “We’re continuing to see more pets diagnosed with obesity rather than overweight. Clinical obesity results in more secondary conditions such as arthritis, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and certain forms of cancer. Pets with obesity also have reduced quality of life and shorter life expectancy.”

Some breeds are more prone to obesity. For example, beagles, dachshunds, and retrievers were bred for their agility, speed, and endurance, so they would make formidable hunting companions. When they don’t get enough vigorous exercise, these breeds tend to gain weight.

Husky, barrel-shaped bulldogs are the breed’s ideal in dog shows even if that look is not necessarily best for the average bulldog’s health.

For cats, lifestyle is a significant factor. It’s hard to get indoor cats to exercise, so weight must be managed through diet alone.

“Free feeding,” the common practice of allowing a cat to eat throughout the day, is a major factor in feline obesity.

The human factor

Regardless of the breed, the diet, or the amount of exercise, in too many cases, pets are obese because their caregivers simply can’t resist giving them treats.

Whether it’s table scraps or store-bought goodies, a constant flow of treats during the day makes a difference as Celia Alvarez of Warrenton, Va., discovered when Louie, her family’s chihuahua, started gaining weight. Alvarez hadn’t made any changes in Louie’s diet, and he was getting about the same amount of exercise.

When Alvarez mentioned her concern to her husband and three children, they made a discovery. Each member of the family had been feeding Louie a biscuit a day. That added up to five biscuits a day for a very small dog.

Alvarez started breaking one biscuit into five pieces so each family member could give Louie a treat without impacting his weight. In a few months, Louie regained his trim figure.

Weight loss programs

According to the APOP, 58% of pet owners and 54% of veterinary professionals reported they had tried to help their own pet lose weight. Low-calorie and weight loss diets combined with increased exercise were the most cited weight loss strategies, but weight loss programs must be approached with care.

Before embarking on any pet weight loss program, speak with your vet. Just as with humans, gradual weight loss is the healthiest option. Severe food restriction can have serious health consequences for your pet.

If you’re a dog owner, more frequent walks or other types of exercise could help. If you can’t get outside, is there a room in your home where you can play fetch with your dog?

For cats, weight loss must be achieved primarily through diet since it’s nearly impossible to coax any cat into doing something he or she is disinclined to do.

Vets say that a 20-pound cat is doing well if he’s losing half a pound a month. Anything faster could result in the loss of lean muscle mass and serious metabolic issues.

Pets rely on us to keep them fit and healthy. So the next time you want to show your pet how much you love him or her, how about a walk or some vigorous playtime instead of a treat?