We've all heard the staggering statistics regarding obesity in the human population, with the U.S. leading the way. Is it any wonder then that our pets are following in our big fat footsteps? According to a pet obesity study conducted last year, an estimated 54 percent of dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese, and catching up to the estimated 68 percent of overweight or obese adult Americans. That is approximately 93 million dogs and cats in the U.S. out of an estimated 171 million pet dogs and cats, with 62 percent of households owning at least one pet.
Because we are the primary caretakers for our companion animals, that puts the blame squarely on us. Just as overweight parents are more likely to have an overweight child, as a general rule, an overweight pet parent is much more likely to have an overweight cat or dog than a pet parent who maintains their own healthy lifestyle and weight. Why? Because our habits are very easily transferred (unwittingly) to our beloved companions. In some cases, we are literally feeding them to death!
PetMD classifies four eating behavior categories of overweight dogs (although these often apply to cats as well): The Nibbler, The Beggar, The Good Dog and The Gourmet. In each scenario, ultimately the owner is to blame for the behavior and the resulting weight problem. From leaving food out all day for pets to nibble or graze on, to reinforcing behaviors or begging with food, to giving scraps and people food instead of a nutritionally balanced diet. "Balanced nutrition" being the key. Not quantity, but quality.
Recently, I had the opportunity to tour a research facility for one of the leading pet food manufacturers in the U.S., Hill's. Normally I would not have been willing to use vacation time away from my day job to travel to Topeka, Kan., in winter to learn about pet food. However, I had a very personal interest since I have been feeding Hill's Prescription Diet for gastrointestinal health to my adopted dog Tiki who has a sensitive digestive system. I also feed both Flip and Tiki the Hill's t/d Canine Dental Health nuggets as treats to help keep their teeth clean. And because I worry about pet food recalls like so many pet parents, I took the opportunity to tour their pet nutrition center and meet with the research scientists and veterinarians behind the products for my own peace of mind.
I came away with a much better understanding of "balanced nutrition," how to read and understand the pet food analysis on each product, and how to decipher and decode pet food labeling. Pet food is a whole topic unto itself which I won't cover here. However, its relationship to weight management and obesity is extremely important. For your cat or dog, that means balancing calories, fat and protein. What ingredients these nutrients are derived from makes a big difference, just as it does in your own diet.
While on the Hill's tour, I was fortunate to meet Marie Haynes. Dr. Marie (as she's known) is a veterinarian in Ottawa, Canada, who started the website AskAVetQuestion.com. I asked Dr. Marie about what she sees in her practice as far as weight management issues, and she offered this insight:
"In my practice we have been running a weight loss program that has been really successful. We have so many obese animals and often the solution is more complex than simply reducing the calories that are fed. I have found that one of the biggest culprits is the extra "stuff" that we feed our pets, like letting them finish off our dinner plate or giving them a treat several times a day. Many of the treats that dogs love are loaded with fat or sugar. Unfortunately most treats don't give proper nutrition advice on the label. They may be 90% fat, but the label will say 'min 5% fat.' If your pet loves raw veggies then these are an excellent treat to give. One of the challenging things that we have found is getting cats to lose weight. We have thought up a number of ways to get them to exercise more such as using a treat ball, or playing with a toy or laser pointer several times per day. Some weight problems can be caused by endocrine diseases such as hypothyroidism, so it's always a good idea to have your vet examine your pet before embarking on a weight loss journey."
Why do we need to wake-up and take action to either reverse weight problems in our pets or to avoid them in the first place? Here's why. The primary risks of excess weight in pets includes:
- Insulin Resistance and Type 2 Diabetes
- High Blood Pressure
- Heart and Respiratory Disease
- Cranial Cruciate Ligament Injury
- Kidney Disease
- Many Forms of Cancer
- Decreased life expectancy (up to 2.5 years)
Part of the weight problem is that as Americans, our idea of "ideal weight" is completely out of whack (ever see the shocking movie "Super Size Me"?). To get an idea of what is considered ideal weight for a cat or dog, check out the nifty Body Condition System tool offered by the Pet Slim Down Project from Purina. It gives you visual guides along with highly descriptive cues for every type body condition, from too thin to ideal to too heavy.