February 7, 2019
When a dog or cat gains weight, it’s easy for a pet parent to assume that there is simply more of him (or her) to love. In fact, only 17% of owners acknowledge that their pet is obese, according to findings of a recent study by Nationwide, the country’s largest provider of pet health insurance.
“Others know their pet is overweight but don’t think it’s a problem,” said Deborah Linder, who heads the Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals Clinical Nutrition Service. “Wrong!”
However, just as 70% of adult Americans (age 20+) are classified as overweight by the National Center for Health Statistics, so, too, are their pets.
Veterinarians report that nearly 50% of the dogs they see are overweight or obese, a February 4 report by Jane Brody of The New York Times reveals.
And the average weight of pets has risen over the past decade, Nationwide notes. In 2017, obesity-related insurance claims for veterinary expenses exceeded $69 million, a 24% increase over the last eight years, the insurer reported in January. With only 2% of pets covered by insurance, the costs to owners of overweight pets is likely to be in the billions.
Indeed, obesity in pets has been associated with diabetes, pancreatitis, hyperlipidemia (high fat levels in the blood), joint disease, skin disease, and even a shorter lifespan, the Tufts Obesity Clinic says. A study of Labrador retrievers, a breed especially prone to becoming overweight, revealed that excess weight can take nearly two years off a pet’s life.
So for our pets, as well as ourselves, it’s best to adopt the concept that “less is more.”
A study of 50 obese dogs enrolled in a weight-loss program conducted by the University of Liverpool in England during 2011 demonstrated the value of losing excess body fat, The New York Times reports. The 30 animals in the study that reached their target weight had greater vitality, less pain and fewer emotional issues than the animals that remained too fat.
But as with people, prevention is the better route—and, Linder emphasized during an interview with Brody, treats should make up no more than 10% of a dog’s daily calories.
“We love our pets and want to give them treats, but we often don’t think about treats from a caloric standpoint,” said John P. Loftus, an assistant professor, Section of Small Animal Medicine, at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “It adds up over time. Better to show our love in ways other than food.”
“Everything counts as a treat, including marrow bones and rawhide,” Dr. Linder told Brody, as well as scraps of human food offered by owners or scarfed off their plates. Treats used for training or retrieval should contain only a few calories each, like Fruitables Skinny Minis or Zuke’s Mini Naturals.
Rather than overdoing treats, give your dog love and attention by playing ball, fetch or tug-of-war, which provides some exercise that burns calories. Cats, too, love to play with things they can wrestle with, like a toy mouse on a string or a ball of yarn. For pets that are too old or unwilling to play, you can show your love calorie-free with a caress, a belly rub, or a scratch behind the ears.
Equally important is to learn to resist pets that beg for more food than they need. Linder advises, “If you’re already meeting your pets’ nutritional needs, they’re not hungry. What they’re really asking for is your attention. Better to distract them with an activity.”
Cats can be even more challenging than dogs. They tend to graze, prompting owners to leave food out for them all the time. This becomes a problem for overweight cats. Dr.
Linder says, “I’ve never met an animal that could free-feed and still lose weight.” For cats that come begging for food at 4:30 a.m., she suggests using an automatic timed feeder. Cats quickly learn when the food will drop down and will wait at the feeder instead of nudging their owners, she said.
Of course, regular physical activity —15 to 30 minutes day—is important for a dog’s overall well-being, but it’s rarely enough to help an overweight dog lose weight “unless they’re running a 5K every day,” Linder noted. “They’re not going to burn off the calories in a marrow bone with a walk around the block.”
Research contact: @tuftsvet