Just like their human friends, dogs face obesity epidemic

You’ve seen them around, those portly canines, their puppy spirit long gone. These days, fetching a ball isn’t as appealing as a good old-fashioned handshake for a treat. Their owners still probably find them cute despite their lack of mobility and spark.

Often these owners mistake their overweight pets’ experience as a normal battle against Father Time.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention started in 2007, aiming to educate veterinarians on how to help pet owners be more conscious of what and how much they feed animals.

Since then, the message has expanded beyond veterinarians. Now the group and its founder, North Carolina-based veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward, are letting the world know that an overweight dog or other pet is no laughing matter.

The association said there are 41.1 million overweight or obese dogs in the United States, about 53 percent of the dog population. Our feline friends fare worse with a 55 percent rate. Combine the two and you have more than 88 million overweight or obese pets at risk of diabetes and heart disease, not to mention joint and hip problems that amount to millions of dollars in preventable medical bills.

“The public perception today is that a fat cat is a healthy cat,” Ward said. “But we must bust that myth. It’s what’s killing our pets and costing untold dollars.”

Ignorance is driving the obesity epidemic, Ward said. Owners simply don’t realize how much they are feeding their animals. Often owners will refill a food bowl when it’s empty and be oblivious to how many calories their pet may be taking in on any given day.

“It’s important to draw a clear connection. One or two pounds adds up to significant health issues,” Ward said. “One or two pounds on a cat increases a risk of diabetes. One or two pounds on a dog impacts joints.”

Owner denial factors in pet obesity. Mike Teglas, associate professor of veterinary microbiology at the University of Nevada, Reno, cited a 2006 Pfizer Animal Health study that showed just 17 percent of owners with obese pets agreed that their pets were obese.

“I’ve had dogs come in that are 30 to 40 pounds overweight. The owner is 50 or 60 pounds overweight. It can be hard to have that discussion. They’re taking it personally,” he said. “I’ve been in clinics where we have it written in charts not to bring up the pet’s weight because the owner gets so defensive.”


Treats can compound the pet obesity problem. Often owners will use treats as an enticement for training a dog. But some go way too far, perhaps not realizing how many calories particular treats have.

Some owners also use treats as a replacement for a walk, added Teglas, a sort of double punch to the canine waistline.

“I’m guilty of that myself,” Teglas admitted. “Sometimes I get home and it’s late and it’s dark outside this time of year and I feel guilty. It assuages our guilt, but ultimately pets pay the price with excess weight.”

But Ward said a deliberate lack of information about dog food and treats from pet food manufacturers has left pet owners in the dark. He said there must be more transparency about the ingredients and nutrients in pet foods and treats.

To date, Ward said there is no national standard for disclosing the amount of nutrients such as calories, fat, protein and carbohydrates in animal foods. But his efforts are forcing manufacturers to up their game. Just as restaurants are putting calorie counts on menu items, manufacturers are starting to add more details about the amount of nutrition in their products.

As with human food, sugar is a serious problem in dog food and treats. Look closely at some of your dog’s favorite treats and you may be shocked to find the first few ingredients are sugar or sugar substitutes, Ward said. The ingredients are as harmful for animals as they are for humans, he said.

In 2010, Ward’s group issued a report called “Kibble Crack” that exposed some top-selling dog treats that have sugar as a primary ingredient.

“I reward the companies out there who bring transparency and are forthright with information,” he said. “And I chastise companies that don’t.”


So what should our dogs and cats weigh?

Ward said domestic cats should weigh 8 to 10 pounds. Ideal dog weight is tougher to measure. Veterinarians go by the Body Condition Score, a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being underweight and 5 obese.

Dr. Carlos Varela, a veterinarian and practice manager at Camino Al Norte Animal Hospital in North Las Vegas, considers several factors when calculating a Body Condition Score. He gives a breed such as a Labrador retriever, for example, which has a weight range between 60 and 80 pounds, some latitude. He has seen some 90-pound Labs rate well on the Body Condition Score scale.

“It could be a little taller and be in great shape,” he said. “You want to look more at what is ideal for length and height.”

He also gives longer-hair breeds latitude.

“Just like we as humans wear clothes, dogs have fur,” Varela said. “You have to put your hands on them and feel. Sometimes you can feel the ribs. You need to get a sense of how much fat is under the skin.”

Teglas noted that obesity can be particularly detrimental to longer-spined, less athletic dog breeds such as Dachshunds.

Determining how much a dog should eat and how much protein, fat and calories are appropriate can also be tricky, since guidelines set by food manufacturers can be motivated more by more profits than health. And, Varela said, if a dog is overweight to begin with, feeding according to that weight range may be detrimental.

Teglas uses guidelines from the Animal and Feeding Nutrition Guide published by the American Society of Animal Science and American Association of Feed Scientists. According to the source, adult dogs require one gram of fat per kilogram of body weight per day. They require 17 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For calorie intake, he uses a middle weight range for a 20 kilogram dog, which is a roughly 50 pound animal, that needs 1,250 calories per day, then adjusts up and down from there.

Teglas also recommends online tools from Science Diet or Pfizer Animal Health that let owners type in a breed, weight and other measurements to gain an understanding of ideal nutrient intake and weight.

Ward said owner-veterinarian interaction is key for determining an animal’s ideal weight and nutritional needs.

“I tell every pet owner to demand to know how much and what they should be feeding their animal when leaving the vet,” he said.


Owners can try using diet dog foods to slim down portly pooches. The problem, Teglas said, is that many people will simply overfeed with the lower-calorie food.

The best tool against obesity is the measuring cup, experts agreed. Learning how much food is needed and what type, then measuring the right amount over one or two daily meals is key. Teglas prefers two feedings, but also said dogs are fine eating once a day, too.

“Dogs are like wolves,” he said. “They can starve for days at a time and eat one big meal and be fine.”

The good news is that putting a pudgy pooch on a diet is easy. Pets usually offer less resistance than humans when it comes to shedding pounds.

“They’re not going to get up in the middle of the night and snack on ice cream,” Teglas said.

Varela said he starts with a pet’s current diet and then cuts calories from there.

When animals go on diets, owners can benefit, too, the experts agreed. Ward said studies have shown how overweight owners can use their buddies as a motivators for their own personal change. He calls this “losing weight at both ends of the leash.”

What may motivate owners even more is enjoying a happy dog well into its senior years.

Varela recommends annual blood screenings for dogs starting at age 7. He also said older dogs that may have been active in their younger years need to eat less as they age.

Ward said simple precautions like this can go a long way.

“I see some of these (overweight) dogs and their final years are so miserable,” Ward said, “and it doesn’t need to be that way at all.”

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