Just like with people, American pets are struggling with a preventable epidemic: About 60 percent of cats and 56 of dogs qualify as overweight to obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.
That number sounds about right, according to veterinarian Evelyn Vega, owner of Happy Pets Veterinary Center in Valencia, based on her daily experience.
“About 50 percent of both dogs and cats I see are overweight,” she said.
Consequently, medical conditions such as osteoarthritis, diabetes, heart disease, back pain, fatty liver disease and respiratory issues are on the rise. That means a decrease in the quality of life for pets.
“A canine study in 2012 found that obesity general lowers companion animals’ vitality and increases emotional disturbances,” Vega noted. “Even mildly overweight cats and dogs are at risk for complications that will shorten their lifespans. A recent study showed that Labradors with just 10-20 percent extra body fat lived a median 1.8 fewer years.”
The most common reasons for pet obesity are wide ranging, starting with pet owners not thinking their dog or cats are overweight. Vega has to show them what a normal waistline looks like via a chart in her examination rooms.
For example, according to the Nestle Purina Body Condition System, a well-proportioned pet has ribs that can be easily felt without excess fat with a waist that can be observed behind the ribs from above.
Next is the lack of knowledge about how many calories are contained in pet food, which can vary greatly from brand to brand.
“One dry food may be 300 calories a cup and another may have 400 calories a cup,” Vega explained. “If a pet owner buys a new brand, they will feed one cup regardless.”
Add treats to the mix and it’s a recipe for obesity. A small dog bone can contain 45 calories and contains
ingredients that are not healthy for pets.
Ironically, many pet owners give pets extra treats because they feel guilty if the pet is left alone for long periods of time or doesn’t take them for walks, creating an especially vicious cycle.
As Dr. Ernie Ward, lead researcher of the 2009 National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Study, puts it, “Today’s treats are so loaded with sugar and fat I call them ‘kibble crack.’ Modern treats are creating cravings that go far beyond what is normal in many pets”
So how do you combat obesity in your pets? Vega had the following suggestions:
- Figure out your pets daily caloric intake with your veterinarian
- If that doesn’t result in weight loss, decrease food by 25 percent
- Try giving your dog veggies such as snap peas, carrots, green beans, or canned pumpkin instead of processed, high-calorie treats
- Strive for regular daily exercise. For dogs, that can mean long walks, hikes and/or a game of fetch in the yard. Dogs require a half hour to two hours of activity daily, depending on age, breed, size, and overall health.
- Cats need exercise, too. Try using wand toys, laser pointers, cat trees, and rolling, jingly balls to get your cat moving.
- If you’re unsure about what the proper level of exercise is for your pet, consult with your veterinarian.
- On days you can’t exercise your pet, cut down on the amount of food you feed
- Take your pet for an annual or twice-yearly veterinary exam to track weight and rule out any underlying medical causes for obesity
The results of such efforts yield great results, as Dr. Vega illustrated.
“By keeping your pet at an ideal weight,” she said, “they’ll live a long, happy life and you’ll have your best friend by your side as long as possible.”