Diabetes, arthritis, other chronic diseases…obesity takes a toll on your health and can rack up huge medical bills. And if you're a dog or cat, you're just as vulnerable. According to a report from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), an epidemic of feline and canine obesity is affecting half of our pets, and it's costing owners up to $1,200 per year. "We're seeing a greater percentage of pets that are classified as obese, and that's where these horrible expensive diseases occur," says Ernie Ward, DVM, founder of APOP and owner of Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, NC. "It will cost $1,200 to $1,500 per year to manage a diabetic cat, whereas a healthy diet is just a couple hundred dollars," he says. And it's just slightly less for dogs, who usually succumb to arthritis and hip problems when they pack on the pounds. "These are largely preventable conditions," he adds, "caused by choices we make at the food bowl."
APOP collected data from Banfield Pet Hospital, a large nationwide chain of veterinary clinics, and found that 56 percent of dogs and 53 percent of cats are either overweight or obese. An obese pet is defined as being 30 percent heavier than its ideal weight, and in their survey, the doctors found that in 21 percent of dogs and 22 percent in cats. For dogs, that's a pretty significant jump from 2007, when just 10 percent of canines were considered obese. No cats, and less than 1 percent of dogs, were found to be underweight.
So what's causing our pooches to get pudgy and cats to get fatter? The same thing that's affecting us humans: bad food and no exercise, says Dr. Ward. And he points the finger at pet food manufacturers. "In terms of caloric density, our pets are eating more calories per volume than ever before," says Ward, who's also author of the book Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter (HCI, 2010). He adds that, just like people food manufacturers, pet food companies are pumping foods, in particular pet treats, full of sugar, which dogs love. "Dogs love sweet things, they gravitate towards sweet things, so these companies add more sugar to them." APOP analyzed popular dog treats a few years ago and found that sugar was nearly always listed as one of the top three ingredients.
Another problem is that pet food companies aren't required to publish nutrition information on packages to tell owners what the calorie and sugar content of a certain food is, but they are required to publish feeding guidelines, which Dr. Ward says are confusing and often lead to overfeeding. These feeding guides tell owners to, for instance, feed a dog two cups of food if the animal is 40 pounds. "But unfortunately, these guides are based on the most demanding life stages—pregnancy, lactation, growth," says Dr. Ward. "Sedentary dogs and cats don't need that many calories. If owners are following the feeding guides for a typical indoor spayed or neutered dog or cat, they're already feeding it 20 to 30 percent more calories than they need."
Owners can't be left off the hook entirely, either. We keep our pets' bowls full all the time, so it's like they're at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and we don't give them enough exercise. But if you make sure your pet gets exercise, the benefits will rub off on you, too. A study just published in the journal BioMed Central found that dogs keep their owners active long enough to get the recommended 30 to 60 minutes of daily exercise and they keep us active all year long. "I personally don't think there's a better exercise partner than a dog," says Dr. Ward, who also happens to be a personal trainer (for both people and pets). "It's easy for us to create our own excuses, but that dog has to be walked. It doesn’t matter if it's hot, cold, snowy, or rainy."
If you want to keep your pets fit 'n' trim, you need to be proactive in feeding a healthy diet and getting him or her lots of exercise:
• Know the calorie count of your pet's favorite food. The only way to know the calorie count is to call the manufacturer, Dr. Ward says. Once you know, you can talk to your vet about how much a pet should be eating. "Your vet knows your lifestyle and will be able to make good recommendations that are more accurate than the feeding guides on the package," he adds. Or you can get a better idea of what your pet's daily caloric needs are using this chart on APOP's website.
• Measure the food. "Very few owners actually measure out the food," Dr. Ward says. "They just eyeball it." And that leads to mindless eating, just like with people. "People think that dogs will stop eating when they're full. But that's not the case," he adds. "If you put food in front of them, they'll eat it."
• Exercise with your dog. Exercise is particularly important for dogs, says Dr. Ward. "With cats, weight is influenced about 90 percent by diet, 10 percent by exercise. With dogs, it's 60 percent diet, 40 percent exercise." And just like people, dogs need between 30 and 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Take him outside for a walk, to catch a Frisbee—whatever it takes to keep your dog moving; if you need ideas, watch our video on how to exercise with your pet. Don’t just open the back door and let him "play" alone in the backyard, though. "People think they can just let a dog outside for an hour each day, and it'll get exercise. But the dog goes out there, sniffs around, and then just lies down because there's nothing to do," Dr. Ward says.
• Entertain your cat. Cats have different evolutionary instincts towards activity than dogs do, Dr. Ward says, so exercising them requires a different approach. "Cats don't move around much. They stalk their prey and then do a full-on sprint, leaping and lurching, in these 90-second bursts of activity," he says. So you have to engage their natural predatory instinct. Have a laser pointer that they can chase on a wall, or get your kid's remote-control car and have the cat chase it. Balls and wadded-up pieces of paper that they can stalk are good exercise tools, as well. Dr. Ward recommends playing with cats two to three times a day for about five minutes at a time. That will give them all the activity they need.
Published on: March 10, 2011