We know that obesity is a growing epidemic in the United States. Thirty percent of American adults – that's 60 million people – are obese. But there's another statistic that is even more startling and concerning to pet owners and veterinarians: according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, approximately half of all dogs and cats in the United States are overweight or obese. That's 84 million animals that weigh more than they should for optimal health. Just as with people, obesity in pets is associated with many health risks, including osteoarthritis, Type 2 diabetes, respiratory disorders, hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, and many forms of cancer.
What causes obesity in pets? It generally comes down to consuming more calories than the pet needs. According to veterinarian Susan Nelson, assistant professor of clinical sciences at Kansas State University, “Pets are overeating and under-exercising, and they're eating too many high-fat foods and treats.” Dr. Nelson suggests a number of factors to consider when feeding your pet, including paying attention to the nutritional information and calorie content of what your pet eats. While we often think to at least glance at the nutritional information and calorie content marked on our own food, we may not think to do the same for our pets.
Is my pet overweight?
It's relatively easy to determine yourself if your dog or cat is overweight. First, take a look at your pet's ribs. If your animal is a healthy weight, the ribs shouldn't be seen but should be easy to feel. They should be covered with a thin layer of fat – if they are difficult to feel under a large layer of fat, that is a sign your pet is overweight. Next, take a look at the animal's stomach. A sagging stomach, where you can grab a handful of fat, is also a sign of excess weight. Finally, take a look at your pet's general body shape. When looking at the animal from above, you should be able to easily make out a waistline. A dog should be an hourglass shape – broader at the shoulders and hips and narrow at the waist. A broad, flat back is a sign your pet is overweight.
How much should I be feeding my pet?
Figuring out how much you should be feeding your pet is not as straightforward as it may initially seem. Amounts vary based on the type of food, your pet's metabolism, and the amount of exercise it gets. If your pet is a healthy weight, a good place to start is with the amount suggested by the guidelines on the pet food packaging. If your pet is just a bit overweight, look at the guidelines and feed it the amount suggested for its ideal weight, rather than the weight it currently is.
The typical domestic cat should weigh about 10 pounds, and needs about 275 calories per day. Unlike cats, the caloric needs of dogs vary greatly depending on breed – a variance expected when dogs can range in weight from under 5 pounds to over 100. A 10-pound dog needs about 300 calories per day, while a 50-pound dog needs 1,200. Feeding guidelines on your pet's food bag will take into account approximate caloric needs, but it's important to realize that food amounts may change if you change the type of food you're feeding your dog or cat. Since pet foods can vary greatly in fat and calorie content, one cup of Type A food will not necessarily equal one cup of Type B food.
What about treats?
Just as we sometimes don't realize (or don't want to realize!) how many calories snack foods can contribute to our diet, it's easy to forget to consider the number of calories contained in the treats we give our pets. Luckily, it is becoming more common for pet food manufacturers to list nutritional information, including calorie content, on packaged pet treats. Nutrition and calorie information is also often available online, so try visiting the company's website if you can't find what you're looking for on the packaging. It is fine to include treats in your pet's diet, but calories from treats should account for 10% or less of your pet's overall caloric intake.
Pets, particularly dogs, can be scavengers. While some dogs are very well-behaved, others go through the trash, beg at the table, and try to help themselves to anything that looks particularly tasty. In households with small children, often one of the first things a pet realizes is that children are an excellent source of table scraps. Everything the child drops – and children drop a lot! - will be devoured by a waiting animal. And it usually doesn't take long for children to discover that feeding their pet is a fun game, leading to even more shared calories. Adults are not completely innocent either – many people feed their pets table scraps, or allow them to eat food that drops on the floor. Rarely do we consider how many extra calories human food is adding to our pet's diet.
A Family Affair
As Dr. Nelson says, “It's important to count calories if your pet is overweight.” If you have a dog or cat that needs to lose a few pounds, counting calories can help you achieve that goal and help your pet stay healthy. But everyone in the family needs to be involved in this process, not just one person. No matter how careful you are about feeding your pet an appropriate diet, it won't be successful if other family members are slipping their beloved pet treats and table scraps. It's important that the entire family realizes the importance of helping their pet maintain a heathy weight. Giving food is a way to show love, but an even better way is to help your pet stay healthy and live a long life as a member of your family.
Matt Papa is a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University School of Medicine. Dog lover and owner of a beautiful German shepherd named Hera, Matt is concerned about problems with obesity in both animals and humans. His medical research interests include obesity treatments and the ways in which humans and animals can work together to maintain a healthy weight. Matt owns a website devoted to best weight loss programs reviews and the latest scientific findings on obesity. He often gives away a Medfast coupon.