Humans are not the only residents of the United States who are getting fatter every year. So, unsurprisingly, are our furry friends — the dogs and cats that share, too often, our tendency to overeat.
Unlike their owners, however, the family dog or cat cannot open the refrigerator or gain access to snacks in high cupboards without human assistance, which means the responsibility for pet obesity rests with you-know-who.
Veterinarians report nearly half the dogs they see are overweight or obese, although only 17 percent of owners acknowledge that their pets are fat.
“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!”
According to Nationwide, the country’s largest provider of pet health insurance, obesity among dogs and cats has risen for eight years in a row, along with claims for ailments related to being overweight.
In 2017, obesity-related insurance claims for veterinary expenses exceeded $69 million, a 24 percent increase over the last eight years, Nationwide reported in January.
With only 2 percent of pets covered by insurance, the costs to owners of overweight pets is likely to be in the billions.
Dollars aside, the toll taken by excess weight on the animals’ health, quality of life and longevity is far greater than most owners probably realize.
Common obesity-related ailments in dogs and cats include arthritis, heart disease, bladder and urinary tract disease, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and spinal disease.
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 if you love your pets even half as much as I love mine, you should be willing to keep them lean or, if they are already too chubby, take the steps veterinarians recommend to help them trim down.
A study of 50 obese dogs enrolled in a weight-loss program at the University of Liverpool demonstrated the value of losing excess body fat.
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.
As with people, prevention is the better route.
One way to keep pets from gaining too much weight is to weigh them periodically.
My Havanese gets on the scale at every vet visit, routine or otherwise. If he gains more than half a pound, I cut back a little on his meals and treats.
Linder emphasized that treats should make up no more than 10 percent 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 Loftus, veterinarian at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “It adds up over time. Better to show our love in ways other than food.”
Linder told me “everything counts as a treat, including marrow bones and rawhide,” 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 with a calorie-free caress, belly rub or scratch behind the ears.
Whether you feed your dog once, twice or even four times a day, the amount of food dished out should always be measured.
Many owners are guided by serving sizes listed on pet food labels, but these are just general guidelines that tend to err on the high side, Loftus said.
Not all animals are metabolically alike or equally active. Best to judge quantity by whether your pet is gaining or losing weight on the amount of food you provide, he said.
“Guides should say, ‘Please feed at the lower end of the feeding recommendations when starting our food, and increase only if the animal is losing weight,’” said Joseph Wakshlag, who works with Loftus at Cornell.
As to whether to feed dry kibble, wet canned food or a combination, Loftus said, “The jury is still out as to what’s better.”
Wakshlag added: “The calories make a difference, not the food. You can feed very little of a high-calorie food and get weight loss if you are diligent. In general, canned foods designed for weight loss tend to provide fewer calories than dry food alternatives.”
Equally important is to learn to resist when pets beg for more food than they need.
“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,” Loftus said.
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.
“I’ve never met an animal that could free-feed and still lose weight,” Linder said.
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 said. “They’re not going to burn off the calories in a marrow bone with a walk around the block.”
The ideal weight-loss goal is about 1 to 2 percent of the pet’s weight each week.
If feeding smaller amounts is not effective, there are commercially available foods or prescription diets intended for weight loss.
Switch foods gradually by increasing the proportion of the new food over the course of a week or two to avoid digestive upset.
Before putting any pet on a weight-loss diet, schedule an exam to be sure there is no medical reason for undue weight gain.