Synopsis: Just as people face an obesity crisis in the US, so do our pets, who have many of the same health consequences as overweight humans. Experts discuss why pet obesity is a problem and ways pet owners can keep their furry friends healthy.
Host: Nancy Benson. Guests: Dr. Ernie Ward, Veterinarian and founder, Association for Pet Obesity Prevention; Dr. Deborah Linder, Research Assistant Professor, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University
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NANCY BENSON: For years now, Americans have been told we’re facing an obesity epidemic. The first lady has even started “Let’s Move!”, a federal initiative created to combat obesity in American children. But what we hear less about is that America’s pets are facing a similar problem.
ERNIE WARD: Pet obesity is without a doubt the number one health threat our nation’s pets face. To try to get a handle on how big the problem was, we began conducting prevalence surveys every year. And what we found was over half of the nation’s dogs and cats weigh too much.
BENSON: That’s Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian, author, and founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. He says an overweight pet can mean increased risk for many severe health problems.
WARD: The problems associated with obesity in pets are similar to those we see in humans. So, type 2 diabetes is just at incredible levels now, especially in cats in the U.S. We see an exacerbation and even a creation of osteoarthritis, so crippling arthritis of the hips, the knees, the elbows, the shoulders. We see high blood pressure. There’s evidence that suggests that kidney failure in dogs and cats is associated with excess weight. And probably my biggest fear is the relationship between excess fat tissue and cancer. We are seeing an explosion of data suggesting that the more fat a dog or cat is carrying, the more at risk they are for a wide variety of cancers.
BENSON: And it’s not that animals are simply a few pounds heavier than they should be. He says more pets than ever are exceptionally overweight.
WARD: Our yearly prevalence studies clearly indicate that this is a worsening problem. And where the real issue is for us is the number of obese pets is expanding. So, we rate pets as being overweight and obese, and these have clinical meanings to doctors. But, the reality is an obese pet is at greater risk of developing diseases and a shortened life expectancy than one that’s simply overweight. And what we’re seeing is that in our prevalence studies, we’re seeing more and more obese tests. So, these aren’t dogs or cats that are just one or two pounds overweight; these are dogs and cats that are 10, 20, even 30 pounds overweight. So, that’s the most disturbing aspect of our research over the years.
BENSON: Ward says the reasons so many animals are growing to obese levels are relatively straightforward.
WARD: We’ve got issues such as the urbanization of America, so now we don’t live in areas where we have access to farmland where the dog or cat can roam. We don’t even play outside much anymore. So, as we’ve enclosed our lives within the 4 walls of apartments and small homes, we’ve also taken away the opportunity for pets to get aerobic activity. The other factor is we’re feeding more calories than ever before. Today’s pet foods are more calorically dense than previous generations. That means that each cup or can has more calories than they did 20 years ago.
BENSON: Dr. Deborah Linder agrees that it all boils down to diet and exercise. Linder is a research assistant professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. She says exercise is important, but these days it’s more complicated than ever to determine the proper diet for pets.
LINDER: There’s no one diet that’s best for all dogs, so when I try and help owners and guide them to which diet is best, I take a lot of things into account: certainly, that it be formulated for weight loss. So, I want to make sure that even though we’re cutting calories, we’re not cutting essential nutrients as well. You would never want to just take a regular maintenance food and cut that in half because then you’re cutting all their vitamins and minerals, things like that. Some other things we may take into account are protein needs, fiber, whether that may help some pets feel more full, but it also may mean that they have to go to the bathroom more. So, then we kind of think about pet owner preferences; what’s the lifestyle like, canned food versus dry food. There are a lot of things that go into it that really you need to think about the individual pet and pet owner that are in front of you to make that decision.
BENSON: Linder advises that it’s a good idea to seek professional help to cut through the noise of so many different pet food options.
LINDER: I think the most important thing is just making sure you’re not trying to go it alone, that pet owners are engaging their veterinarians too. Cause unfortunately there’s a lot of marketing out there and advertising of pet foods. And if you just go by that advertising, you might not know what facts are. Foods that are marketed for weight loss don’t necessarily have a lot of regulation or guidelines around them. So, you may actually be picking a food that’s more calories than the food you’re currently feeding. So, it’s really important to work with your veterinarian and get the facts.
BENSON: But Linder says before you go to the vet’s office, there are a few things pet owners should do.
LINDER: Something that can help before you get there, or if you want to try it on your own, is starting with just a diet journal. So, writing down over the course of a few days everything that passes the lips of your pet’s mouth. That includes, certainly, their main diets, but also treats, anything you may give if you need to give medication, if you need to use food for that, any chews that they might have, for example, rawhides or dental treats. All of those things contribute calories, so the best thing that we can do from the starting point is get a good assessment of what calories the pet is consuming before we start a plan for them.
BENSON: And if owners are unsure whether they should start keeping such a journal, Linder recommends a quick test to help determine whether a pet has a problem.
LINDER: The best thing an owner can do to determine if their pet is a healthy body weight or body condition, instead of the body mass index that we have in people where we measure height and weight, dogs come in different sizes, so the best thing that you can do is feel over your pet’s ribcage, whether it be a dog or a cat, and when you feel over their ribs it should be no more padded than the back of your hand. That’s a really quick and easy way to determine if your pet is an ideal weight.
BENSON: And in addition to finding the right pet food, Ward says owners need to be more aware of how many treats they’re handing out.
WARD: The real root of the problem is the desire to please our pets. I mean, we feel guilty often; we have to leave them alone or we don’t have time to take them for a walk or play. So, we fill that void with food. And this really is an obstacle that I think as a society and culture; we’re going to have to come to grips with. Food equals love to many pet owners. But, that doesn’t equal love for every pet. What pets really crave is our attention, our inner action. So, we have to realize as pet owners that maybe reaching for that cookie isn’t as satisfying to that dog as just petting them for a few minutes.
BENSON: But all too often when a pet is on a diet, Ward sees weeks or months of progress spoiled quickly if the owner slips back into old habits.
WARD: What’ll happen is the dog or cat will lose some weight initially, but then they’ll begin begging, waking you up at 2 in the morning, saying, “Please give me more food,” and of course the owner gives in. One of my favorite tips, also, is more frequent feedings, especially for cats. I’ll offer what I call a “midnight snack”. Right before you go to bed, you’re going to feed a small portion of the daily calories. And this will often allow you, and your cat hopefully, to get a good night’s rest.
BENSON: Ultimately, the problem of pet obesity isn’t easy to combat. However, Ward says a loving pet owner really has no choice. Being overweight or obese is simply too harmful to the animal’s well being.
PENCE: Every time when I’m in the exam room and I’ve diagnosed the dog or the cat and I say, “Hey, we need to lose 3 or 4 pounds,” the owner thinks, “Well, that’s just not a big deal.” If they could sit in my chair and fast-forward to the thousands of cases I’ve seen in my career to the end point, that is the dog or cat that’s now suffering from these consequences of feeding a little bit too much every day, not paying attention to the weight; they would change their ways. And that’s really the most heartbreaking dilemma for me as a practicing veterinarian. I’m sitting in the chair. I’m saying we need to lose a few pounds. I’m doing that because I know what the future holds and I know that if they don’t change, it’s going to be devastating. It’s going to be heartbreaking. So, the one thing I would say is if you want your dog or cat to lead a long, healthy, vital, vigorous life; keep it lean and healthy.
BENSON: So the next time your pet completes a trick or deserves a reward, try using some love and affection instead of treats. If your pet seems overweight, talk to your vet about it. The experts agree it’ll be worth it in the long run.You can find out more about our guests on our website radiohealthjournal.net.Our writer-producer this week is Evan Rook.Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Nick Hofstra.I’m Nancy Benson.