Pet Obesity Rates On The Rise In America

By  //  March 16, 2013

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Veterinary Medicine Update


With 35% of adults considered obese, the assessment and management of the impact of the “obesity epidemic” on the overall health and wellbeing of America is a primary focus of the media, politicians and policy makers, and all sectors of the healthcare industry.  Unfortunately, the tendency to pack on the pounds to the detriment of good health is carrying over in a big way into our pet population.

80 Million U.S Dogs and Cats At Risk From Obesity

The 2012 National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Survey estimates the number of overweight cats reached an all-time high of 43.2 million in 2012.

According to the sixth annual National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Survey conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), 52.5 percent of dogs and 58.3 percent of cats are overweight or obese as determined by their veterinarians. The 2012 survey, conducted in October and December 2012, analyzed data from 121 veterinary clinics in 36 states, and included the assessment of 1,485 dogs and 450 cats.

Pet obesity numbers are on the rise, with last year’s survey number of overweight cats reaching an all-time high of 43.2 million, and 36.7 million canines tipping the scales at a level that increases their risk for obesity-related health conditions similar to those seen in humans, such as high blood pressure, joint problems, certain cancers and especially diabetes.

Obesity #1 Health Threat To American Pets

APOP’s founder and lead veterinarian for the survey, Dr. Ernie Ward, considers obesity to be the leading health threat to American pets, and said, “We continue to see an escalation in the number of overweight cats and an explosion in the number of type 2 diabetes cases.”

Dr. Ernie Ward instructing a friend on healthy snacks.

APOP board member and New York-based veterinary endocrinologist Dr. Mark Peterson concurs with Dr. Ward. “There is a vast population of overweight cats and dogs facing an epidemic of diabetes. The best preventive measure a pet owner can make is to keep their dog or cat at a healthy weight. Diabetes is far easier to prevent than treat, especially when twice daily insulin injections are needed.”

Pets’ ‘Fat Gap’ Often Overlooked By Owners

It can sometime be tricky recognizing the physical signs of obesity, and pet owners may not realize that their dog or cat is fat. “The fat gap,” as Dr. Ward calls it, is the phenomenon of incorrectly evaluating an overweight pet as normal. In fact, the survey showed approximately 45 percent of cat and dog owners assessed their pet as having a normal body weight when the veterinarian assessed the pet to be overweight.

Veterinary nutritionist Dr. Joe Bartges evaluating a patient in his clinic at the University of Tennessee.

Internal medicine and veterinary nutrition specialist at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine Dr. Joe Bartges, points out that, “The disconnect between reality and what a pet parent thinks is obese makes having a conversation with their veterinarian more challenging. Many pet owners are shocked when their veterinarian informs them their pet needs to lose weight. They just don’t see it.”

It may require a full veterinary exam to rule in or out a specific etiology for your pet’s obesity. Working with your vet to rule out other medical problems is the first step. While some drugs and some disease conditions, such as hyperthyroidism or Cushing’s disease, can cause weight gain, more often obesity is caused by overfeeding and high calorie foods. Your vet will help you devise a diet and exercise plan for your pet to get on the track to health and fitness.

Reluctance of your pet to exercise may be a harbinger of an obesity problem.

Take a close look at your dog or cat and use the general assessment points below for body condition and weight assessment:

  • Can the ribs be felt with gentle palpation of the sides?
  • Is there a “waist” – an indentation in the area between where the ribs end and the hips begin (when looking down at the back)?
  • Can the hip bones be palpated with gentle pressure?
  • Does your pet have trouble or is your pet slow to rise or move about?
  • Is your pet reluctant to exercise?
  • Does your pet seem to tire easily with activity?
  • Does your pet suffer more from the summer heat than other animals?

The survey also highlighted the tendency for some breeds to pack on excess pounds more than others. Veterinarians classified 58.9 percent of Labrador retrievers and 62.7 percent of golden retrievers as overweight or obese. These breeds are built for outdoor activity and exercise, and if house-bound and overfed, their calorie intake overwhelms utilization and they progressively add fat and pounds.

Obesity Related Joint Disorders Preventable With Weight Management

Weight-related musculoskeletal conditions are rampant among obese and overweight pets according to veterinary surgical specialist Dr. Steve Budsberg of the University of Georgia, who manages the troublesome joint disorders that result from the strain of obesity.

Obesity related joint problems result in hundreds of millions of dollars in medical bills and countless surgical procedures for dogs and cats.

Dr. Budsberg states that “Pet obesity is setting up more and more dogs and cats for joint problems during their lives. This results in hundreds of millions of dollars in medical bills and countless surgical procedures for weight-related conditions. As a veterinary surgeon I find this extremely frustrating; this disease is easily treatable and even simpler to prevent. Feed your pet less, exercise them more and see your veterinarian at least once a year.”

Causes Of Pet And Childhood Obesity Linked

Dr. Ward doesn’t think that it’s just a coincidence that both pet and childhood obesity rates are on the rise in this country. “The causes of pet and childhood obesity are largely the same: too many high-calorie foods and snacks combined with too little physical activity. Parents need to encourage children to put down their video games and pick up the dog leash to go for a walk. Instead of snacking on sugary treats, share crunchy vegetables with your dog. Eat more whole foods instead of highly processed fast food.”

Responsible parenting and pet ownership means having the courage and commitment to make the right choices for healthier, happier pets and children.

Responsible parenting and pet ownership should include a heightened awareness of the behavioral, nutritional and environmental factors that lead to obesity, a very objective physical assessment, and the courage and commitment to make the right choices for healthier, happier pets and children.

Dr. Ward puts an exclamation mark on the exigency of the obesity problem when he says, “This is a war veterinarians, pet owners and parents must win. Obesity is the number one preventable medical condition seen in veterinary hospitals today and is the fastest growing health threat of our nation’s children. Our goal is to help pets and people live longer, healthier, and pain-free lives by maintaining a healthy weight, proper nutrition, and physical activity. The most important decision a pet owner makes each day is what they choose to feed their pet. Choose wisely. Your pet’s life depends on it.”

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