Greener BeeGreen LivingPet Obesity is More Common (and Harmful) than You Think

Well, this is a heartbreaker. It turns out that pet obesity is on the rise because well-meaning humans (cough-me-cough) like to over-treat our animals. And while we might associate a fat cat or dog with a happy one, we actually aren’t doing our pets any favors when we overfeed them.

In fact, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates that more than half of dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese.

We know that equating food with love is not healthy for humans, but for some reason we have a blindspot about that with our pets. All that my sweet dogs have to do is look at me with those puppy eyes, and I’m looking for the treat jar.

According to Dr. Deborah Linder, head of Tufts University’s Obesity Clinic for Animals, this attitude is harming our pets: shortening their lifespans and actually making them less happy. In an article on The Conversation, she points to several studies showing the ways that obesity is bad for our pets:

  • One study showed that Labradors who were just 10 to 20 percent overweight had lifespans that were almost two years shorter than the average.
  • When it comes to our pets, fat does not equal happy. A 2012 study found that pet obesity impacts quality of life in dogs. Obese dogs are less happy and less energetic.
  • Like people, obese pets have a hard time reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.

Dr. Linder says that it’s up to us as pet parents to help our pets reach and stay at a healthy weight. That means giving them more exercise, not overfeeding and reigning it in with the treats.

Strategies for Fighting Pet Obesity

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Our bonds with our pets are strong, and sometimes it can be as hard to resist treating our sweet furry friends as it is to resist reaching for comfort food ourselves. There are a few suggestions in The Conversation article for how to change our food-love relationship with our pets.

person walking dog

Replace food treats with activities and affection.

This worked well when we were training our first dog, Jenna. We started out using treats to reward her for a good sit/stay, but one evening, we forgot the bag of dog treats on the way to class. Instead of treating her with kibble, we gave her over-the-top praise and pets when she’d do well.

It took about half of the class, but by the end, she was doing tricks for affection as reliably as she used to for treats. We were actually able to stop bringing food to class for her, because this was so successful.

Rewarding our pets with hugs can help, but sometimes you need a bigger distraction. If your pet is used to an extra feeding or a treat at a certain time, Dr. Linder recommends scheduling something fun at that time, like a walk or playtime.

Changing feeding times can help prevent pet obesity.

Change feeding times.

Here is another tip from The Conversation article that my family stumbled upon with our own pets. When we first adopted them, our cats used to wake us up at five in the morning for breakfast. Pre-dawn wakeups was not what we pictured when we adopted these babies, so we tried moving their feedings to right before bedtime, and it worked!

It turns out that this change not only bought us more sleep but may have made our cats healthier. Cats prefer eating at night, so these nighttime feedings meant they didn’t beg for food or treats at night.

Feed pets separately to help prevent food-stealing, which can lead to pet obesity.

Feed pets separately (and feed them less).

We could have done a better job heeding this advice with our own cats. Changing feeding times won’t help your pets stay at a healthy weight, if your pet with a tendency to overeat has access to another animal’s food in addition to her own.

Our Molly was obese, because she would eat both her food and our other cat, Agnes’s, food too. I used to call Agnes our “half-cat,” because Molly’s weight was double hers (which was healthy for her size).

Just like people, our pets can also eat too fast, causing them to overeat. The Conversation piece recommends using “food puzzles” or programmable feeding systems that helps slow down eating.

Chihuahua dog eat feed. Bowl of dry kibble food.

Try new food.

Switching to a lower-calorie food can help our pets maintain a healthy weight without having to cut back on the actual volume of food they get. But just like Daniel Tiger, some pets may not be thrilled about trying new food at first.

The Conversation article recommends a gradual approach, where you serve both foods side-by-side, and gradually reduce the amount of the old food, until all that’s available is the new one.

We found that a similar approach worked for us when we needed to switch our cats to a UTI-formulated food. Instead of the side-by-side method, we mixed their old food with the new. We started with about three fourths old food, one fourth new food. A couple of days later, we upped it to half old and half new. Then three fourths new, one fourth old. After about a week, they were eating the new food as if nothing had happened.

How and how much we feed our pets is very personal. Every animal (and pet parent) is different, so the tricks that help one animal eat less may not be as effective with another. There may be some trial and error involved as you sort out what techniques help your pet eat less without making you feel guilty. There’s no secret or silver bullet—we just have to keep trying, and eventually, we’ll get better.

Related at Care2

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates that more than half of dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese. While we might associate a fat cat or dog with a happy one, we actually aren't doing our pets any favors when we overfeed them.

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