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Weight Watchers: How the Pet Obesity Epidemic Happened

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By Laura Drucker

Kale Chips weighed 85 pounds when he was surrendered to Animal Care and Control.

Kale Chips weighed 85 pounds when he was surrendered to Animal Care and Control.

Kale Chips weighed 85 pounds when his caregiver surrendered him to Chicago’s Animal Care and Control in late 2014. The Beagle was twice the size he should have been, an unfortunate consequence of a guardian who was unable to properly care for him.

After he was pulled by Chicago-based rescue group One Tail at a Time, Kale Chip’s story quickly went viral. Images of the morbidly obese dog were shared across the country, reigniting the on-going conversation about weight problems among our animal companions. Today, as a result of hard work and commitment, Kale Chips is a healthy 44 pounds, living a happy and active life alongside his adoptive family and canine siblings. The conversation on pet obesity, however, is far from over.

In the United States, about 58 percent of cats and 53 percent of dogs were overweight in 2014, according to data from the National Pet Obesity Prevalence Study, conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). Of those animals, 28.1 percent of the cats and 17.6 percent of the dogs were designated obese—defined as weighing more than 30 percent of their ideal body weight. Compare that to the fact that 68.8 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, and it’s clear that the weight epidemic in pets is quickly coming to mirror the situation among humans.

The health issues overweight pets face are similar to their human counterparts as well, including increased risks for high blood pressure, heart and respiratory diseases, cancer, kidney disease, joint problems, and diabetes, and decreased life expectancy. APOP estimates extra weight can take an average of 2.5 years off a pet’s lifespan, about 25% of their life for a dog with a ten-year life expectancy.

Recognizing the problem

“Just like with people, overfeeding and not enough exercise are the main causes of obesity in pets,” says Lindsay Seilheimer, DVM, CCRP, the rehabilitation director for the Athletic Center at Veterinary Specialty Center (VSC) in Buffalo Grove. VSC opened their Athletic Center earlier this year in response to the growing demand for targeted weight loss and rehabilitative orthopedic services for pets.

Unlike their human counterparts, pets can really never be responsible for their excess weight. They eat what is provided to them and they exercise to the degree that we facilitate it. Imbalances between caloric intake and energy expenditures can be easily managed by caregivers. With so many loving and well-meaning pet parents out there, how did the pet obesity problem get so out of control?

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Perhaps it’s a case of denial. Despite the overwhelming prevalence of overweight pets, APOP’s study reveals that 90 percent of cat guardians and 95 percent of dog guardians classify their pet as being at a healthy weight. Not so easily fooled though are vets and other pet health professionals, who are seeing an influx of hefty pets come through their doors.

Finding solutions

Jessica Ray, the operations manager of Urban Pooch, a canine lifestyle center with two Chicago locations, says that more than 30 percent of the animals that come to their facility are overweight or obese.

Similar to most human health clubs, Urban Pooch’s Training and Fitness Center offers a host of modalities for clients who need to slim down. This includes treadmills, open gym time, agility, flyball, nutrition consultation services, and a program called FitPAWS, which uses various fitness products to help strengthen dogs physically and mentally. For pet parents looking to help their pets lose weight, Ed Kaczmarek, Urban Pooch’s co-founder, recommends the use of an activity monitor, which provides accurate, up-to-date data on an animal’s daily activity levels.

“You do have to put time in,” notes Ray, highlighting one of the main problems caregivers have with getting  their pet to a healthy weight. Just like with humans, a pet’s weight loss journey can be slow, plagued with plateaus and setbacks. What facilities like Urban Pooch and VSC offer is a chance to do it with the support of professionals who can help guide the process, as well as provide access to innovative treatment options.

Max is a seven-year-old Lab mix with arthritis. He uses VSC's facility to help ease his pain and shed a few pounds.

Max is a seven-year-old Lab mix with arthritis. He uses VSC’s facility to help ease his pain and shed a few pounds.

One of the most popular treatments at  VSC’s Athletic Center is the underwater treadmill, which allows animals to exercise without putting a lot of stress on their joints, says Seilheimer. This is especially important for pets whose weight problems, age, or other physical limitations makes traditional activities painful.

The right stuff

Exercise is crucial for helping pets achieve and maintain healthy weights, but research reveals that it’s not the main culprit behind the pet obesity epidemic. That designation belongs to food—how much and what kind.

A big misconception about our pets is that they are always hungry. Though your dog or cat may accept any and all treats you offer, like us, they’re often simply responding to the pleasure response that comes with food, not an actual hunger cue. It’s up to us humans to do our research and make sure our pets are staying within their specific recommended daily caloric intakes.

“The safest and best way to help your pet lose weight is to measure their food,” says Seilheimer. “Account for treats that you give them by decreasing food at meal times.” So go ahead and buy Fido that pupcake from the pet-friendly food truck on your walk, but offer less food at dinnertime to compensate.

“Pay attention, and know what you’re feeding your [pet],” notes Brittany West, retail manager at Urban Pooch. That means knowing the calorie counts of food and treats, as well as knowing how many calories your pet requires. Some smaller dogs need just a few hundred calories a day, meaning that Kong full of peanut butter you left when you went to work in the morning could be the equivalent of a full Thanksgiving dinner.

We all want our pets to live their longest, healthiest lives, which means doing the work to set them up for success. At your pet’s next check-up, ask your vet to provide you with some guidelines for your pet’s specific daily nutritional needs. Start swapping calorie-laden biscuits with fresh or frozen fruits and veggies, and don’t skip a walk just because it doesn’t fit into your schedule—you owe it to your furry friend to get them moving every day. Our pets rely on us to be their benevolent leaders, advocating for their best interests and helping them lead happy, healthy lives. What the statistics about overweight and obese pets tell us is that there is definitely room for improvement.

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