See also “Four-Legged Friends: Results from a National Pet Owners Survey”
It has come to this. There is now an organization called the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. According to APOP, 56 percent of America’s dogs are overweight, and 20 percent of those are obese. For cats, it’s 54 and 22 percent. Yet, there are more “healthy” pet food choices than ever—organic, raw, grain free, free-range, low calorie, low fat, and on and on.
But the real problem isn’t the food or even the pets. It’s the humans.
“Portion control, overfeeding treats, having the wrong type of treats, and a lack of exercise to burn the calories are big problems,” says Dr. James Bianco of Ardmore Animal Hospital. “If that sounds like the same causes of human obesity, well, I’d say that’s right on. Pets are part of our families. In many homes, they eat when we eat. So, if you’re overeating, your pets probably are, too.”
The biggest problem is giving human food to animals. If something tastes good, people want to share it with their pets. “For the most part, our food has too much salt, fat, preservatives and calories for us, let alone for animals,” says Dr. Jennifer Clarke of King of Prussia Veterinary Hospital. “But we love them, and humans equate love with food, so there you have it. Pets learn how to manipulate the heck out of us to get that yummy food.”
What can humans do to help their pets lead healthier lives? First, recognize the problem. “Many people don’t know what qualifies as overweight in a dog or cat,” says Bianco. “There should be a defined indentation at the waist. You should be able to easily feel the pet’s ribs when you touch them.”
Second, get your pet on a schedule. “A lot of people do free-feeding, which is leaving food out for the pet to eat when he’s hungry and filling the bowl when it’s empty,” Clarke says. “If your pet is not overweight, that’s fine, because he may be self-regulating his intake. But if the pet is overweight, give him smaller amounts of food at regular times throughout the day. Just like with humans, that keeps their metabolism burning.”
The feeding schedule should be a little different for cats. “Most of them are nocturnal, so it’s OK to leave food out for them at night,” Clarke says. “But cut back on how much you feed them during the day.”
Third, rethink pet treats. “Some are loaded with sugar and carbohydrates, so look at the ingredients and switch to better ones,” says Bianco. “Also, some companies sell treats for different-sized dogs—don’t believe that. My 100-pound dog gets the same treat as my 10-pound dog, and neither complains.”
Even consider using raw carrots and string beans as treats. “They love to chew on them, and they’re a great source of low-calorie fiber,” Clarke says.
Last but not least—and perhaps most difficult—make sure your pet is getting the right kind of food. Anyone who’s stood in aisles filled with pretty-colored cans and bags knows that an abundance of options doesn’t guarantee healthy choices. Bianco suggests getting help from those who specialize in pet nutrition. He recommends two local experts: Andrea Deutsch, owner of Spot’s in Narberth, and Mike Owens of Delchester Discount Feed & Pet Supply in Newtown Square.
“The proof is in the poop,” Deutsch says. “If your pet’s stool is loose, discolored or infrequent, then his nutrition is off. What comes out tells us a lot about what goes in.”
Owens agrees. “The first thing to understand is that dogs are omnivorous and cats are carnivores, but both need animal protein,” he says. “Vegetable-based proteins are not as usable by their bodies as meat, so a lot of those calories are wasted. Look at the ingredients listed on packaging. Start by making sure that the food is made in the United States. If not, it doesn’t have to abide by U.S. guidelines, and God only knows what’s in it.”
If animal by-product is among the first ingredients listed, “you have bad food,” Owens says. “That’s like feeding your pet McDonald’s every day. What it should say is ‘animal protein’—or, more specifically, from which animal.”
Another little-known fact: Many cats can’t process gluten, dogs don’t need it, and both should stay away from it. “Not only does gluten make them fat, but a lot of dogs and cats develop gluten allergies,” says Deutsch. “In dogs, it shows up as itchy ears and red bellies, or they’ll chew their paws. They do that because the skin has inflammation from the gluten. Foods that are grain free or gluten free are the real deal and are very good options.”
Those labeled ‘kitten,’ ‘puppy,’ ‘adult’ and ‘senior’ are also the real deal. They offer appropriate amounts of protein, fiber, vitamins and nutrients, says Owens.
Reduced-fat or diet varieties may be fine, so long as the fat is not substituted with sugar and fillers to make pets want to eat it. “Don’t assume that diet food is the right way to get a pet to lose weight,” Owens says. “The better route is getting high-quality, regular food and reducing the portion by about 20 percent. Feed him small portions throughout the day, and he’ll drop weight as his metabolism wakes up.”
And beware of too much protein. “That overworks the animal’s kidneys and causes all kinds of problems,” says Owens. “They need balanced nutrition.”
Less important are organic, free-range and raw options. All three are irrelevant to weight control—and, when mishandled, raw food can contain E. coli, salmonella and other nasties.
“You don’t have to spend a fortune to get good nutrition for your pet, because high price doesn’t equal high quality,” says Deutsch.
Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association
American households that own at least one pet.
Cats in U.S. households.
Dogs in U.S. households.
Money spent on pet food in 2011.
Yearly household average spent on dog food.
Yearly household average spent on cat food.
Yearly household average spent on treats for dogs.
Yearly household average spent on treats for cats.