Most people know that Americans' waistlines are expanding. But they may not know the same is happening to their pets. As humans become more sedentary and eat more unhealthily, their four-legged companions are sharing this lifestyle and the health problems that accompany it.
"It's a mixture of diet and a sedentary lifestyle. The human lifestyle has become more sedentary, so less people are getting out, taking their dogs out for exercise," said Jaime Cowdrey, a veterinarian at Awesome Care Veterinary and Laser Center in south Oklahoma City. "And a lot of it is overfeeding and giving them people food."
Sherri Lanier, owner of the Barking Dog Bakery, said many owners are treating their dogs too well.
"We all have different emotional needs, and some of us want to take care and take care and take care, and I think they take care too well," Lanier said.
When owners regularly overfeed, their animals begin to expect it, Lanier said. As with humans, the key is moderation: a balance of protein and carbohydrates, and plenty of vegetables.
Many people don't realize their cat or dog isn't a human, Cowdrey said. Animals need a measured, restricted calorie diet " and no "people food," unless it's something like baby carrots, for example, she said.
"We equate food with love, and people are teaching their dogs to do that, too," she said.
Obesity can affect nearly every system in an animal's body, Cowdrey said, leading to diabetes, joint problems, heart problems and lung problems. The clinic recently saw a cat weighing more than 20 pounds " so obese, it had breathing problems.
"They just carry so much extra weight on their skeletal systems," Cowdrey said.
Awesome Care frequently sees overweight pets, and Cowdrey advises owners starting a weight management program to bring their dog in for weighing once a month. She said the best way to prevent obesity is to increase an animal's daily exercise.
"People say, 'Oh, I have a big back yard. My dog plays all day,' but I have a big back yard and my dog will just go out there and lay down. So, take them for a walk. If you have a cat, play with your cat," she said.
It's also important to measure out an animal's food from the time they're a puppy or kitten, rather than let them "free-feed," she said. The recommendations on the back of food bags are a maximum daily dose, she said. To treat obesity, owners can try a commercial weight management food, which Cowdrey has used on her own dog with success. There's also a weight-loss medication, Slentrol, which she has used a few times with mixed results.
Both nationwide and in Oklahoma, obesity is recognized as an epidemic, and even local and federal governments are getting involved in the battle against weight. Now, it seems the increasing weight among pets is beginning to capture the same level of attention as weight problems among humans.
There's even a national organization, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, which sponsors National Pet Obesity Awareness Day and has published studies on weight problems in pets. According to one such study, collected with input from veterinarians around the country, an estimated 15 percent of American pets are obese, and 78 million dogs and cats are overweight or obese.
The American Veterinary Medical Association has also joined in the fight to keep pets fit, partnering with Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc. The two groups formed the Alliance for Healthier Pets, an obesity awareness and prevention program that launched the 2008 PetFit Challenge and PetFit Tour.
Based on what Lanier has seen with her customers, she feels pet owners are beginning to treat their pets' weight and nutrition as seriously as they would a human family member.
"I think they feel the dog can't really speak for itself, and its system is so fickle because they've become so domesticated and they live in our homes and not outside fending for themselves, that they can pick up negativity as far as in their system," she said. "We have to be able to read the animal, and I think we care about that so much more nowadays than we ever have before, with our special breeds and that kind of thing, because special breeds sometimes can call for special nutrition." "Lea Terry