Maybe it's simply a fact of modern life -- not only are people increasingly overweight and obese, so are their pets.
In its annual survey for 2012, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) found the number of overweight cats in the U.S. has reached an all-time high. Veterinarians rated 52.5% of dogs and 58.3% of cats overweight or obese. Just as with humans, it's a major health problem.
"Pet obesity remains the leading health threat to our nation's pets," said APOP's founder and lead veterinarian for the survey Dr. Ernie Ward. "We continue to see an escalation in the number of overweight cats and an explosion in the number of type 2 diabetes cases."
Insurance companies that write health policies for pets are also alarmed.
“Diabetes, heart and lung diseases, bone and joint diseases, skin conditions and different types of cancer are more common in overweight animals, as is a shorter life expectancy,” VPI Pet Insurance, part of Nationwide, said in a recent statement.
In 2009, the company said its policyholders filed more than $17 million in claims for conditions and disease caused by excessive weight. The company suggests pet owners are adding to the problem by over-feeding their animals or feeding them the wrong types of food.
While many people consider their pet part of the family, you should resist the urge to feed them like a family member. A single biscuit from the table can contain over 100 calories – and that's in addition to their regular food. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association reports dog owners spend more than $300 a year on food and treats while cat owners spend more than $200.
"The soaring rate of feline and canine obesity is taking a terrible toll on our animals' health,” said New York veterinarian Dr. Mark Peterson. “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."
Could there be some kind of weird link between the soaring rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes in humans and the same two conditions in animals? Ward thinks there is and it stems from not understanding how many calories we -- and our pets -- consume each day.
"The causes of pet and childhood obesity are largely the same: too many high-calorie foods and snacks combined with too little physical activity,” Ward said. “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.”
How can you tell if your pet is overweight? It sounds like a silly question but many people simply don't recognize excess pounds on themselves or their pets.
Veterinary nutritionist and internal medicine specialist at the University of Tennessee's College of Veterinary Medicine Dr. Joe Bartges cites a survey in which 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. Ward calls it “the fat gap.”
"The disconnect between reality and what a pet parent thinks is obese makes having a conversation with their veterinarian more challenging,” Ward said. “Many pet owners are shocked when their veterinarian informs them their pet needs to lose weight. They just don't see it."
And of course, some breeds tend to pack on excess pounds more than others. Veterinarians classified 58.9 percent of Labrador retrievers and 62.7 percent of golden retrievers surveyed as overweight or obese. It may be that these breeds were once exclusively kept outdoors, where they got lots of exercise. If they are house-bound and overfed, their metabolism may be such that they quickly put on weight.
In perhaps a sign of the times, the nation's first obesity clinic for pets opened at Tufts University last year. The clinic focuses on weight-loss programs for pets, especially hard-to-treat obesity-related conditions and training other veterinary professionals on how to identity, prevent and treat obesity-related diseases.
The best way to keep your pet's weight under control is regular check-ups at the vet. Also, take a good honest look at your pet. You should be able to feel its ribs without pressing.
You should see a noticeable “waist” on your pet, between the back of the ribs and the hips, when viewing your pet from above. When looking from the side, your pet’s belly should go up from the bottom of the ribcage to inside the thighs.
If your pet fails these tests, it's time to put him or her on a diet and increase exercise.