Diabetes, arthritis, other chronic diseases—obesity takes a toll on your health and can rack up huge medical bills. And dogs and cats are just as vulnerable. According to a new report from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), an epidemic of feline and canine obesity is affecting half of our pets, and it’s costing owners up to $1,200 per year. “We’re seeing a greater percentage of pets that are classified as obese, and that’s where these horrible expensive diseases occur,” says Ernie Ward, D.V.M., founder of APOP and owner of Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, North Carolina. “It will cost $1,200 to $1,500 per year to manage a diabetic cat, whereas a healthy diet is just a couple hundred dollars,” he says. And it’s just slightly less for dogs, who usually succumb to arthritis and hip problems when they pack on the pounds. “These are largely preventable conditions,” Dr. Ward adds, “caused by choices we make at the food bowl.”
THE DETAILS: APOP collected data from Banfield Pet Hospital, a large nationwide chain of veterinary clinics, and found that 56 percent of dogs and 53 percent of cats are either overweight or obese. An obese pet is defined as being 30 percent heavier than its ideal weight, and in their survey, the doctors found that in 21 percent of dogs and 22 percent of cats. For dogs, that’s a pretty significant jump from 2007, when just 10 percent of canines were considered obese. No cats, and less than 1 percent of dogs, were found to be underweight.
WHAT IT MEANS: So what’s causing our pooches to get pudgy and cats to get fatter? The same thing that’s affecting us humans: bad food and no exercise, says Dr. Ward. And he points the finger at pet food manufacturers. “In terms of caloric density, our pets are eating more calories per volume than ever before,” says Dr. Ward, who’s also author of the book Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter (HCI, 2010). He adds that, just like people-food manufacturers, pet-food companies are pumping foods, in particular pet treats, full of sugar, which dogs love. “Dogs love sweet things, they gravitate towards sweet things, so these companies add more sugar to them.” APOP analyzed popular dog treats a few years ago and found that sugar was nearly always listed as one of the top three ingredients.
Another problem is that pet-food companies aren’t required to publish nutrition information on packages to tell owners what the calorie and sugar content of a certain food is, but they are required to publish feeding guidelines, which Dr. Ward says are confusing and often lead to overfeeding. These feeding guides tell owners to, for instance, feed a dog 2 cups of food if the animal is 40 pounds. “But unfortunately, these guides are based on the most demanding life stages—pregnancy, lactation, growth,” says Dr. Ward. “Sedentary dogs and cats don’t need that many calories. If owners are following the feeding guides for a typical indoor spayed or neutered dog or cat, they’re already feeding it 20 to 30 percent more calories than they need.”
Owners can’t be left off the hook entirely, either. We keep our pets’ bowls full all the time, so it’s like they’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and we don’t give them enough exercise. But if you make sure your pet gets exercise, the benefits will rub off on you, too. A study just published in the journal BioMed Central found that dogs keep their owners active long enough to get the recommended 30 to 60 minutes of daily exercise and they keep us active all year long. “I personally don’t think there’s a better exercise partner than a dog,” says Dr. Ward, who also happens to be a personal trainer (for both people and pets). “It’s easy for us to create our own excuses, but that dog has to be walked. It doesn’t matter if it’s hot, cold, snowy, or rainy.”