Over the past 20 years, obesity has increased in dogs and cats, despite myriad efforts by veterinarians, veterinary societies, academicians, technicians, drug companies, and entire organizations devoted to the problem (e.g. the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention). The question is: Why? In my experience it is usually down to perceptions of the issue and willingness to change behaviors.
Obesity is commonly defined as: “an accumulation of excessive amounts of adipose (fat) tissue in the body.”1 It seems however, that there is no direct standard agreement in the pet world as to how much accumulation of adipose tissue in the body is excessive. So, there are many common algorithms to define obesity in dogs and cats, most of which focus on body condition scores – or BCSs – similar to (and probably as subjective as) Body Mass Index for humans. BCSs can range between 1-5, others from 1-7, and others from 1-9.2
A major 2006 US study of private veterinarians3 found that an estimated 31% of pet dogs were overweight or obese. Meanwhile, a major 1994 US study of private veterinarians4 found that an estimated 25% of pet cats were overweight or obese. More recent data suggest that “53.9% of dogs and 58.9% of cats were classified as overweight (BCS 4) or obese (BCS 5) by their veterinary healthcare professional.”5
The numbers are certainly rising and, based on these estimates, 41.9 million dogs and 50.5 million cats are considered overweight or obese! That’s over 92 million dogs and cats in the US alone. This is a public health problem for pet parents and their animals. To help understand and hopefully change the state of affairs, some public health behavior theory can be applied.
The Health Behavior Approach
There are many different models of health behavior to choose from. Since we are trying to get people to change their behavior, let’s select a model that encompasses the individual, the interpersonal, and the community level of health behavior. The “Integrated Behavioral Model” aligns with this very neatly. The model states that to effect a change in health-related behavior, the following must take place:
- A person must first be motivated internally to carry out the behavior change.
- That person must then have the knowledge and skills needed to perform the behavior.
- There should be few environmental constraints towards carrying out the behavior.
- The behavior should be relevant to the person (i.e. they should be able to visualize themselves performing the new behavior).
- Additionally, experience in performing the behavior should have the potential to make it habitual.6
So, first there must be intention to perform the behavior. In this vein, I’m not certain people recognize that obese pets are unhealthy pets, so people don’t feel any onus to change. To illustrate the point, obese dogs may develop:
- lipid-related cardiovascular disease (i.e. clogged arteries from plaques which can lead to heart attacks), and they are more likely to develop heart failure, hypertension7, immune dysfunction,8 oral disease, pancreatitis, liver disease, kidney disease, orthopedic disease including arthritis and torn cruciate ligaments, anal sac disease, diabetes mellitus, gastrointestinal disease, hypothyroidism, dermatologic disease, reproductive disorders, anesthetic complications, decreased life expectancy9, and cancer.1,3
This is a long and onerous list. So why do we still have fat pets? It may be because pet owners don’t realize the length and seriousness of the list of nasty obesity-induced diseases.
Just as years ago, people didn’t realize that a spayed dog was less likely to develop pyometra and a neutered dog was less likely to develop testicular cancers, today’s pet owner might not realize the seriousness of obesity-induced health problems in their pet. If they knew that having a fat fluffy around the house meant having that fat fluffy for (on average) a lot fewer years, then maybe being fat wouldn’t be a “slap-on-the-wrist naughty” thing to do to a pet and would instead be a “don’t-kill-your-pet-with-too-much-food-this-is-a-big-problem naughty.”
Also, people may not feel that having a fat pet sets them apart from any other pet owner. The thought that their pet is fat is often minimized by saying things like, “My pet may be a little overweight, but he’s not dangerously fat.” Their perceived norm is skewed towards fat pets. A classic example of this is found in pugs, which are notoriously obese and who suffer many different types of obesity-related diseases. It is rare to see a non-obese pug, so it is difficult to tell a pet owner that their pug needs to lose half its body weight to get to be a healthy weight when all the other pugs they see need to lose half of their body weight as well.
Second, I’m not certain people believe they can change. In some cases, they absolutely can’t. For example, if a pet is getting fat because Junior has turned 6 months old and has started dropping his food from the high chair at dinner, then trying to stop this type of obesity may truly be like trying to stop the wind from blowing. But the pet owner can always increase the exercise level of the pet (still not an easy thing for new human parents to do). Also, some people really can’t resist the begging doe eyes of their beloved golden retriever when he wants a morsel of the fat they’ve trimmed from their freshly grilled steak. That too can be like stopping the wind. But in most cases, I believe we are far more capable of change than we give ourselves credit for. Long lasting change. Change that might help prolong our beloved pets’ lives.
People are bombarded by advertisements about what types of food and snacks to feed their pets. Food choice is portrayed as a direct extension of their love and caring for the pet. Therefore, the more we love our pets, the more we should feed them.
To further deconstruct changes in pet feeding behavior, we must provide pet owners with the knowledge and skills to stop overfeeding or inappropriately feeding their pets. Knowledge is the critical aspect here, as it doesn’t take much skill to measure out a volume of kibble, in my opinion. People are bombarded every day by advertisements about what types of food and snacks to feed their pets. The food choice is portrayed as a direct extension of their love and caring for the pet. Therefore, the more we love our pets, the more we should feed them. There should be a strong voice on the other side, saying that food is important, but that Fluffy will still love us even if we cut back her ration from two cups a day to one cup a day.
As for environmental constraints, aside from the aforementioned stopping-the-wind type scenarios, we have very few constraints on reducing our pets’ food intake. Just feed them less. Recognize that some pets have fast metabolisms and require high loads of calories to maintain body weight, while the caloric needs of other pets may be hugely diminished simply by their genetics. My parents’ golden retriever, Jarvis, weighs 90 lbs and gets fed about 1 cup of dry kibble each day. He’s not fat, and he’s not hypothyroid. He is a sample size of 1, but he provides a nice example of the vast array of caloric needs among dogs. Jarvis probably gets less food per day than some 15 lb Jack Russell Terriers. I’ll repeat: Feed them less. Oh yeah, and exercise them more!
It may be difficult to make reducing pet obesity more relevant, but here’s a possible approach: Obese pets are more likely to have higher veterinary bills. If that’s not enough, obese pets live shorter, less active lives.9 It’s negative, but it hits pet owners at the core values of pet ownership. Pets lengthen and strengthen our lives, and we are responsible for their health care. Giving owners this impetus to keep their pets lean may help them visualize actually keeping their pets lean.
Finally, to affect behavior changes in health behaviors, our model suggests that with experience, the new behavior should become a habit. This is no doubt the case with pet obesity. Just as dropping a piece of cheese under the table at lunch to feed Fido or Felix can become a habit, so can measuring the food rations out for your pet with a measuring cup.
In sum, the following points suggest ways to approach the obesity epidemic (and yes, it is an epidemic) in our pets:
- It is a problem. Our feeding behavior towards our pets needs to change.
- People need to be made aware of healthy ways to feed their pets. This information should come from non-biased veterinary professionals, not veterinary companies with potential conflicts of interest (i.e. selling a certain type of dog food).
- Environmental constraints that prevent us from changing the way we feed and exercise our pets should be removed, whenever possible.
- Emphasize how leaner pets are happier pets that live longer, more active lives.
The best thing about changing pet feeding behavior is that it can easily become habit. It can become habit to measure your pet’s food with a measuring cup, and it can become habit to not give in to those beautiful begging doe eyes at the end of supper.
Meet the Author
Dr. Kevin Kimber
Dr. Kimber has a Masters in Zoology from Cornell University, and graduated from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2001. As well as being the Chief Veterinary Medical Officer for Activ4Pets, he is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association and currently maintains Veterinary licensure in the States of New York and Minnesota, with licensure pending in Florida.
Dr. Kimber possesses over 15 years of veterinary experience practicing Small Animal and Exotic Medicine.
- German AJ. 2006. The Growing Problem of Obesity in Dogs and Cats. J Nutrition; 136(7): 1940S-1946S
- German AJ, Holden SL, Moxham GL, Holmes KL, Hackett RM, and Rawlings JM. A Simple, Reliable Tool for Owners to Assess the Body Condition of Their Dog or Cat. J. Nutr.July 2006
vol. 136 no. 7; 2031S-2033
- Lund EM, Armstrong PJ, Kirk CA, and Klausner JS. 2006. Prevalence and Risk Factors for Obesity in Adult Dogs from Private US Veterinary Practices. Intern J Appl Res Vet Med, Vol. 4, 2:177-186.
- Scarlett JM , Donoghue S , Saidla J , Wills J. 1994. Overweight cats: prevalence and risk factors. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders : Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity [01 Jun 1994, 18 Suppl 1:S22-8]
- 2016 U.S. Pet Obesity Statistics by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention
- Montano DE and Kasprzyk D. 2015. Theory of Reasoned Action, Theory of Planned Behavior, and the Integrated Behavioral Model. In: Health Behavior: Theory, Research and Practice. 5th Ed. Glanz, K, Rimer BK, and Viswanath K, eds. John Wiley and Sons, SanFransisco, CA. pp. 95-124.
- Rocchini AP, Moorehead C, Wentz E, Deremer S. 1987. Obesity-induced hypertension in the dog. Hypertension, 9(6 Pt 2): III64-III68.
- Newberne PM. 1966. Overnutrition on resistance of dogs to distemper virus. Fed Proc; 25: 1701- 1710.
- Kealy Rd, Lawler DF, Ballam JM, Mantz SL, Biery DN, Greeley EH, Lust G, Segre M, Smith GK, and Stowe HD. 2002. Effects of diet restriction on life span and age-related changes in dogs. JAVMA, 220(9): 1315-1320.