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Pet owners fail to recognize obesity in pets

Nearly 93 percent of dog owners and 88 percent of cat owners failed to recognize their pets were obese.
Nearly 93 percent of dog owners and 88 percent of cat owners failed to recognize their pets were obese.
Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images

An overwhelming majority of pet owners understand that pet obesity is debilitating and yet they fail to recognize obesity in their own cats and dogs. The paradoxical results were part of new research conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

"There’s an entire nation of pet owners who are loving their pets to death with too many calories and not enough exercise," said Joe Bartges, D.V.M., a veterinary nutritionist and faculty member at the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s College of Veterinary Medicine. "They're in the dark that their pets are overweight and that a host of diseases can arise as a result.”

Collectively, obesity accounts for the largest detriment to pet health. While obesity by itself is classified as a disease, health conditions associated with pet obesity include osteoarthritis, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, joint injury, cancer and decreased life expectancy.

The study was conducted at veterinary clinics throughout the United States. It included 590 pet owners and 1,421 domestic dogs and cats. First, the pet owners were asked to classify the weight of their pets. Then, the same pets were classified by a professional veterinarian.

The veterinarians recorded that over 57 percent of cats were overweight or obese. Dogs fared slightly better. Veterinarians identified that 53 percent of canines were overweight or obese.

In contrast, 88 percent of cat owners believed their pet was "in the normal weight range." For dog owners, 93 percent said their pets were in the "normal" weight range for their breed. Researchers called this disparity between perception and reality the "fat gap."

"The fat gap is rampant," said Bartges. "We believe it’s the primary factor in the pet obesity epidemic.”

Additional research by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that 72 percent of owners clearly understood that obesity can harm their pet or shorten its life. But almost half of all pet owners admit they don’t know what a healthy weight for their pet looks like.

Most people conceptually understand that obesity undermines pet health. "But until more pet owners recognize that their pet is in the obesity danger zone," said Bartges, "we can’t expect them to make changes."

So how can pet owners close gap between perception and reality? According to Earnie Ward, D.V.M., a veterinarian and author of the book Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter and a Vet's Plan to Save Their Lives, an ideal first step is to have a veterinarian assess the body condition of your pet.

If a visit to the vet isn't practical, Ward suggested that concerned pet owners do research to find the ideal weight for a particular species or breed. He suggested visiting the online calculator provided by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. Any weight over 30% of the ideal weight is dangerous.

Next steps include more exercise and less food. For cats, Ward suggested tapping into its predatory instincts. "Try dividing the food into small bowls placed throughout your house. Have your cat watch as you 'hide' the bowls. Your cat will 'hunt' throughout the day," said Ward. "It's a great way to get cats on their feet and burning calories."

"The simplest way to keep your dog fit is to walk it daily for a total of 30 minutes," said Ward. "Walking not only benefits your dog, but you'll gain health benefits as well."