First, how do we know how many pets are obese? It’s simple. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) is in its fourth year of conducting an annual survey of veterinarians and pet owners. The Association estimates that nearly 90 million animal companions in the U.S. are either obese or overweight. Half of America’s pet cats and dogs are in a questionable state of health, endangered by their body fat.
Actually, that’s a combined statistic. The way it breaks down, 58% of pet cats are too large, and 45% of dogs. Those are only some of the results of last year’s survey, as reported by Dr. Ernest Ward, Jr. The situation is getting worse, since the numbers were higher last year than the year before, and it will not be at all surprising to find them even higher this year. Dr. Ward, APOP’s lead researcher, says,
Pet obesity is now the biggest health threat to pets in the US. The costs of obesity in illness and injury make it the number one medical issue seen in today’s veterinary hospitals.
Also, pet owners are blinded — by either love or ignorance — into thinking that their pets are normal when they are actually overweight. Since so many pets are wallowing in blubber, the very standard of normalcy has gone awry. A dog that would have been called too fat 20 years ago now looks just fine when compared to the even fatter ones seen by its owner every day. People who have Labrador and Golden Retrievers, Dr. Ward says, are the most deluded of all. They just can’t grasp the big picture, even with such a telling comparison as this:
For example, a 90-pound female Labrador Retriever is equivalent to a 186-pound 5 foot, 4 inch [human] female…
Likewise, a 15-pound cat is the equivalent of a man who is 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 225 pounds. This is too much. The survey found that 82% of pet owners agree that pet obesity is a problem. It’s just that they don’t see their own pets as being obese. It’s the same in the human realm: Parents are aware that childhood obesity is a big problem — for other people’s children.
The major villain in this scenario is the habit of dispensing pet “treats,” which Ward calls “kibble crack.” The ingredients (chiefly sugar) rewire the brains and behavior of pets in the same way that continual absorption of sugar influences the brains and behavior of children. There is, for instance, a thing called a premium pig ear, and Ward points out that feeding one of them to a 40-pound dog is the equivalent of giving a person six 12-ounce bottles or cans of soda pop.
Amelia Glynn is a San Francisco pet enthusiast who has written innumerable “Tails of the City” columns filled with all kinds of stories about all kinds of animals. Glynn recently picked up on Dr. Ward’s list of the “dirty dozen” of the most crack-like brands of kibble, and spread the word to residents of the Bay Area, along with some remarks of her own, including her assertion that many pet owners have a “feeding disorder.”
Glynn is shocked by the audacity of the manufacturers who claim that their products, composed largely of sugar, are especially good for the animals’ teeth. Would you believe that the Americans spend about $2 billion per year on pet treats? Not food, mind you — just treats! How many tons of sugar is that, ruining the health of how many dogs and cats?
Dr. Pretlow notes that both pets and kids react to sweet treats just like laboratory rats, developing a tolerance that makes them need more and more of the substance to reach a euphoric high. Along with the physical tolerance, psychological tolerance can develop, when the parent or pet owner gives more and more treats to receive the desired love from the child or pet. Both parents and pet owners can become part of the problem, actually developing “co-dependency” in enabling food addiction in their kids and pets.
You’ve probably seen such TV commercials as the one that urges to “Give the Cool Whip — Get the Love.” The same food-for-love dynamic is at work in the selling of pet treats. What’s really messed up is that it’s superfluous. This is more true of dogs than cats, who tend to be a bit aloof, but, in either case, pets are pretty much programmed to adore their humans. People give their pets ordinary food and, sadly, sometimes even starve and mistreat them, and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. Pets will give their humans unconditional love anyway — it’s just part of the package.
Where does this leave all the psychological explanations for obesity in humans? Are the same forces at work to cause pet obesity and childhood obesity? Yes and no. Sure, pets have basic psychological processes, we all know that. But they don’t comfort-eat because of a low math grade, or because of not getting the lead in the school play. And they certainly don’t pig out on junk food while watching TV or fooling around on MySpace. On the other hand, they can suffer from stress, for instance, when they don’t get enough socialization. When a pet owner is too desperately seeking love to be able to give it, a pet, just like a child, might turn to comfort-eating to compensate for the deficit.
There is, of course, another, much more beneficial link between childhood obesity and pets. Dr. Pretlow names pet care and companionship, along with hobbies, meditation, volunteer work, learning to play a musical instrument, counseling, and non-competitive sports, as activities that can take the place of addiction-like food-dependency behaviors. In Overweight: What Kids Say, he quotes a 16-year-old girl named Tricia, who writes,
I got a dog. He’s wonderful. He’s my friend and we take walks together every day, even we jog some. That keeps me from heading for the fridge all the time…
Last month, Sean Coughlan reported for the BBC on a study in Britain of the primary-school children, showing that kids are more active and less likely to experience childhood obesity when there is a dog in the family home. The cause-and-effect relationship isn’t clear, and it may just be a coincidence, but it’s worth looking into. Meanwhile, we need to stop feeding our pets to death, and our kids too!