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Health Discovery

Obese Dogs and Cats Suffer From Diabetes, Arthritis

More than half of the dogs and cats in the United States are either overweight or obese—much like their owners.

They need to cut back on the treats, stop eating such big meals, and, for goodness sake, get some exercise.

Think we’re talking about people? Nope, we’re talking about pets. The obesity epidemic among the two-legged couch potatoes in this country has unfortunately spread to the four-legged ones, say many veterinarians.

More than 50 percent of the 171 million dogs and cats in the United States are either overweight or obese, according to a 2009 study by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, a veterinarians’ group founded by North Carolina vet Ernie Ward. Based on data collected from 41 animal clinics, the study found weight problems in 45 percent of dogs and 58 percent of cats. Compare that to federal figures that show that 68 percent of American adults are either overweight or obese, and it’s clear why Ward thinks our pets’ problems are symptomatic of our own.

“The benefits of owning a pet for older Americans are enormous—it lowers your blood pressure and risk of stroke and makes you more socially active,” says Ward. “But a sedentary lifestyle and mindless eating as we age leads to a lack of activity” and contributes to dangerous weight gain for both animals and owners.

For fat pets, the health problems mirror those for overweight owners. Type 2 diabetes “is in epidemic proportions in cats,” says Ward. Because fat tissue secretes inflammatory chemicals, overweight dogs and cats frequently suffer from painful arthritis of their joints. Excess weight also causes respiratory problems. Overweight dogs, Ward estimates, live two years less than normal weight animals, “and those last few years of life the dog is miserable.” Plus, owners pay thousands of dollars in medical costs.

Misleading pet food claims

To make matters worse, pet owners who decide to buy weight-control pet food for their pudgy pooch or corpulent kitty will find calorie numbers and serving sizes as confusing as they are on some people foods.

A study published in January by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University found a misleading hodgepodge of feeding instructions and calorie counts, as well as a huge range in cost.

The study examined nearly 100 dog and cat foods with weight-management claims. To their surprise, says lead author Lisa Freeman, “The calories ranged from 217 per cup to 440 per cup in dry dog food.” The recommended serving amounts varied as well, ranging from 25 percent less than a dog’s energy requirements to 50 percent more. More than half the pet foods labeled as light or low calorie exceeded federal guidelines for maximum calories.

“An owner could be feeding their dog food that they think is low calorie and actually be increasing their dog’s calories,” Freeman says.

The cost of weight-control pet food also ranged wildly, the study found. Freeman says the cost for an 80-pound Labrador retriever that needed to lose weight ranged from 42 cents to $9.23 a day, depending on the food, and “cost did not equate to quality.”

To add to the confusion, pet-food makers aren’t always required to include calorie counts. Under federal rules, pet foods labeled with terms like light or low calorie must provide calorie content. But if the label says “weight management,” or “healthy weight,” no calorie count is required.

One easy way to cut back on your pet’s calories: Avoid those high-calorie pet treats, which California veterinarian Bernadine Cruz considers the animal equivalent of junk food.

“When I was growing up, there was only one kind of treat—Milk Bones. Now there’s every kind of treat imaginable for dogs as well as cats,” says Cruz, an associate veterinarian at Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in Laguna Woods, Calif. A better dog treat would be baby carrots or a piece of apple—the same kind of healthy treat that people should be eating. For cats, a tiny amount of cooked fish is best.

Candy Sagon writes about food and health for AARP Bulletin Today.

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