Pets across the country are packing on more pounds than is healthy — something that has been easier to do since the pandemic began.
Take MabelDog, a 6-year-old Jack Russell-dachshund mix. She should weigh 11 pounds, maybe 12. But last year, when the pandemic turned owner Kathryn Howard’s world “into a two-bedroom apartment,” the weight steadily climbed — for both of them.
“It was emotional eating on our part,” says Howard, 59, from Irondequoit, New York, referring to herself and her 18-year-old son. “We were having more snacks, so we gave her more snacks. Then we got to a point where a portion of our meal would be set for her.”
MabelDog got up to 18 pounds.
She isn’t alone. A recent survey by dog technology company Fi, conducted in collaboration with Pumpkin Pet Insurance, found that 36 percent of the 1,000 dog owners surveyed said their canines had gained weight during the pandemic, despite getting more exercise than normal. More than 40 percent of owners admitted giving their pets extra treats or table scraps.
The new findings continue a trend that was already underway, according to the latest figures available from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. In 2018, an estimated 60 percent of cats and 56 percent of dogs in the United States were overweight or obese, the association found. Obesity, in fact, is the number one health threat pets face, because it affects nearly every biological system in their bodies. It can lead to diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, kidney failure, cancer and other conditions.
“What I see is the end of the spectrum that people don't like to talk about and hopefully never have to see,” says internationally recognized veterinarian Ernie Ward, founder of the association and author of three books, including Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter.
With owners like Howard working from home during the pandemic, people had more opportunities to share snacks with their furry friends.
“I have a lot of critics who say this isn't a real problem,” says Ward, 54, based in Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina. “But obesity isn't a problem until it's a catastrophe. There's very little in between. And I see this constantly. That's the frustrating part for me.”
Getting a handle on portion control
Monitoring food intake “is the greatest action to begin” when trying to help your pet lose weight, says Emily McCann, an associate veterinarian at Firehouse Animal Health Center in Kyle, Texas.
In addition to using a measuring cup at feeding time, McCann — who sees her fair share of obesity-related issues, including endocrine disorders, ligament tears and urinary tract problems — suggests increasing exercise through longer walks and extra playtime, and trading out high-calorie treats for healthier options such as carrots and green beans.
Watching Your Pet's Weight
- Want to know how much your pet weighs compared to an average adult human male or female? The Pet-to-Human Weight Translator from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention offers this information by specific breed, as well as a place to calculate your pet's caloric needs and read up on weight loss tips.
- Pet food delivery companies such as PetPlate offer direct-to-consumer subscriptions with personalized meal plans for cats and dogs. “It’s an entirely different model that’s starting to gain traction,” says Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry, a trade magazine. Expect to pay between $25 and $140, depending on the kind of food you order (custom kibble, freeze-dried raw formulations, prepackaged fresh meals, etc.).
The vast majority of problem cases can be traced back to a lack of portion control. Ward says one study found that giving 10 extra kibbles per day to dogs and cats weighing less than 22 pounds resulted in a 1-pound weight gain over the course of a year.
At the same time, the feeding directions on pet food packaging — it's often based on the pet's weight in kilograms — can be confusing to the average consumer, notes Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry, a trade magazine. “What does that mean in terms of a cup?” she asks. “It just takes too much work.”
An effort has been underway for years to modernize pet food labels and make it easier for consumers to understand the feeding directions. For example, by displaying the directions more prominently instead of burying them on the side of the package, or by designing them to more closely resemble the nutrition boxes found on packaging for human food.
But the process has been slow. Pet food labels must follow guidance set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials and regulations from the Food and Drug Administration — and changing regulations takes time. Also, given the wealth of information required on a food label or package, it's difficult for pet food companies to include everything in easy-to-see places.
Pet owners, therefore, should have a conversion chart handy and be sure to offer up the exact same quantity — drawing a line on a measuring cup will help — at feeding time.
Meanwhile, attention must be paid to one pet food trend that has taken a cue from human grocery aisles: high-premium, nutrient-dense fare.
“It’s very dense, and a heck of a lot of more calories in every bite,” says Phillips-Donaldson, who admits to having a slightly chubby cat. “So unless the activity level changes a lot, if you feed your pet the same amount, the pet’s going to gain weight.”
Weight loss rewards
MabelDog, with more walks and healthier treats — sweet potato hummus or apple slices instead of fast food — has recently dropped to 16 pounds.
Still, “We’re never going back to the way we were,” says Howard (who has lost 20 pounds since May).
If your veterinarian suggests that your pet shed a few pounds, be open-minded, pleads Ward, who is accustomed to owners dismissing the importance of the extra pounds or getting defensive.
Then be patient.
Just as with humans, weight loss is a process. Maybe even more so, because pets can't hit the treadmill or go on a crash diet. Realistically, dogs can lose between 3 percent and 5 percent of their body weight per month. Cats can lose about half a pound per month.
“But here's the fantastic news for pets,” says Ward. “You don't have to accomplish their entire weight loss journey before their quality of life improves. They're going to be more vital, more energetic, more interactive. There are real demonstrable benefits to even moderate weight loss.”
Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer who covers mental health, education and human-interest stories for several national publications. A former reporter for several daily newspapers, her work has also appeared in People, USA Today and Education Week. She is the author of the children's book M Is for Mindful.