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Why is Pet Obesity a Problem?

When you welcome a pet into your home, their needs become your responsibility. Feeding, playing, grooming, training, cuddling and loving—they need it all for a healthy life. This is especially true when it comes to feeding and exercise. After all, “proper, age-appropriate activity, along with feeding an appropriate, nutritious diet, will help to prevent detrimental weight issues,” says American Kennel Club chief veterinary officer Dr. Jerry Klein.

Depending on the age and size of your pet, even a few extra pounds can have a negative impact on their overall health and wellness and keep them from living their happiest, healthiest life. “Obesity is one of the most common canine health issues in this country,” says Dr. Klein. In fact, it’s likely that more than 50% of pets are overweight.

At the end of the day, although it can be difficult to resist those loving eyes begging you for table scraps and extra treats, it’s in our pet’s best interest to follow dietary guidelines. Here are a few “weighty” issues to keep in mind.

Pet health conditions associated with weight

Pet parents may know that extra weight can cause health issues for their dogs and cats, but exactly what those issues are—and just how serious they can become—might be a mystery.

Obesity can limit your pet’s quality of life and shorten it, too. Obese cats, for example, are twice as likely to die in middle age (between ages 6 and 12) than their healthy-weight counterparts. And, according to research from the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition (Leicestershire, England) and the University of Liverpool (Liverpool, England), overweight dogs have a life span up to two and a half years shorter when compared to dogs with a healthy body weight.

Study co-author and University of Liverpool professor of small animal medicine Alex German said in a statement, “Owners are often unaware that their dog is overweight, and many may not realize the impact that it can have on health. What they may not know is that, if their beloved pet is too heavy, they are more likely to suffer from other problems such as joint disease, breathing issues and certain types of cancer, as well as having a poorer quality of life. These health and well-being issues can significantly impact how long they live.” Similar findings are true for overweight or obese cats, who are at higher risk for health issues such as diabetes, skin and coat concerns and joint or muscle injuries.

More on obesity-related health issues:

Among the more common (and perhaps more easily diagnosable) complications caused by pet obesity is difficulty breathing. As a study, published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, on the subject concluded, “obesity in dogs negatively and significantly affects cardiopulmonary function as assessed by the [Six Minute Walk Test] including heart rate and blood oxygen saturation monitoring during and after the walk.” However, more positively, the study also notes that as an obese dog begins to lose weight there is, “significant improvement in cardiopulmonary function even before dogs achieve their targeted ideal body weight.” So any weight loss your dog experiences can help them get the oxygen they need, and you likely will begin to notice them panting less. 

The more weight a pet carries, the more wear and tear they put on their joints. This wear and tear can, in turn, lead to arthritis, which can become more severe over time. Exercise can help an overweight pet lose weight and potentially manage joint issues, but the pain and added effort of movement that comes with joint issues and arthritis causes most pets suffering from them to be less active. The prevalence of joint damage and subsequent joint issues—like OA—is concerning (with approximately 6.1 percent of dogs and 11.1 percent of cats affected by OA). Symptoms of joint issues like OA and arthritis can include difficulty getting up, stiffness and lethargy, as well as a resistance to play, pain in a particular area when they are touched and a loss of muscle mass. Although there is no cure for OA, it may be possible to decrease inflammation and control the pain through joint supplements, physiotherapy, dietary changes and possibly surgery to remove damaged tissue. And, of course, if you are able to keep your pet at a healthy weight throughout their life, you can decrease their likelihood of experiencing joint issues or pain due to arthritis caused by obesity later on.

Although your pet’s weight might not directly cause diabetes, excess body fat can lead to insulin resistance, which can complicate issues pets who develop diabetes. Additionally, although currently only 1 in every 300 dogs and 1 in every 230 cats develop diabetes, those statistics are on the rise. Symptoms of diabetes in pets include excessive thirst, an increase in urination, increase in appetite and weight loss. Treatment includes a high-quality, disease-specific diet, consistent exercise and, likely, insulin injections.

Although there’s no single cause of heart disease, obesity and nutrition—along with factors such as age and breed—can play a role. Heart disease is less common in cats than in dogs, but it can manifest in cats as well, usually as adult-onset hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Common heart disease symptoms include an unresolved cough (often caused by fluid buildup in the lungs), difficulty breathing, fatigue and fainting, as well as behavioral changes. Heart disease can often be treated, especially when caught early, through diet therapy and exercise.

The exact correlation between obesity and hypertension is not fully understood. Multiple studies, however, have shown that there may be a link between obesity in pets and an increased risk for hypertension and, particularly in cats, “secondary” hypertension, or a consequence of an underlying primary disease. Signs of hypertension include eye issues (bleeding inside the globe of the eye or persistently dilated pupils), nervous system issues like seizures and disorientation, increased drinking and urinating, and abnormal heart rhythms. Although treatment of hypertension often depends on the underlying cause, medications like calcium channel blockers and nutritional changes can help manage it.

The direct link between certain types of cancer and weight is still being researched, but recent evidence does suggest that overweight pets may have a greater risk of developing certain types of cancer, particularly as it relates to increased inflammation within the body. Cancer can manifest in animals in different ways. Common symptoms include lumps and bumps under the skin, abnormal odors or discharge, abdominal swelling, wounds that won’t heal, weight loss or change in appetite, breathing issues, lethargy and additional evidence of pain. As with symptoms, cancer treatments vary but can include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

How to help

Helping our pets maintain an appropriate weight is essential for their well-being, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. After all, providing our pets with treats or the occasional table scrap may seem like a way to show them we care, but we could be inadvertently doing them harm , says Dr. Klein. Thankfully, there are some easy steps you can take to still include food in your daily routine with your pet while ensuring you’re doing all you can to keep them healthy.

  1. Adjust the number of calories you feed at mealtimes if you enjoy giving your pet treats throughout the day. Just remember that treats should make up no more than 10% of their daily calorie consumption.
  2. Allot some of their mealtime kibble for treats to use throughout the day.
  3. Swap traditional treats for low-calorie options so you aren’t overdoing it when treat time rolls around.
  4. Associate treating with bouts of activity—like playtime or walks—rather than just providing them at random intervals throughout the day.
  5. Talk with your family to make sure everyone is on the same page about reducing treats so no one is sneaking your pet unexpected calories.

Petco's picks for weight-conscious nutrition

Keep in mind that although the issues outlined above can be caused by weight gain, weight gain can also be a symptom of an underlying health issue. Whenever you have a question about your pet’s weight—or their health in general—work with your veterinarian for precise recommendations tailored to your pet’s specific needs.

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