Our pets too often trend with us and, to prove it, now there's a companion animal obesity crises. In spite of animal medical advances, Americans are cutting the lives of their pets down to half the life expectancy of a few decades ago.
North Carolina veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward, a competitive Ironman triathlete, certified personal trainer and accredited USA Triathlon coach, is leading a campaign to reverse this pet health epidemic. Founder of the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention, Ward and his colleagues want to promote parallel weight loss programs designed to help pet owners lose weight alongside their pets. A formidable obstacle is what Ward calls the "Fat Gap."
Pet owners do not see that their animals are unfit to the point of being unhealthy, subject to disease, pain and suffering and early death. The fifth annual nationwide APOP veterinarian survey found 53 percent of adult dogs and 55 percent of cats to be classified as overweight or obese. Ward reports that "The most distressing finding was the fact that more pet owners are unaware their pet is overweight. Twenty-two percent of dog owners and 15 percent of cat owners characterized their pet as normal weight when it was actually overweight or obese. In simplest terms, we've made fat pets the new normal."
The fat gap exists in part because there is a ubiquitous fat trap. Pet food manufacturers need not list caloric content unless the food is sold as a diet food. Some of the highest priced premium pet foods have the highest calories. Manufacturer feeding instructions are generalized for active pets in their prime. Lifestyle and life stage must be considered. The optimum is small, high-protein, low carbohydrate meals. Treats also are calorie time bombs. Some people "free feed" both cats and dogs. Or they respond to every meow or whimper or cute cock of the head with treats or table food. Experienced trainers who use treats select for food value and dispense tidbits over the day so that the treat total substitutes for a nutritionally complete meal. This promotes continuous interaction as well.
Ward suggests feeding by using food puzzles, especially for pets home alone. The puzzles stimulate the brain, entertain, and allow for slower eating with measured complete nutrition. Healthy reward substitutes include baby carrots, string beans, broccoli or other crunchy vegetable treats. Daily exercise for dogs means 20 to 30 minutes of brisk walking for dogs, and 5 to 15 minutes of intermittent aerobic play, like chasing a toy, for cats. Writing for the Huffington Post, Donna Solomon, DVM, points out that a child drops tremendous amounts of food from the high chair. "For every child born into a pet household, I anticipate at least a 5- to 10-percent weight gain for the dog during that child's first two years of life."
Pet obesity is human caused and can be eradicated. Other than a diagnosed medical condition, there's no excuse for fat cats or sausage dogs suffering throughout a shortened life span. The APOP website, www.petobesityprevention.com, features a body condition score chart to assess general pet fitness. There are weight and daily calorie charts for the 100 most popular breeds and types of cats and dogs. There is a Pet Weight Translator which compares weights of pets and people. You can work out a fitness plan, but if a pet is plainly overweight, partner with a veterinarian. Pets must lose weight gradually. They cannot go on "starvation diets" or marathon exercise routines without serious health consequences.
A pet's life is relatively short. Enjoying the rewards of animal companionship can be lengthened with common sense and health awareness. We can be selfish about it. As our pet companion becomes more healthy, so do we. Physical fitness, mental alertness, nurturing and loving are the most prized benefits of sharing life with a pet.
- Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. to help "Keep Tahoe Kind". Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.