My Pet World: Obese and overweight pets need our help

As our love for our pets has grown, so have the pets themselves. In the U.S., an estimated 52.6% of dogs and 57.6% of cats are overweight or obese, according to the Assn. for Pet Obesity Prevention.

Many veterinarians say the problem has become an epidemic just as human healthcare workers and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refer to the fact that 69% of Americans are overweight or obese.

Another similarity: According to the American Medical Assn., many people who are overweight don’t seem to realize it. Likewise, an Assn. for Pet Obesity Prevention survey found a “fat pet gap,” with 90% to 95% of owners with obese dogs or cats identifying their pets as being of “normal” weight.

Many of the consequences of being overweight or obese are the same for pets and people, including possible early onset of osteoarthritis and increased risk of some types of cancers. Diabetes is another illness common among overweight people, and while on the rise in dogs, it’s now out of control in cats.

A recent study found that overall, obese people have a 20% elevated risk of depression, according to the Obesity Action Coalition. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall of Philadelphia suggests that some obese dogs and cats are also clinically depressed, since all they ever do is take a brief jaunt in the yard to do their business or use the litter box, then eat, sleep and eat some more.

That’s hardly an ideal life for cats, since they’re hard-wired with a drive to stalk, pounce and catch prey. Real mice aren’t required to activate the prey drive though. A toy mouse or ball does the trick just fine.

Dogs are all bred to do a job, but their unemployment rate is rising. Today, many can barely jump off the sofa, let alone chase a ball, herd sheep, work in the field or assist a hunter.

Though dogs and cats may be depressed, they don’t lack love. It could be argued that we’re loving them to death. According to the Nestle Purina Life Span Study, maintaining a dog’s lean body condition (the appropriate weight for an individual dog) extended median life span by 15%. This is probably true for cats too.

There are many explanations for the problem of overweight pets, some of which also apply to people.

Culturally, Americans seem to equate food with love. From the time they’re young, we reward dogs and cats with food (appropriate for positive reinforcement training but often taken too far). We liberally dole out heavily marketed manufactured treats.

While early spay/neuter is a good idea for population control and the long-term health of pets, science is demonstrating that as hormone levels change following these procedures, pets may require less food.

Overall, our pets are under-exercised. As families lead ever busier lives, many assume that allowing a dog a quick run in the yard is enough. That’s not usually the case. Some dogs love to swim, others prefer fetch, others do best with a physical job (especially herding breeds), and for others, a good walk is all that’s required. Some form of exercise is essential for good physical and mental health in people and pets.

Cat health and lifespan both benefit from indoor living, which is the trend. However, inside cats often get lulled into a lazy existence. Their only work is loudly reminding their owners that it’s time to eat. In fact, our cats end up training us to be food dispensers. We keep filling the bowl, not even knowing which cat is eating when or how much.

Cats are born to hunt. Hiding a small percentage of their daily food in food puzzles and food-dispensing toys (made for cats or dogs) and letting them hunt for it during the day activates the prey drive. If you do choose to leave bowls of food out all day, automatic timed feeders measure quantity and dispense food on a schedule.

Just as most owners play with their dogs, play is also vital for cats.

Overweight or obese pets can’t be helped if owners don’t notice the problem. Just as people don’t pack on the pounds overnight, the same is true for pets. Unfortunately, for cats and small dogs, just a few extra pounds makes a big difference. While owners seldom weigh their pets, veterinarians do, and they should tell it like it is.

The good news is that even obese pets can lose weight, and clearly, doing so is in their best interest.

STEVE DALE hosts the nationally syndicated “Steve Dale’s Pet World” and “The Pet Minute” and is a contributing editor to USA Weekend. Send questions to Include your name, city and state or visit