Getting To The Bottom Of Companion Animal Obesity
Obesity is one of the most common diseases among companion animals. It’s a condition that can increase the risk factor for a variety of other ailments and can shorten lifespans. Yet it is also one of the hardest conditions to treat or reverse. Just like with people, successful weight loss is difficult to maintain for our animal companions and solving the problem can require actions to address each of the different risk factors. The factors that contribute to pet obesity are more complicated than one might expect and even defining obesity can be unclear. What is clear is the scope of the problem: studies indicate that up to 63% of cats and 60% of dogs are obese.
The first step in addressing companion animal obesity is recognition. It also may be the biggest hurdle. While veterinarians and shelter workers can often spot obesity, research has shown that “owners have unrealistic perceptions of the body condition of their dogs.” These guardians usually take no action when they see an increase in weight and may even “contribute to the development of obesity in the first place.” Underestimating pet weight is thus an important risk factor, but it’s not the whole story. Some studies have also show that humans “tended to justify obesity in their dogs by providing explanations regarding alleged improvement or by humanizing and relating to a pet’s desire for treats.” The authors note that feeding and treating companions can be a common way for families to show affection, but it may be a two-sided coin.
There is no single identifiable “type” of companion animal shown to be more prone to obesity than others. However, obesity is generally thought to be a disease that affects companion animals in middle age. There are also the habits and actions of the guardians (humans), which can be as important as the physiology of the dogs or cats. Diet choice can play a major factor, but the evidence shows that attention is the most important consideration. “Avoidance of free feeding, consideration for diet energy density, provision of a life stage-appropriate diet, and regular monitoring of the body condition of neutered pets” go the furthest in preventing or addressing obesity. Companion animals can drift into obesity without some restriction of their diet, but the degree of restriction necessary “is variable and underscores the importance of monitoring and adjustment.”
For animal advocates, this study provides a thorough and actionable overview of companion animal obesity. Rather than simply describe the problem, there is a great deal of practical information that can help guide advocacy. The authors note that one of the most important aspects of addressing obesity in companion animals is “effective client communication.” Though the authors have veterinarians and their clients in mind, we can extend the concept for advocates. Discussing obesity can be an uncomfortable topic, but having the dialogue is “crucial” in some cases. There is no single risk factor or solution for all dogs and cats in every context, but knowing and discussing those factors can help address obesity in individual animals.