National Pet Month: Overweight Owners Lead Pets to Obesity

Published on Thursday, May 9th, 2013

By Richard French, DVM, M.S., Ph.D., Dean of Animal Studies and Allerton Chair of Animal Health Sciences at Becker College

The bond between human owners and their pets may be affecting the health of both, especially when it comes to diabetes, high blood pressure, and other illnesses associated with obesity.

In the veterinary sciences field, we have observed that the epidemic of overweight humans is being mirrored in the population of pet cats and dogs. Obesity is just as threatening to the animals as it is to their owners, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine.  Diseases being diagnosed in animals that are obese “are eerily similar to those reported for people,” according to the center, citing an annual study by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP).

Fat owners, fat pets? It has long been observed that dog and cat owners often resemble the dogs and cats they own. In 2009, a scientist in England issued a study in which 70 subjects were asked to match pictures of 41 dog owners to one of several breeds. They were able to match successfully more than half the time, far better than chance. Why? Because it’s true: Many people look like their pets.

Norman Rockwell, the artist famous for his series of Americana paintings featured on Saturday Evening Post covers, did not need a study to understand how pets and owners reflect each other. He painted a group of dogs and their look-alike owners in 1952, in his famous work “Waiting for the Vet.”

But the resemblance is now being found to extend to problems like obesity and the diseases it can cause, potentially affecting millions of Americans and the animals they love.  More than half of all American households have a companion animal, for a total of 77 million dogs and 93 million cats.  There are more dogs and cats in households than children, in addition to 75 million small mammals and reptiles and millions of aquarium fish. Pets are family members, and we often treat them as loved ones with all the benefits of a great home life. But our pets are, sadly, falling victim to one of the biggest health issues facing their human owners.

Obesity is a leading epidemic in the United States, for humans and for pets. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that during the past 20 years there has been a dramatic increase in American obesity, and rates remain high. More than two-thirds (68.8 percent) of adults are considered to be overweight or obese. More than 1 in 20 (6.3 percent) have extreme obesity. Almost 3 in 4 men (74 percent) are considered to be overweight or obese, and the numbers are relatively the same for women.

Guess what? Similar trends hold true for our pets. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, obesity is the most common nutritional disorder in the dog and cat. The latest nationwide survey, conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), found 53 percent of adult dogs and 55 percent of cats to be classified as overweight or obese by their veterinarian. That equals over 100 million pets that are too heavy, according to veterinarians.

A central part of the problem, APOP found, is the growing “fat pet gap.” Many owners are unaware that their pets are overweight. The new normal is fat and, in many cases, the problem correlates to the obesity epidemic among people. The FDA sees the pet as the sentinel for childhood obesity. When we see dogs that are overweight, we essentially should see a child that’s at risk for excess weight. Think about the lifestyles of many of our young people, and then we can readily see how their pets are emulating those lifestyles.  If a child is playing video games all day, the dog isn’t outside playing. Rather, the pet is sitting at her feet or on the sofa. If the child is lying around snacking on high-calorie treats, chances are the dog is sharing in those same excess calories—and is also likely to get something from the dinner table.

What can we start doing in May—National Pet Month—the perfect occasion to begin decreasing the risk of disease and improving the overall health and wellness of both ourselves and our pets.? Just as humans who are striving to improve their health can benefit from partnering with others, so too can we partner with our pets. Make May a time to resolve to change your unhealthy habits, and those of your pet. Get outside with your dog. Go for a walk or play fetch. Run around the house with a feather on the end of a lead with your cat. Take an unflinching look at your lives TOGETHER.

Rather than sit together, play together. Exercise together. Eat right together. Picture a healthier you looking fit and trim, and do the same with your dog, cat, or other favorite pet. Make your new normal—and that of your pet—healthy.  And, as in the Norman Rockwell painting, make sure to visit your veterinarian so you can receive the guidance and assistance you both need to embark on a healthy mission together.