- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Americans aren’t making just themselves fat; they’re also making their pets obese, a study says.

About one-third of dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight, according to a study by the Banfield Pet Hospital in Vancouver, Washington. But hospital researchers found that fat cats and dogs don’t necessarily reflect their owners’ tendencies.

“The states where we had the lowest prevalence of overweight and obesity in our pets are where we had the highest prevalence of overweight and obesity in people,” veterinarian Kirk Breuninger, the study’s lead researcher, told The Washington Times.

Meanwhile, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates that 59 percent of cats and 54 percent of dogs in the U.S. are obese, based on data from its 2016 survey, and notes that pet obesity rates increased over the previous year.

“Obesity continues to be the greatest health threat to dogs and cats,” association founder Ernie Ward said in a statement. “Obesity is a disease that kills millions of pets prematurely, creates immeasurable pain and suffering, and costs pet owners tens of millions of dollars in avoidable medical costs.”

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of American adults are obese, requiring more than $147 billion in annual medical costs.

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates that 60.2 million U.S. households own a dog and 47.1 million households own a cat, accounting for 89.7 million dogs and 94.2 million cats as pets across the country.

In the Banfield Pet Hospital study, researchers compiled data for 2.5 million dogs and 500,000 cats treated at Banfield veterinary clinics across the U.S. last year.

In one analysis of the data, Dr. Breuninger said his team found an inverse relationship between states with the most overweight humans verse overweight pets. In their analysis, they found that states with the most overweight humans had the highest rates of pets with parasites, which could explain how those states recorded some of the lowest numbers of overweight or obese pets. Animals with parasites have trouble absorbing nutrition from food, which can lead to weight loss and can accounted for low rates of obesity in those states.

“We are not entirely certain why an inverse relationship between overweight pets and humans exists, but some have theorized overweight people may be less likely to seek preventive care. If this were true for their pets, then they may not get routine preventive care, such as regular de-wormings or fecal exams to identify intestinal parasites,” said Dr. Breuninger. “We found that states with lower rates of pet obesity had higher rates of intestinal parasites, which may support this theory, given parasite infestations can make it more difficult for pets to keep weight on. Please note having a parasite infestation is unhealthy, as it can cause a number of health problems beyond an inability to readily put on weight.”

The study focused only on pets that visited Banfield hospitals. Pet owners in Minnesota were the worst offenders, with 41 dogs and 46 cats per 100 owners designated as overweight or obese.

Other reasons that dogs and cats gain weight: Owners treat their animals with snacks or food from the table, overfeed their pets and don’t allow for enough exercise. Dr. Breuninger said owners should consult with veterinarians to come up with plans unique to their animals’ needs, and a focus on nutrition and exercise is key.

He suggested simple things owners can do to increase the activity levels of pets, whether it be extending a dog’s walk or playing catch, or adding a few minutes of play time with a laser pointer for a cat.

A problem with owners identifying their pets as overweight is that they don’t know what to look for, Dr. Breuninger said.

“That can be difficult because now that it’s 1 out of 3 pets that are overweight, we’ve almost normalized it. We almost see pets that are overweight, and we don’t even recognize that they are in fact overweight,” he said.

Dr. Breuninger recommended looking for a little tuck at a pet’s waistline, a bulge or a form that is not completely straight from head to tail. If an owner can’t feel a pet’s ribs when searching for them, then it could be a sign of obesity.

Obesity in animals often occurs with arthritis and tracheal collapse in dogs. The researchers also highlight that having overweight dogs increases medical costs by 17 percent for clinic visits and 25 percent for medications. For cats, owners spend 36 percent more on diagnostic procedures compared with those with healthy felines.

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimated that pet owners spent $15.95 billion on veterinary services last year.

“I think it’s important for owners to understand that small changes can really benefit the pets long term in their life,” Dr. Breuninger said. “I think they should partner with their veterinarians to determine what is best for their pet. Also, know that having an overweight pet doesn’t just affect their health, but it also affects the owner’s wallet because it increases the costs they need to spend on their health care for additional diseases that are linked to pets that are overweight.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article failed to accurately explain how researchers analyzed an inverse relationship between rates of obesity among humans and rates of obesity among pets. Pet owners who are overweight do not directly contribute to pets having parasites, instead, researchers found that for states with the highest level of obesity, they also found the highest rates of pets that have parasites. Parasites don’t allow animals to absorb nutrition effectively, and those pets didn’t contribute to the number of overweight pets in the study.

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