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Pet Obesity: A Growing Problem, a Leading Health Concern Across All Species


October 11, 2017

Pet obesity isn’t new, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer an issue. In fact, it only seems to be getting worse.

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), 54 percent of dogs and 59 percent of cats were overweight or obese as of 2016 (and those numbers have been rising since 2012 and 2013, respectively). Those percentages are a share of the total 41.9 million dogs and 50.5 million cats that APOP had counted in the United States.

“Obesity can lead to many health concerns, from joint damage to difficult breathing, an increased risk for cancer and a shorter life expectancy,” said Mary Emma Young, director of communications at the Pet Food Institute (PFI). “We all, as pet owners, as those who care for pets, have a vested interest in keeping pets healthy so that they’re enjoying a long and healthy life.”

W. Hunter Bowen, DVM, associate veterinarian at Firehouse Animal Health Center in Austin, Texas, adds a few more ailments to that short list, though he says there are many more perhaps less common issues associated with pet obesity.

“Diabetes is potentially life threatening and can be very expensive, time consuming and frustrating for pet owners to manage,” Dr. Bowen said. “Dogs are at increased risk of injuries, such as herniated spinal discs and cruciate ligament (ACL) tears… The risk of arthritis at a relatively early age goes up, too, and arthritis pain is much more difficult to control for a pet who is overweight.”

According to Dr. Bowen, overfeeding seems to be the most common cause of pet obesity. Many of the pet market’s weight management diets for dogs and cats seek to reduce pets’ caloric intake in relation to their caloric output. And though thIs might seem like a simple equation, it’s not always easy for pets and the humans who love them to follow through.

Eating Right

“In many cultures—the U.S. included—food is love. I practice as a veterinarian, so when I’m counseling clients, one of the biggest push backs [comes when we say], ‘Yes, your pet is overweight and you have to feed them less,’ and you can just watch the deflation in the owner’s eyes,” said RuthAnn Lobos, DVM, CCRT at Nestlé Purina. “So, we helped to develop a system [in which] they don’t actually have to feed less; they actually get to feed the same quantity of food and it is formulated such that it’s not continuous caloric restriction, which a lot of these weight loss food/healthy weight management
foods will tap into.”

One of Purina’s newest products, the Pro Plan Simply Fit system, works in two parts. The first is that which Lobos calls a “maintenance level of calories” and is fed for a set period of time. The second phase of the system feeds a formula that is a 25 percent calorically reduced version of the maintenance formula, though the portion size is designed not to change.

In May 2002, the American Veterinary Medical Association published a study that found that, between a control group of dogs fed “normal” calories and a group fed 25 percent fewer calories, the latter had a median lifespan of almost two years longer than the former, reinforcing the importance of dietary restriction to pets’ longevity.

“And the way the formula is made, it helps to keep that active metabolism so the pets are losing the right kind of weight,” Lobos said. “Our nutritionist and our scientists have worked to formulate Pro Plan Simply Fit so that it promotes keeping that active metabolism, keeping that lean body mass and… helps these pets move around more, feel better and actually burn that fat off.”

Hill’s Pet Nutrition has several products for the cat or dog owner looking to manage their pet’s weight issue. Hill’s Science Diet Adult Perfect Weight dog and cat food has a “proprietary blend of nutrients and ingredients, including lean protein, natural fibers, coconut oil, fruits, vegetables and antioxidants,” according to Brian McCall, director of marketing at Hill’s Pet Nutrition. The company reports that over 70 percent of cats and dogs lost weight within 10 weeks of being fed this formula.

“The Hill’s Pet Nutrition Center in Topeka, Kansas, is a state-of-theart center where veterinarians, Ph.D. nutritionists and food scientists work every day to study the biology of dogs and cats, create new products and improve existing ones,” McCall explained. “Hill’s scientists also conduct clinical studies with leading universities, in veterinary clinics and with pets in their homes to demonstrate the effectiveness of our foods… Guided by our evidencebased research, Hill’s formulates its foods with a precise balance of nutrients to meet the specific needs of overweight pets.”

The company also offers Hill’s Science Diet Adult Light cat and dog foods and several therapeutic weight management products thropetsafe laser toyugh veterinarians. And while what owners are feeding their pets is important, how much they’re feeding also plays a significant role.

“Of course, pet owners need to pay careful attention to portion size when feeding foods designed to help pets lose weight,” McCall said. “Pet owners can work with their pet to get more exercise, avoid or eliminate people-food snacks and access to other pets’ food in the household and, of course, get regular weighins during visits to the veterinarian. These can all be part of a successful weight management strategy.”

Young from PFI agrees. Her list of strategies to manage or prevent obesity included avoiding giving pets table scraps of human food, measuring out portions, making sure dogs and cats get plenty of exercise and being responsible when giving treats.

Young also makes a point to mention the importance of involving vets in pets’ weight management journeys. According to the 2016 U.S. Pet Obesity Survey, 87 percent of pet owners and 98 percent of veterinary professionals thought that pet obesity was a significant problem. However, out of the 93 percent of owners who visited their veterinarian in the past year, only 49 percent reported that they had discussed their pet’s ideal weight with the doctor (it’s worth noting that over 60 percent of veterinary professionals claimed to have had that conversation).

“I always like to say that if a pet owner is concerned about their dog or cat’s weight, we can all play a role in encouraging that pet owner to visit the veterinarian to specifically discuss that weight loss strategy,” she said.

Making Better Choices

As with many aspects of human and pet life, technology is changing the way we make healthy decisions. The founders of Petnet hope to use data to combat pet health issues such as pet obesity through better diet.

The Petnet SmartFeeder is a smartphone-controlled automatic feeder that allows owners to schedule regular meal times, set portions, and monitor alerts and notifications remotely. The company also makes the SmartBowl, which has an intelligent scale built into the bowl as well as LED lights that measure meals to help pet owners feed healthy portions.

In conjunction with these products, Petnet is launching an online program that would produce a Food Report Card. According to the company’s president, Carlos Herrera, Petnet’s three founders have backgrounds in robotics, and the site works through an algorithm that will collect information about a pet and provide guidance on pet food purchases.

“[We] used robots to collect a lot of data for the intelligence industry and then do something good with that data,” Herrera said. “We took the same approach with Petnet to answer two very basic questions: How much food should I feed my pet? What type of food should I feed my pet? A lot of pet owners have trouble answering [those questions] correctly, or as correctly as possible.”

Based on information provided by the pet owner, including the pet’s age, weight, level of activity and breed, the site will give recommendations on how many calories the pet should be fed each day and, based on information provided by owners on what food they’re currently feeding their pet, how many calories that animal is currently taking in. Herrera explained that the algorithms rank foods based on their ingredients rather than brands, weaning out artificial colors and flavors, promoting “natural flavors like fruits and vegetables,” and matching “pets’ endemic qualities to the right protein…”

“Imagine you’re able to walk into a pet store that has every type of pet food known to man, and as soon as you walk in, the pet store reconfigures itself to only show you what’s relevant to you and your pet,” Herrera said. “We truly are building simple tools to combat pet obesity and, over time, if these tools become pervasive, we won’t need to talk about pet obesity. I think ultimately… the health and wellness of your pet starts with what you feed them.”

To Treat or Not to Treat

Though pet owners may be tempted to eliminate treats to maintain or manage a dog’s weight, retailers might want to encourage them to reconsider. Young and PFI say that treats should make up no more than 10 percent of a pet’s daily calories. And, according to Kelly Ison, founder and CEO of Einstein Pets, not all treats will derail a weight management program.

Ison says that any one of the company’s dog treats would be great for owners looking to keep their pets at a healthy weight. Einstein Pets sticks to natural and organic ingredients sourced in the U.S. to make its low-calorie treats that are wheat-, corn- and soy-free and contain no chemicals, sugar, salt or artificial flavors, colors, fillers or preservatives.

“We have all premium ingredients [and] limited ingredients, so when you start educating the wholesale retailers down to the consumer, we’re saying you can keep this in [the diet] because there’s not a lot of ingredients,” Ison said, adding that the treats are especially useful to keep dogs active and satisfied even while dieting. “We’re trying to educate the consumer: a treat at least [per] day. When [the treat has] good ingredients, [it] is good for the dog.”

Oat flour and chia seeds are the two main ingredients, but also included on that list are blueberries, strawberries, bananas, sweet potatoes, turkey bacon, peanut butter, carrots and peas across their several flavors.

“I would say all of them are great for any number of allergies or trying to keep the weight off [a pet], but if you’re looking at one… [for which] a lot of people come back, it’s the original flavor, Peanut Butter Jelly Time,” Ison said. “While they’re trying to lose a few pounds, everyone wants to have a sweet treat and people look at our Black and Whites as that sweet treat for a dog.”

Exercise as Play

Playtime is important for a number of reasons, chief among them being that physical activity burns calories and helps achieve the ideal balance of caloric input versus output. A fact sheet,”Exercising Your Pet,” created by American Humane, explains that playing or exercising with dogs and cats is also important to human-animal bonding and discouraging problematic behaviors caused by boredom.

“I think toys are a very big part o
f maintaining weight for dogs,” said Colleen McCracken, CEO of Planet Dog. “It’s really about a dog’s lifestyle, including play and what they do for activity and as we all know, toys are a part of what keeps dogs active.”

In addition to keeping pets healthy and active, toys and accessories for all species seem to be a sound investment for retailers. Fifty-nine percent of owners surveyed in the 2017-2018 American Pet Products Association (APPA) Pet Owners Survey reported currently owning a dog toy, with 29 percent of those having been purchased in the last year. Still, 23 percent planned to purchase another within the next 12 months. Toys were purchased an average of seven times over a year, while most products saw an average of between one and three purchases.

Planet Dog makes several lines of dog toys, many of which are designed for outdoor, active play on hikes or near water, as buoyancy is a design feature. McCracken mentions specifically the Orbee-Tuff Fetch Ball with Rope or the Woof Ball (which is minty and chewy). The Whistle Ball, which can be paired with the company’s Wood Chuck launcher, whistles when it’s thrown and glows in the dark—a good feature for senior dogs with reduced vision (Planet Dog also has lines dedicated to puppies and seniors).

The Orbee-Tuff Tennis ball matches the size of a traditional tennis ball but is made with material that is safer for dogs’ teeth, and it can also be stuffed with treats. It crosses over into the category of slow feeders, which can also be useful tools in a pet’s weight management.

“This category has grown significantly for Planet Dog for years… because of this whole concept of keeping dogs more active and also slowing them down as they feed,” McCracken said. “I think all kinds of health issues [are caused by] eating food too fast.”

The company’s Mazee is its original interactive toy. It’s an inner maze that can hold kibble or treats and is surrounded by a translucent sphere, so dogs can hear, see and smell the food inside the puzzle toy. Similarly, the translucent and squishy Orbee-Tuff Snoop has a flexible opening that pops out to be loaded with a treat. Both toys keep dogs stimulated physically and mentally during mealtime.

“We just launched in March at Global [Pet Expo] our new OrbeeTuff Link,” McCracken continued. “Link is also capable of being a slow feeder—again, small treats holes, so it does require the dog doing a little bit of work in figuring out how to get the kibble out of the Link… It is adaptable and you can add multiple pieces and make it either more difficult, easier, whatever—it really adjusts to the capability of the dog.”

But dogs aren’t the only ones who need daily exercise and activity to maintain a svelte figure. In the 2017- 2018 APPA Pet Owner’s Survey, it was estimated that 31 million cat owners had also purchased toys.

“Specifically [for cats] we have… our Slimcat product, which is basically a BPA- and plastic-free ball that the cat spins around and then treats dispense, but within that plastic ball you can fit an entire meal,” said Andrea Fleer, senior product manager, Toys and Behavior, at Radio Systems Corporation. “So, by the cat interacting with the ball and hpetsafe slimcataving an active play, they’re eating slower as t h e treats dispense and that’s actually helping them to not gorge their food and eat too quickly.”

In addition, laser toys are often suggested as a way to get cats up and moving. The Petsafe Bolt is an interactive laser toy which can move randomly and also has an automatic play feature. The company also makes teaser toys—many of them automatic, including the Flik Automatic Teaser Cat Toy, which throws and hides string to engage and entice cats.

“Cats definitely, by nature, are a little pickier in their play,” Fleer said. “[For] dogs, we can often just take a rubber dog toy and tweak it any way to incorporate a treat, but we have to make sure for cats that [the toy is] inquisitive enough for them, that there’s enough added features to it and not just physically adding a treat to it. We have to make sure there’s additional movement to it.”

And while creativity is important to the design of a successful cat toy, it’s easy to over-do it. Petsafe is careful to walk the fine line between interesting and overly complex.

“We do a lot of market research,” Fleer explained. “We have a market research team that will evaluate our concepts through our online community, and currently, we’re doing a lot of work with the end consumer to really get their input as far as how they would interact with the toys on a day to day basis to make sure we’re not over-engineering an item or making it so that it’s too complicated for the end user.”

An Issue for All

While dogs and cats are likely the first pets to come to mind when addressing pet obesity, they’re not the only animals that can slip into unhealthy habits and suffer as a consequence.

“Obesity in reptiles can be influenced by many factors, but we tend to see over-feeding as a main concern, especially of food items that should be reserved as complimentary to a main diet (i.e. fruits and high-fat insects),” said Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education coordinator at Zoo Med Labs, Inc., though she credits Bree Modica, the company’s animal nutritionist, for providing the information.

Because domesticated reptiles are often more sedentary than their counterparts in the wild, over-feeding combined with a lack of physical stimulation can lead to obesity and take a toll on their quality of life or life expectancy, just as it can for cats and dogs. The professionals at Zoo Med, whose staff includes animal nutritionists and veterinarians who specialize in exotic animal health, cite accessories and feeding strategy (in addition to diet, of course) as tools most useful to combat or prevent obesity in reptiles.

“With the biology of reptiles, diet must act as a way to provide nourishment as well as to stimulate the reptile and their activity level,” Rademacher said. “Diets for reptiles should include aspects of these feeding strategies in order to provide opportunities to hunt or forage, much as they would in the wild. This can be accomplished with what the reptile is fed, as well as how they are fed i.e. feeding live insects as well as a pelleted diet or hiding food for them to find…

“Naturally, animals have to move around to find food, defend territories and find mates, which lends to keeping a healthy weight,” she continued. “In captivity, reptiles tend to be much more sedentary. And unlike companion animals, reptiles are not typically taken on walks or provided toys that allow them to expend the energy they consume.”

According to Rademacher, accessories that owners can place in reptiles’ habitats can encourage the physical activity that reptiles need. The company produces a range of branching and artificial plants of many difference types, sizes and styles. So, not only do these items make a reptile habitat beautiful and interesting, but they could also be essential to the animal’s health.

“By using multiple types of branching and plants for arboreal reptiles, such as chameleons, it requires the animal to actively adjust their body position, grip and pace as they move around their environment,” she said. “In addition to accessories that go inside the terrarium, the importance of good lighting cannot be ignored. In addition to UVB lighting for vitamin D synthesis, reptiles should have access to good UVA and bright visible light in order to support full color vision and promote natural behaviors. Excellent lighting can also be used to help maintain terrarium plants which can add to an interactive environment for animals, stimulating movement such as climbing, digging, hiding and exploring.”

The issue for birds and small animals also seems to stem from the fact that these species’ activity levels are significantly reduced when they are domesticated. Toys or accessories, like those for their feline and canine counterparts, are important to the mental and physical stimulation of birds and small animals. They’re also lucrative for retailers: In 2017, APPA found that bird owners had toy purchasing habits similar to dog owners (51 percent of owners o w n e d a toy, 25 percent had purchased them in the last year and 21 percent planned to purchase toys in the next 12 months). Toys were a popular purchase among small animal owners as well, owned by 60 percent or more of owners and purchased quite frequently relative to other care items.

“Weight can be difficult to control in certain animals when housed as pets. Since their food and environment is controlled by the owner, small mammals and birds are no longer competing for food and space as they would in nature. As such, their energy requirements are reduced, and so should their fat and carbohydrate intake,” said Ron Reid, nutritionist and zoologist at Vitakraft Sun Seed, which produces diets for small animals and birds. “Protein is still an important part of the diet… too high amounts of fat in the diet could prevent the intake of adequate protein.

“Certain small animals… require high-fiber diets and large amounts of hay every day to keep their digestive systems moving,” said Reid, adding that, similar to dogs and cats, there’s not necessarily a need to completely exclude treats to maintain a healthy diet. “Small animals and birds can be offered fresh fruits and vegetables in a limited amount, which helps add variety, nutrients and fresh ingredients to their diet. Treats can continue to be a fun and special part of an animal’s diet as long as they are fed in moderation.”

Reid also suggests that the best way to educate shoppers on how to keep their pets—presumably of all species—in tip-top health is to collaborate with local animal experts.

“Ask local veterinarians to come in and talk about feeding and caring for animals, either with your staff exclusively or at a free event advertised to the public,” Reid said. “Many university veterinarian schools have excellent resources for care and feeding that they share right on their website. Create start-up cage bundles with the right kind of feeds, treats and supplements to help introduce new pet owners to these products from the very start.”

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