Why Are America’s Pets so Fat?

Diya is a gray-and-white tuxedo cat. Like one-third of all American pets, she’s overweight at 17 lbs.

Diya was a skinny kitten when the Sewani family of Old Westbury, N.Y. adopted her more than 15 years ago. But after moving in with the family, Diya gained weight. Once spayed, her appetite ballooned.

“She gets pretty frequent check-ups because we know she’s overweight,” says Kunal Sewani, 25. The cat leads a regular feline lifestyle, but her weight has put her at risk for diabetes.

It’s one of the many health risks that has been associated with pet obesity, including heart disease, respiratory ailments and arthritis. Our pets are getting fat and sick right along with us.

“There are more than 20 diseases linked with pets being overweight, many similar to what we see in overweight humans,” says Kirk Breuninger, veterinarian and lead researcher at Banfield Pet Hospital.

According to their research, pet obesity rates have skyrocketed over the past decade, up 160 to 170 percent in dogs and cats. Banfield boasts the largest database of cats and dogs in the United States, and their 2017 State of Pet Health Report uses that data to spot health trends among pets. The report indicates a number of common conditions, including ear infections, heartworm and dental disease.

But it’s obesity that Banfield refers to as an epidemic in pets. The alarming increases among cats and dogs are proof. Breuninger says that obesity has become so common among housepets many people have can’t tell if their pet is too heavy.

“It’s normal to them, so they really don’t know what to look for,” he explains. “It’s important to educate pet owners to know if their pet is really overweight.”

There are a number of reasons American pets are so fat, but chief among them is lack of exercise. Of all the obesity overlap between humans and pets, this area makes the most sense. If a person is inactive, you’d think their cat or dog would be too. But after looking at U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data, Banfield researchers found something surprising. Where the highest rates of obesity in humans were, they found the lowest rates of obesity in pets.

The result puzzled Breuninger & Co. as they began searching for a reason to explain it.

“There’s been some research that has actually linked a lower use of preventive care in people that are obese,” Breuninger says. “So we thought, what if this translates to their pets?”

Turns out it did–Banfield found that the most overweight areas of the U.S. correlated with higher incidents of intestinal parasites among pets. Without preventive care–like Diya’s checkups–dogs and cats have a far greater chance of developing parasites and other digestive disorders. That can make it difficult for pets to gain weight and utilize the nutrition in their food.

Overfeeding is the other main cause of weight gain. Like many pet owners, the Sewanis didn’t mind feeding Diya a bit of extra food, and would occasionally slip her bites of their family meals (chicken teriyaki is her favorite). According to Breuninger, people get carried away with it all the time.

“Humans like to use food as a form of communication and show affection to their pets,” he says. “It can be very easy for us to give our pets too many treats.”

Relaying pet health advice is always difficult, especially when it comes to weight gain. Veterinarians across the country lecture pet owners on proper diet and care, and some specialty organizations, such as the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), have honed in on the weight issue.

Some of the problems with pet obesity are unpreventable. Genetics can play a big role. In labrador retrievers, for example, a gene that send signals to the brain the dog is full has been mutated and weakened over time, causing the breed’s voracious appetite (and its place among the most commonly overweight canines).

Despite genetic and other contributing factors, the best way to fight obesity in pets is the same as with humans–physical activity and proper diet. It’s worked for Diya, who’s been switched over to a prescribed diet designed to keep her calorie intake under control.

“She eats about as much as she used to,” Sewani says. “But every time she goes to the vet, she’s lost weight.”

More calories burned than eaten. It’s straightforward enough. Breuninger hopes Banfield’s report and other veterinary advice will cause people to do something about it. If human obesity is any indication, though, our pets might just keep getting fatter.