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The most recent Canadian pet population data shows that pet ownership is on the rise: 41% of households have at least one dog and 28% have at least one cat (CAHI 2019). Also on the rise is the prevalence of pet obesity: a recent survey study (APOP 2018) estimates that 59.5% of cats and 55.8% of dogs are overweight or obese. Obesity is now one of the most common medical conditions seen in veterinary practice but despite this trend, most owners misperceive their pet’s body condition and tend to underestimate it (Eastland-Jones et al. 2014). Sadly, obesity is not a disease exclusive to adult pets; at 6 months of age, 21% of puppies are already overweight (German et al. 2018).

While the role the pet plays in the household is different for each family, the goals we have for them are mutual: to live a long and happy life. How then can we best support our pets towards achieving this goal in light of recent trends in veterinary medicine?

New research from the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition and the University of Liverpool (Salt et al. 2019) showed that overweight dogs are more likely to have shortened life spans, compared to dogs at ideal body condition. In this retrospective study, medical records of over 50 000 dogs from 12 of the most common breeds were accessed to evaluate the association between body condition and survival. Overall, the study showed that overweight body condition was associated with a shorter life span in all 12 breeds.

Although this research did not evaluate the explanations behind weight gain, poor feeding habits and management factors are thought to play a key role in the development of companion animal obesity. What active steps can we take to encourage and inspire pet owners towards healthier habits?

  1. Practice prevention! A new series of puppy growth charts developed by the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition helps both the veterinary care team and pet owners identify - and therefore correct - issues with inappropriate body condition at an early age.
  2. Use a gram scale. Measuring pet food with a gram scale is far more accurate than a volumetric measuring cup. In fact, research shows that using a standard measuring cup can result in overestimation of portion sizes by up to 80% (German et al. 2011).
  3. Prescribe a veterinary therapeutic weight loss diet. Compared to maintenance diets, therapeutic weight loss formulations are enhanced in essential nutrients (protein, vitamins, minerals) while restricted in calories, ensuring nutritional adequacy in the face of caloric restriction.
  4. Limit the amount of treats to less than 10% of the pet’s calorie intake for the day. This includes all snacks, training treats, supplements, and foods used to administer medications. Not only will this rule of thumb reduce the risk of unwanted weight gain, but will also safeguard against an unbalanced feeding plan.
  5. If a pet is begging, encourage a healthier alternative to food such as affection or playtime. A recent study that looked at fMRI of dogs when offered various rewards, showed that social interaction was at least as rewarding as food (Cook et al. 2016). Furthermore, attention and interaction are healthier alternatives.

We all want our pets to live long and healthy lives. Although factors outside our scope of influence such as breed, genetics and environment all contribute to longevity, there is one aspect we can contribute to daily that has a net positive impact on life span: weight management. When it comes to companion animals, weight management is not just about pounds lost…but also about the number of years gained.

References:

  1. CAHI. (2019, Jan 28). Press Release: Latest Canadian Pet Population Figures. 
  2. APOP. (2019, Mar 12). 2018 Pet Obesity Survey Results. 
  3. Eastland-Jones RC, German AJ, Holden SL, Biourge V, Pickavance LC. Owner misperception of canine body condition persists despite use of a body condition score chart. J Nutr Sci. 2014;3:e45. Published 2014 Oct 8. doi:10.1017/jns.2014.25.
  4. German AJ, Woods G, Holden SL, Brennan L, and Burke C. Dangerous trends in pet obesity. Vet Rec 2018;182:25.
  5. Salt, C, Morris PJ, Wilson D, Lund EM, German AJ. Association between life span and body condition in neutered client‐owned dogs. J Vet Int Med. 2019;33:89-99.
  6. German AJHolden SLMason SLBryner CBouldoires CMorris PJDeboise MBiourge V. Imprecision when using measuring cups to weigh out extruded dry kibbled food. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr. 2011;95(3):368-73.
  7. Cook PF, Prichard A, Spivak M, Berns GS. Awake canine fMRI predicts dogs’ preference for praise vs food. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016;11(12):1853–1862.