Obesity Plagues Pets, Industry Being Challenged to Effect Change
CALABASH, N.C., MARCH 31, 2014—Most of the nation’s pets are overweight, and a majority of their owners are blind to the issue. New research, released by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), tells an alarming story. Veterinarians who assessed pets for the recent study recognized that more than half are overweight or obese. Cats carry the largest share of the obesity burden with 57.6 percent of the population recorded as overweight or obese. The dog population is close behind, with 52.6 percent of canines being classified as weighing too much.
“Among all diseases that perplex the veterinary community and plague our population of pets, obesity has the greatest collective negative impact on pet health, and yet it is almost completely avoidable,” said Dr. Ernie Ward, veterinarian and founder of APOP. “The pet industry is mighty and well-meaning, but it’s time we stop accepting the status quo. We must start working together to fight obesity through knowledge and action.”
Abundant Health Risks
Obesity by itself is classified as a disease, but the health conditions associated with obesity reveal the heart of the epidemic’s impact on pets and their owners. Osteoarthritis, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, joint injury, various forms of cancer and decreased life expectancy are all linked to obesity in pets. “The body of evidence indicating that obesity causes costly and painful conditions is clear,” according to Dr. Joe Bartges, a veterinary nutritionist and internist who serves on the APOP board and as Small Animal Clinical Sciences department head at University of Tennessee Knoxville’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Without the obesity risk factor in place, the likelihood of pets getting many serious diseases is inarguably reduced.”
The Fat Gap
Pet owners who agreed to have their pets assessed for the study were first asked to classify their pets’ weight. Among all pets that veterinarians ultimately classified as obese, a whopping 93 percent of dog owners and 88 percent of cat owners initially thought their pet was in the normal weight range. APOP refers to this disparity as the “fat gap.”
“The fat gap is rampant and we believe it’s the primary factor in the pet obesity epidemic,” said Bartges. Primary knowledge gaps also include the basics of how much food pets should get daily. “There’s an entire nation of pet owners who are loving their pets to death with too many calories and not enough exercise. They are in the dark that their pets are overweight and that a host of diseases can arise as a result,” Bartges said.
Awareness at Core of Problem
Since the fat gap has been around for years, a new online poll of U.S. pet owners conducted by APOP sought to better understand the dynamics of pet obesity. The survey indicated that 42 percent of dog and cat owners admitted they don’t know what a healthy weight for their pets looks like.
While most owners of overweight pets either don’t realize or can’t tell that their pet is obese, the pet owner poll indicated one ultimate obesity risk that resonates. Seventy-two percent of owners believe that obesity causes a decreased lifespan in pets. “There have been many news headlines about obesity causing grave diseases and conditions in humans, and I believe most pet owners are aware of this, so they associate the same risks with their pets,” Bartges said. “But until more pet owners recognize that their pet is in the obesity danger zone, we can’t expect them to make changes.”
Call for Action
This year, APOP will lead the creation of an industry coalition to amplify the organization’s impact. The APOP coalition will invite partnerships with organizations that share the common goal of fighting obesity and supporting pets and their owners to create the healthiest household possible. Through the strength of the coalition, APOP will better continue its mission of raising awareness of pet obesity and fighting the epidemic through the power of knowledge and actionable tools.
About the Research
The annual obesity prevalence survey is conducted by APOP. Veterinary practices that participated assessed the body condition scores of every dog and cat patient they saw for a regular wellness exam on a given day in October. Body condition scores based on a five-point scale and actual weight were used in classifying pets as either underweight, ideal, overweight or obese. The latest survey included the assessment of 1,421 dogs and cats. The supplementary online pet owner study was conducted by Trone Brand Energy in December 2013 and included 590 U.S. pet owners.
The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention was founded in 2005 by Dr. Ernie Ward with the primary mission of documenting pet obesity levels in the United States to raise awareness of the issue and its negative impact on pets. The APOP board is made up of veterinary nutritionists and internal medicine specialists. The Association conducts annual research to substantiate pet obesity prevalence levels in the United States and offers resources and tools to veterinarians and pet owners to better equip them to recognize and fight pet obesity. APOP will announce an industry alliance in 2014 with the goal of increasing the organization’s effectiveness.