Our pets weigh too much.

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention’s latest veterinary survey, 53 percent of adult dogs and 55 percent of adult cats in the United States — that’s 88.4 million pets — are classified as overweight or obese by their veterinarians.

But the bigger problem, reports APOP founder Dr. Ernie Ward, is that pet owners don’t even realize their chubby four-legged friends have a weight problem.

“Twenty two percent of dog owners and fifteen percent of cat owners characterized their pet as ‘normal weight’ when it was actually overweight or obese,” Dr. Ward says. “This is what I refer to as the ‘fat pet gap,’ or the normalization of obesity by pet parents. In simplest terms, we’ve made fat pets the new normal.”

Though a pudgy Pug or an extra-large (and lovable) Labrador may be adorable, the additional pounds he’s carrying can cause medical conditions and physical limitations that will ultimately shorten your time together, Dr. Ward says — and nobody wants that.

“More and more of our pets are entering into the highest danger zone for weight-related disorders.” Dr. Ward warns.

In the Danger Zone

Without a scale, it’s hard to know if your dog is overweight or obese. Veterinary nutritionists, including Dr. Joseph Wakshlag of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, use a rating system called the body condition score to determine whether a dog is in the “danger zone.”

In normal-size dogs, “You should be able to feel a rib cage, feel the spine and feel the muscle development all along the frame,” Dr. Wakshlag says. If you can’t, your pup may be headed in the wrong direction — and that means being susceptible to a range of health concerns.

Many of the medical and physical conditions associated with overweight or obese pets mirror those suffered by overweight or obese humans, Dr. Ward says. In dogs, as few as five extra pounds can put them at risk for these disorders, which include:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Respiratory and heart disease
  • Osteoarthritis and joint problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney disease
  • Cancer, particularly intra-abdominal cancers
  • Shortened life span of up to 2½ years, according to APOP.

Scary, isn’t it? And these medical conditions aren’t the only risk. Heavy dogs tend to physically interact less with their families and be less energetic and playful. Because they tend to lie around more, it’s easy to overlook illnesses because owners attribute their lethargy to laziness.

“Obesity is a risk for many dogs, affecting not only their health but also their quality of life,” says Dr. Alex German, director of the Royal Canin Weight Management Clinic at the University of Liverpool. “Weight loss can play an important role in keeping your dog both healthy and happy.”

You want your pet to be healthy and happy, right? Let’s take a closer look at what causes our pets to gain weight, and explore ways we can keep our dogs fit and trim.

Chubby Puppy Causes

So what causes our pets to be overweight or obese?

If they’re not suffering from an underlying medical condition, like hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease, overweight pets are likely consuming too many calories and not exercising enough, says Dr. Neil Shaw, chief medical officer at BluePearl, a veterinary hospital network headquartered in Tampa, Fla.

“Obesity in pets can be so easily prevented,” he adds. “Making sure a pet receives adequate exercise and a healthy diet is paramount.”

Dr. Penelope Morris, a veterinary nutritionist from the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition in Waltham on the Wolds in the United Kingdom, agrees. “Strategies for combating obesity and keeping dogs fit and healthy include portion control, (and) increased exercise and diets specifically formulated for overweight pets.”

Before you put your pet on doggy Weight Watchers or sign her up for canine CrossFit, however, take him in to your veterinarian for a check up to be sure there’s not something else going on, Dr. Ward says.

“You should never put your dog on a diet without the assistance of your veterinary healthcare team,” he says. “There may be a medical condition that is causing your dog’s excess weight. Diseases associated with weight gain should be eliminated as possible causes or contributors to your dog’s weight issue prior to beginning a diet. Too many dogs start on a diet and fail to lose weight simply because the diet wasn’t the problem — a disease was.”

Getting Fit and Trim

Experts agree that diet and exercise will help keep your four-legged pal fit and trim. But what exactly does that mean? In a nutshell, experts recommend:

  • Regulating the amount of food you give your dog (including treats)
  • Exercising your dog regularly.

The diet part of the equation involves portion control, Dr. Ward says. “Pet obesity is plainly a people problem, not a pet problem,” he says. “The most important decision pet owners make each day regarding their pet’s health is how they choose to feed it.”

Commercial dog foods provide feeding recommendations for various-sized dogs right on the bag, so if you haven’t read those, make it a point to do so and follow them, advises Dr. Morris. If you have questions about the proper amount to feed, don’t hesitate to talk to your veterinarian, she adds.

You should also cut back on the calorie-rich treats, Dr. Ward says. “Treats are the silent saboteur of slimming down.” remarks Ward. “Those tiny treats are often hiding a significant amount of calories.” Dr. Ward suggests offering single-ingredient rewards or fresh vegetables such as baby carrots, string beans, broccoli or other crunchy vegetables.

The exercise part of the equation involves getting out and moving with your pet. Whether you toss the ball or Frisbee for him, walk him to the dog park, or have him take a quick run on the treadmill, daily activity is critical to not only keeping your pup fit and trim — but also keeping him behaviorally in check.

“Obesity is a big problem in pets, just as it is with people, and exercising helps them keep the dog’s weight down,” says Dr. Susan Nelson, Kansas State veterinarian and assistant professor of clinical sciences. “Dogs also need an outlet to relieve their energy or else they may develop destructive behavior. Your dog is going to be happier and more content if it receives adequate exercise.”

Be a Responsible Pet Owner

Your dog relies on you for her basic needs, like food and exercise. So it’s your job as a responsible pet owner to provide her what she needs to keep her body functioning at its fullest potential.

Feed him the best quality food you can afford, offer him the right amount, and make sure he gets his body moving daily in fun and different ways.

If you do these things, your pal will stay fit, trim and healthy — and that means a longer life with you.

Is your dog chubby? What is your game plan to get her in shape?

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