Note: It’s interesting how many people tell me my dog is too thin. Ace is at his ideal weight, but people are used to looking at fat dogs.
As people around the world struggle to maintain a healthy weight, their faithful canine companions remain by their side and share the burden – quite literally.
Dog obesity is a serious and widespread problem in all developed countries, with an estimated 44 percent of dogs (approximately 33 million) in the United States considered overweight or obese .
For dogs and people, being overweight is associated with a number of health concerns. Obese dogs are at an increased risk for health problems such as osteoarthritis, type 2 diabetes, a variety of respiratory disorders, high blood pressure, heart disease and many different forms of cancer.
Dog owners at fault for overweight dogs
As the number of overweight humans and dogs increases, so does the body of scientific literature presenting evidence that dog owners are the most crucial factor in whether or not their pets will be overweight, with lifestyle aspects ranging from their own weight to their socio-economic status.
Although the number of obese dogs and owners continues to rise, a relationship between the degree of obesity in dog owners and obesity in their dogs was demonstrated as long ago as 1970 . Since then, a number of studies have confirmed this finding.
In addition to factors such as gender, spaying and neutering, age, breed and dietary habits, studies have suggested that lifestyle factors – such as dog owners’ socio-economic status and dietary conditions – also have a significant relationship with obesity in dogs.
A cross-sectional study published in 2009 by Marieke Nijland and colleagues in Amsterdam is one of the most recent presentations of scientific evidence linking the weight of dog owners to the weight of their dogs .
This study examined 47 dog/owner pairs and 36 cat/owner pairs at three veterinary clinics in Amsterdam and concluded that the degree of overweight in dogs was positively related to the BMI of their owners.
A positive relationship means that an increase in the dog’s weight was associated with an increase in the owner’s weight. Interestingly, no relationship was found between the degree of overweight in cats and their owners’ weight. This lack of correlation for cats was explained by participation in outside activity. Cats that are allowed to go outside have been shown to be less often overweight than exclusively indoor cats, and they have more control over the amount of physical activity they receive.
Physical activity appears to have an impact on the degree of overweight in dogs and owners: after controlling the amount of time the dog was walked each day, the Nijland study found the correlation between the dog and owner’s weights disappeared.
What causes a correlation between overweight dogs and overweight owners?
No precise reason for the correlation between a dog’s weight and that of his owner has been determined, but a commonly suggested reason is that dog owners have a tendency to ascribe their own personal behaviors and attitudes to their pets.
In theory, this would cause their dogs’ lifestyles to mirror their own and lead to similar outcomes such as obesity. Lending support to this idea is the fact that the length of time a dog has spent with his owner is also positively related to his degree of being overweight .
Results of another study also found that obese dogs often had owners who were obese and who showed limited interest in preventive health behavior in regard to themselves as well as their pets .
It appears that owners have a tendency to transfer their own human health and eating habits to their dogs, interpreting all needs as requests for food and not taking into account their pets’ requirements in terms of nutrition and exercise.
How can dog owners eliminate themselves as a risk factor for dog obesity?
Don’t be in denial about your pet’s weight
One important step that can be taken to address your role as a risk factor for obesity in your dog is making a realistic and objective appraisal of your dog’s weight.
A 2006 study, examining risk factors for canine obesity in France, involved asking the owners of 681 dogs to evaluate their pet’s body condition. This was done first by giving a verbal description (very thin, thin, optimal, a little too fat or obese) and second by picking one out of five drawings of dogs with varying body conditions.
The study found that dog owners often estimate that their pet’s body condition is more favorable than it actually is, underestimating an overweight animal’s condition when compared to an assessment by a veterinarian .
Another recent study, conducted by Pfizer Animal Health, found that only 17 percent of dog owners consider their pets overweight, an extremely low percentage when compared to the 47 percent of veterinarians who consider their patients overweight or obese.
Stop humanizing your dog
Studies have also suggested that, rather than treating their dog as a companion animal, owners of obese dogs are more likely to humanize their pets. They more often allow their dogs to sleep in bed with them, talk more often to their dogs on a variety of topics and have little fear of contracting diseases from their pets .
Owners of obese dogs also spend more time watching their dogs eat and are more likely to feed their pets table scraps. In general, they show less interest in providing their dogs with balanced nutrition and exercise. Viewing your pet as a dog, rather than a human, can help you maintain a focus on your pet’s unique health and nutritional requirements.
Get out there and walk the dog
Since overweight in dogs and overweight in dog owners appears to go hand in hand, both you and your dog will see health benefits if you respond to your dog’s need for attention and care by participating in physical activities together. People often fail to comply with exercise programs designed for weight loss, possibly due to a lack of urgency.
However, regularly walking your dog is an excellent way to keep your faithful pet healthy and happy and may also give you the extra impetus you need to increase your level of physical activity and stick with it. Instead of being a risk factor for obesity in your pet, you can work together to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
1. Ward, Dr. Ernest Jr. 2008 Pet Obesity Study, Association for Pet Obesity Prevention: www.petobesityprevention.com/Pet_Obesity_Study_2008.htm
2. Mason E. Obesity in pet dogs. Vet Rec 1970; 23: 612-616.
3. Nijland, M et al. Overweight in dogs, but not in cats, is related to overweight in their owners. Public Health Nutrition. 2009.
4. Kienzle, E et al. A comparison of the feeding behavior and the human-animal relationship in owners and obese dogs. American Society for Nutritional Sciences. J. Nutr. 1998; 128: 2779S–2782S.
5. Colliard, L et al. Risk Factors of Obesity in Dogs in France. The Journal of Nutrition. 2006.