The problem is one that is familiar to millions of people and a growing number of their pets: a schedule disrupted by the pandemic. In many instances, pet owners—bound to their homes—are giving their dogs and cats more attention, more playtime, and more walks, improving health for pets and people alike. But for others, changes in schedules have led to overfeeding and under-exercised dogs and cats—adding to the rising population of obese pets in the U.S.
Over the last ten years, pet obesity has become what many experts call a national epidemic, with one in three dogs and cats now overweight. BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital, a leading provider of advanced veterinary services with over 90 practices in 26 states across the U.S., launched an investigation into the current prevalence of pet obesity and found a 24% increase in the number of overweight dogs treated at its practices over the last seven years. Furthermore, in 2020, 52% of dogs treated and 56% of cats treated at BluePearl were overweight.
Lindsey E. Bullen, DVM, Diplomate ACVN, Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist® at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital, and Adjunct Professor at Lincoln Memorial University-College of Veterinary Medicine, points to overfeeding and lack of exercise for the uptick in pudgy pets.
“People are spending more time at home with their pets, which makes overfeeding and overtreating a greater possibility. Owners that are more likely to get up and move—those who get a bit stir crazy while working from home—may be taking on more of an active role regarding their pet’s activity levels. This means more walks and playtime,” explained Dr. Bullen. “Alternatively, people who are finding it difficult to balance their personal and professional lives may be interacting less with their pets, and to show their affection are giving pets more treats. Also, pets who aren’t used to having their owners home all day are now given many more opportunities to bug them for attention and treats. Unfortunately, these modern-day realities can and likely will negatively impact pet weight.”
Over the last four months, Dr. Bullen says her caseload has unexpectedly soared, as many pet owners tend to view veterinary nutrition as a “luxury service” or superfluous. She attributes this boost in clientele to one of two things: Economic hardship or the availability of both commercial and homemade food ingredients.
“Many clients whose pets are on premium pet foods either can no longer afford the food or are having trouble finding the food due to back-orders. These clients then come to me looking for dietary revisions or for homemade diets,” Dr. Bullen explained. “Conversely, those with pets on homemade diets are asking for commercial diet recommendations or reformulations because meat and other ingredients are out-of-stock. Whether due to economic hardship or panic that results in people bulk-buying pet foods, foods are not as readily available as they once were, and finances make all the difference. Every diet is different in terms of nutrient profile and calories per cup, or caloric density, and if there isn’t someone there to help the owner figure out those calculations than it is easy to over- or even underfeed your pet—especially, if you are switching diets,” she added.
Obesity has the potential to not only rob pets of their quality of life, but also steal years that could have been spent with their loved ones. Despite this common reality, many pet owners are unaware that their pet is obese or overweight. This phenomenon is what experts now refer to as the “fat pet gap” or the normalization of obesity by pet owners.
According to Dr. Bullen, adipose tissue is metabolically active and secretes hormones, some of which are pro-inflammatory. Therefore, overweight or obese pets with chronic diseases such as pancreatitis, diabetes, or feline lower urinary tract disease, or with cardiac, respiratory, or renal issues, can be particularly challenging to treat. Even in otherwise healthy pets, Dr. Bullen explained that extra adipose tissue will predisposition them to orthopedic issues, as there is added pressure to joints and bones.
Dr. Bullen offered these tips to help keep pets healthy.
If you would like to know more about how the pandemic is prompting pudgy pets, the dangerous rise in pet obesity, or what pet owners can do to prevent their pets from becoming overweight (amid National Pet Obesity Awareness Month this October), please let me know. I would be happy to connect you with Dr. Bullen for interview and/or written commentary.