Pet Obesity: Taking a Toll


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A pet’s weight can affect more than just its health.

For many pet owners, the struggle with their pet’s weight is real. Last fall, Purina released the results of a survey where 600 U.S. dog owners identified their dog as overweight. The Pro Plan Veterinary Diets survey went a little deeper to investigate something a bit more subtle – the physical and emotional factors contributing to excess weight, and how these hinder dog owners from helping their pets.

The survey revealed that excess weight gain in pets can be related to the emotions owners experience around feeding and treating:

  • 75% of surveyed owners agreed they feel guilty when their dogs appear hungry.
  • 67% agreed food is a primary source of their dog’s happiness.
  • 67% agreed they bond with their dog by feeding him/her treats and don’t want to lose that bond.
  • 54% agreed they feed their dog more food, table scraps or treats when their pet begs for them.

Despite their fears about losing the bond with their dogs, 88% of surveyed owners whose dogs are overweight agreed their pets’ body condition does concern them and 92% agreed that weight loss would be beneficial.

Martha Cline, DVM, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist for Purina, said she wasn’t surprised by the results. Most cases she sees as a specialist are referrals from general practices where the owner’s efforts to curb the pet’s weight have failed. These are highly motivated pet owners who thought they had done everything they could to get their pet’s weight under control.

“Based off the survey results, there is a lack of owner awareness for ideal body weight and appropriate weight management. Veterinarians can help owners better understand feeding practices and how to manage the environment when it comes to feeding their pet,” Dr. Cline said. “The survey reinforced that these pet owners want our recommendations, and they want us to tell them how to manage their pet’s weight.”

Longer lives with lean eating

Veterinarians are in the best position to educate pet owners on the ramifications to their pet’s health if they don’t make the necessary changes.

The most common health problem for overweight pets is decreased mobility. Many of these pets suffer from osteoarthritis, and the additional body weight prevents them from doing many normal activities like going up the stairs or jumping onto a piece of furniture. It can even affect their “bathroom” habits like urination and defecation, said Dr. Cline.

Pets with excess weight are more prone to chronic conditions like heart disease. Cats are at risk of diabetes mellitus. Dogs may not develop diabetes because of their excess body weight, but that added weight can certainly make the chronic condition more difficult to manage.

There is also the lifespan of the pet to consider. A landmark 14-year “Life Span” study conducted by Purina researchers more than two decades ago found that dogs that consumed 25% fewer calories than their littermates during their lifetimes maintained a lean or ideal body condition, resulting in longer life. The study revealed that the median life span of the lean-fed dogs was extended by 15% or nearly two years.

Simply put, dogs that are kept lean throughout their life span may live longer, Dr. Cline said. “Their chronic diseases will onset later in life. They may need treatment for osteoarthritis, but it will be later in life. Most of these owners want their pet to be in the best health for the longest time possible. To me, weight management and keeping your pet lean is one of the best ways to accomplish that goal.”

The market

Pet owners are more than willing to spend money on their pet’s diet, according to industry data. In 2023, $147 billion was spent on pets in the U.S., APPA noted in its most recent annual report. Of that, $64.4 billion was spent on pet food and treats. Those purchases are spread out among traditional pet stores, online retailers, and veterinarians.

This omnichannel market will only grow in the coming years. With that in mind, veterinarians can differentiate themselves in the market – and distributor reps can help – in at least two fundamental ways. The first is with the quality of food. Vet-recommended diets with nutrient rich ingredients are better formulated to help reduce and regulate a pet’s weight than common over-the-counter products.

In late February, The Pet Food Institute (PFI), whose members produce the vast majority of dog and cat food and treats in the United States, announced its support for new federal legislation that would modernize and streamline how pet food is regulated. Under the proposed bill, H.R.7380, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would have regulatory authority over the labeling and ingredient review process for dog and cat food and treats, replacing the current state-by-state approach used for ingredient and label approval that the PFI calls “outdated and inconsistent.”

“Pet food makers produce nearly 10 million tons of food annually and are crucial to American agriculture. Costly and outdated regulations have made it difficult for pet food manufacturers nationwide to invest in research and development for new and improved products,” said Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-Kan), one of the sponsors of the bipartisan legislation. “I am proud to introduce the bipartisan PURR Act to eliminate red tape and allow pet food makers to deliver the best nutritional outcomes for our dogs and cats.”

The proposed legislation would provide for centralized federal regulatory oversight by the FDA and eliminate inconsistent state interpretations and decisions impacting ingredient and pet food label approvals that adversely affect consumer access to safe and nutritious products. The legislation calls for clearly defined performance measures for the FDA, including new ingredient review and approval timelines, overseen by the U.S. Congress.

Another way veterinarians can enhance the likelihood of pet food sales going through their clinic is through an online store equipped with autoship/subscription purchasing. Subscription and reward services are becoming the preferred option for consumers shopping across categories. The trend has been coined the “subscription economy,” and by at least one financial estimate made by UBS Wealth Management and Bernstein, subscription models in the overall economy could be worth $1.5 trillion by 2025. That’s more than double it’s estimated worth in 2021, according to the Washington Post.

The nutritional assessment

Pet owners are willing to spend money on their pets’ diet, and they have no shortage of places to buy those diets. So where is the disconnect between body weight, health, and the pet owner?

Initially, pet owners may not even recognize that their cat or dog is carrying around excess body weight. They may not have a clue about what their pet’s ideal body weight should be, or see the link between their pet’s obesity and different food items. Some owners may go on relatively short walks and believe that provides enough exercise, when in fact their pet needs much more activity. There are also behavioral issues like begging that aren’t always acknowledged.

For these reasons and more, an individual nutritional assessment is critical to the foundation of a pet’s care plan. There are four specific categories within that assessment, Dr. Cline said. “Whenever making a nutritional assessment, veterinarians are looking at the pet, diet, home environment and assorted human factors,” she said. “There can be issues in each of those categories that can lead to the struggle pet owners are having.”

Most pets that need to lose weight undergo some type of caloric restriction or a decrease in their calorie intake to help induce weight loss. Sometimes owners who use an over-the-counter diet will cut it back by 20%. Others will feed an animal based on the wrong weight. A lot of over-the-counter diets are not formulated for weight loss, so this can lead to nutritional deficiencies.

“It’s really important when we’re cutting back calories that we’re not cutting out nutrients,” said Dr. Cline. “We want to make sure that these pets are still receiving all the vitamins and minerals, protein, and essential fatty acids. If we restrict nutrients, especially things like protein, it’s not going to help with weight loss – it’s going to make weight loss inefficient. It’s going to change the pet’s metabolism to try to compensate for that protein and nutrient loss.”

Dr. Cline has met with pet owners who followed their veterinarian’s weight loss plan to the T, except they didn’t take into account a bowl of cat food out in the other room that the dog has continuous access to. “So, it’s looking at those different factors and identifying where the pain points are.”

When clients see Dr. Cline for weight management cases, she’ll have a specific set of questions on the nutrition history form that asks about the pet’s home environment.

  • How many people live in the house?
  • Who primarily feeds the pet?
  • Is there care being provided by anybody else?
  • Are there other animals in the house?
  • Does the pet have access to another animal’s food?
  • Are they all being fed out of the same bowl?
  • Is one bowl being left out for another animal to graze and then that other animal has access to it?
  • If the pet is a cat, is it indoor or can it go outdoors and supplement it’s diet through hunting for birds and small mammals?

Pet owners and veterinarians share a common goal in wanting the pet to be lean and healthy. The concept of sharing goals with clients sounds intuitive, but it’s important for veterinarians and the veterinary team to keep that concept top of mind in client interactions, said Dr. Cline.

“I shared common goals with pet owners intuitively when I was practicing for a long time. Having the knowledge in the back of my head that I need to verbally communicate this to every pet owner, to reinforcement my recommendation, really changed the way I communicated with clients when offering any type of nutritional recommendation.”


Does food form matter?

Food form is an often-misunderstood element of a pet’s diet. “I’ll have owners ask about different types of diets, and what they’re really referring to is a food form and how the food is delivered to the pet,” Dr. Cline said. “What they’re not really thinking about is the nutrient profile of the diet.” That’s where Dr. Cline starts. Especially with weight loss, the pet needs the type of diet that’s going to provide some type of metabolic advantage to help make weight loss successful, and also help promote the pet’s quality of life. “That diet obviously can come in different food forms, but it’s important for the owner to separate that the food form versus what the nutrient profile of the diet actually looks like.”


More survey results

92% of owners from The Pro Plan Veterinary Diets survey agreed they are sad when their dog can’t participate in activities they previously enjoyed when their weight was ideal.

45% indicate their dog has less energy for playtime, 44% say their dog tires easily after minimal activity and 27% say their dog is less engaged or playful with their families.


Martha Cline and and her cat, Charles

Martha Cline, DVM
Board-certified veterinary nutritionist for Purina



Photo credit: Richli