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The Super-Sizing of America's Pets: How to Conquer Pet Obesity Naturally

Our pets are getting fatter. More than half of dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese - that's an estimated 93 million dogs and cats, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention's most recent pet study.

The Association's founder and president, Dr. Ernie Ward, said in a press release, "As a practicing veterinarian for almost twenty years, I've never seen this many overweight pets. We're witnessing the super-sizing of America's pets before our very eyes."

Since the association began conducting nationwide veterinary surveys in 2007, there has been a regular increase in the number pets that are obese or at least 30 percent above normal body weight. Pet obesity is a leading factor in major health issues facing our pets, including diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, respiratory disease, arthritis, some forms of cancer, heart disease, and decreased life expectancy.

It's probably not too surprising that the pet obesity problem mirrors the human obesity problem in its causes and remedies. So how do we know if our pets are overweight, and what natural choices can we make to rectify the problem? We reached out to Dr. Ward for his expert opinion and insight.

How can I tell if my pet is overweight?

"Feel your pet's ribs. You should be able to easily feel them under a thin layer of skin. If you find yourself digging through jelly, your pet's probably too heavy. A sagging stomach indicates excess abdominal or belly fat, the most dangerous type of fat tissue. If you observe either sign, it's time to see your veterinarian about putting your best friend on a weight loss program."

What are the causes of the pet obesity epidemic?

"While the causes of the pet obesity epidemic are straightforward: too many calories and not enough exercise, the issue goes much deeper. Current pet food regulations don't require all foods or treats to list the number of calories in a cup or can. Sugar and fat is being added to pet foods and treats to make them more palatable and overriding natural appetite control resulting in what I term ‘kibble crack.'

"Making matters even worse is the normalization of excess weight. I call this the ‘fat gap' - where pet owners view an overweight or obese pet as normal."

Should pet owners cook for their dogs and cats?

"Absolutely! Offering your pet a home-prepared meal two to four times a week boosts its health and provides better nutrition because you're feeding him real, wholesome, unprocessed food. Commercial diets are good at delivering the specific nutrients we know pets need to stay healthy. What pet food doesn't provide are the micronutrients and blends of ingredients that pet's bodies crave but we don't understand scientifically. We know that vitamin D is good for us and our pets. What we don't know is if it's good for us in a synthetic form or if it confers its health benefits as part of whole food. I believe, and the science is beginning to prove this, that nutrients in the form of whole food are the preferred source for our pets and us. For the past 12 years I've called this the "Hybrid Menu." You simply feed the best commercial pet food you can afford and alternate it with the best, freshest home-prepared meals possible when time (and life) permits."

Why is sugar added to pet food and treats and what are the adverse effects?

"Treats are progressively more being filled with sugar, fat and salt. [...] Dogs, like humans, have a sweet tooth and manufacturers know this. [...] Over the past five years, sugar has been added in increasing amounts as treat manufacturers chase the over $2 billion in sales Americans spend on treats annually. My advice to pet owners is to avoid treats that have a form of sugar in the top three ingredients. Look for sucrose, dextrose, fructose, and other derivatives of sugar.

"In my book I devoted two chapters to this very question: how does excess food affect a pet's behavior and health? Sadly, there are many studies that demonstrate food, especially sugar, has a powerful effect on behavior as well as overall health. I probably have over 50 citations referenced in "Chow Hounds" on this.

The problem isn't with sugar per se, but with high amounts of sugar. Sugar has been shown to cause the same cravings and desires that many illicit drugs, such as cocaine, create. My concern is that by feeding dogs sugar every day, often multiple times per day, we're creating alterations in brain chemistry that cause the dog's behavior and attitude toward food to change. Because we don't have decades of experience feeding dogs added sugar, we don't know what the long-term effects are. What we are witnessing is begging behaviors far beyond what is typically considered normal. In my book, Chow Hounds, I call this form of begging "hedonic begging" because these dogs aren't begging for food because they're hungry, they're begging because the food gives them pleasure. This feedback loop returns to sugar and that's where my concerns originate. [...]

"It's rare to find sugar added to cat foods, although it's starting to make an appearance. Treats are the big culprits when it comes to added sugar."

What food additives or ingredients do you recommend pet owners avoid?

"BHA/BHT are common synthetic preservatives in many foods - human and pets. The link between BHA/BHT and carcinogenicity is tenuous at best. BHT is not considered a carcinogen but may be a promoter with some substances but it also appears to inhibit tumor formation with others. At 2 percent of diet, BHA caused gastric tumors in rodents; however, most foods with BHA have concentrations of 0.02 percent or less. I tend to avoid synthetic preservatives whenever possible. They are not known to cause cancer in dogs or cats at this time, however.

"I'm also against artificial colors such as Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 [...] Artificial colors and flavorings are used simply to entice pet owners and provide a "fake-healthy" appearance or flavor to what may be an unhealthy food or treat. There is a growing body of evidence in humans and laboratory animals that these chemicals may pose long-term health effects. If you see "digest" or "animal digest" listed, be aware that these are animal body part left-over's treated with harsh chemicals and enzymes and then sprayed on the food. Digest can literally be any part of the carcass: hair, horns, teeth, feathers, hooves - you name it. [...] There's simply no excuse in trying to fake or cover-up good nutrition.

"You should recognize the majority of ingredients; if it looks like a chemistry experiment, try something else. I'm also concerned how the animals raised for pet foods are treated. Seek out brands that support humane, sustainable farming practices. What you choose to pour in your pet's food bowl impacts our entire ecosystem. Make choices that are healthy for our pets and our planet."

Dr. Ward's 7 Secrets to Keep your Pet Trim:

1. Calculate Calories - if you don't know how many calories your pet needs each day, you don't know how much to feed her. And don't think you can trust the bag; feeding guides are formulated for adult, un-spayed or un-neutered active dogs and cats. A good starting point is to use this formula: Divide your pet's weight by 2.2. Multiply this figure times 30. Add 70 and you've got a good idea of how many calories you should be feeding a typical inactive, indoor spayed or neutered pet. Of course, each pet's metabolism is different so be sure to consult your veterinarian before starting a diet.

2. Measure Meals - after you calculate how many calories your pet needs, determine how much food you should feed each meal - and measure it.

3. Tactical Treating - choose low-calorie, no-sugar goodies that provide a health benefit. Be sure to count those additional calories.

4. Vital Veggies - try offering baby carrots, green beans, celery, cucumbers, sliced apples and bananas or ice cubes. These naturally nutritious tasty tidbits are a healthy option for many dogs. For cats, try a flake of salmon or tuna.

5. Hustle for Health - for dogs, as little as 20 to 30 minutes of brisk walking is all it takes to boost immune function, improve cardiovascular health and reduce many behavioral problems. For cats, try playing chase the laser pointer, remote-controlled toy or ball of paper for 5 to 15 minutes each day.

6. Smart Supplements - almost every dog, cat and person can benefit from taking a daily omega-3 fatty acid supplement. These powerful fish oils pack a potent anti-oxidant punch that has been proven to help prevent numerous diseases. In addition, they may help ease achy joints and perhaps encourage weight loss. L-carnitine has been shown to aid weight loss and promote lean muscle mass.

7. Cut Down the Carbs - Look for low- or no-grain options with a protein source as the first ingredient.

As Dr. Ward says, it's the responsibility of each owner to help our pets maintain a healthy weight. It's up to us to stock our pet pantries and feed healthy, nutritious foods and treats and exercise them daily.

Sources: Dr. Ernie Ward, author of Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter - A Vet's Plan to Save Their Lives (2010 HCI), Founder, The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention; Association for Pet Obesity Prevention

Ann Pietrangelo is a freelance writer covering a wide range of issues, most notably multiple sclerosis patient advocacy, health care policy, and healthy living.

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