For the past decade we've been assaulted with frightening facts about obesity, obesity-related diseases, obesity-related deaths, obesity-related everything. • While we were obsessing over our own obesity, man's best friend has been turning into man's best blimp. For the past three years our organization, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), has been tracking the rate of super-sized pets. In 2009, our study estimated 45 percent of adult dogs and 58 percent of U.S. cats were too heavy. Worse yet, about 9 percent of dogs and 21 percent of cats were classified as clinically obese. That equals 89 million pets that need to lose weight.
It's not that every dog or cat is grossly obese. The problem is that even a few extra pounds produce enough harmful chemicals to damage your pet's health — and you probably don't even notice it. For example, a 90-pound female Labrador retriever is equivalent to a 186-pound, 5-foot, 4-inch female, while a 12-pound Yorkshire terrier is similar to the same woman carrying 223 pounds. A 15-pound cat is equivalent to a 225-pound, 5-foot, 9-inch male and a 20-pound feline equals that man at 300 pounds. Each pound on a cat is equal to about 13 pounds on the average female and 15 pounds on a male.
So now for the question on everyone's mind: Why? The answer: It's complicated and easy at the same time.
First the easy part: Pet owners control the food.
Now for the complicated part: Pet owners control the food.
You see, we're to blame for this whole mess. We're to blame for our own sorry state of health and now we're happy to share it with our pet loved ones. It's easy to blame food producers, advertisers, breeders, heck, even former President Bush for our extra poundage. But last time I checked, not a single one of them has placed a fork in our mouth or poured food in that bowl. Nope, we've gotten ourselves into this predicament, and it's up to us to get out of it. We love sweet foods (and so do our dogs), and we love to reward ourselves (and our pets) with food at every opportunity (I walked a mile; I earned that muffin! You went to potty; here's a treat!).
That doesn't mean I don't blame producers for making incredibly unhealthful (yet tasty!) foods, advertisers for grossly misleading consumers ("Weight management?" Are you kidding me?), breeders for selecting risky traits (but they're so cute!) and the government for practically everything; it means I want us to first accept our role in the human and pet obesity epidemic.
What's a pet lover to do, then?
Step one: Calculate how many calories your pet needs each day. It's probably a lot less than you're currently feeding. Talk with your vet or visit APOP's website (www. petobesityprevention.com) to get started.
Step two: Trash your treats. Pet treats are so loaded with sugar and fat I call them "kibble crack." If the treat contains added sugar or fat or has more than 15 calories, get rid of it. Substitute with healthy alternatives such as baby carrots, ice, slices of apple or banana or better yet, a walk or playtime. Even a single, small dog bone treat given to a 10-pound dog is no different than a person eating two chocolate doughnuts. The truth is, we rarely stop at one dog treat. Give a few each day and you've fed the equivalent of a dozen doughnuts.
Step three: Walk daily. Nothing improves overall health more than aerobic activity. Start by doing both you and your pet a favor and go for a 15- to 30-minute brisk walk. Not a stop-and-smell-the-flowers walk but a break-into-a-light-sweat walk. As a certified personal trainer and triathlon coach I can tell you it's really hard to exercise your way to weight loss. By watching (and restricting) your calories and increasing activity, you and your pet will be "minus" and healthier.
Step four: Take action. Pet food manufacturers aren't required to put calorie contents on ordinary pet food. Write to AAFCO and the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine and tell them I sent you. All we're asking is to be able to pick up a bag or can of pet food and easily determine how many calories are in it. Is that asking too much?
It's up to each of us. You have the info; now do it. All of us two- and four-legged critters will live longer, more active and pain-free lives as a result.
Dr. Ernie Ward is founder and president of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention and author of "Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter. A Vet's Plan to Save Their Lives." He contributed to the "Checkup" wellness blog at www. washingtonpost.com, from which this is adapted.