Pet obesity is a widespread and dangerous disease. It is
hazardous in several insidious ways. Common conditions such as
heart disease, arthritis and diabetes can all be caused or
worsened by obesity. The petfood industry has an opportunity to
do much more to prevent and manage dog and cat obesity.
The perception of most veterinarians is that obesity
continues to be on the rise. One reason is a lack of awareness
on the part of the pet owner. The American Animal Hospital
Association 2000 "Pet Owner Survey" reported that 17% of pet
owners rated their pet as overweight. Veterinarians estimate
that 44% of their patients are overweight. This discrepancy
illustrates pet owners' lack of awareness as to what an
appropriate body condition should be for their pet. Without
awareness, pet owners don't take the necessary steps to correct
Besides lack of awareness, there are other forces at work,
within the petfood industry, that may be playing a role in the
pet obesity epidemic. They include:
- Dry petfoods are gaining a greater share of the total
- The popularity of higher-fat petfoods continues to
- Pet owners are giving their pets more treats and less
exercise. Perhaps the treats help assuage the guilt pet
owners feel for not giving their pets more exercise.
These petfood industry trends give petfood makers an
opportunity to help pets and pet owners. By taking the
following steps, petfood companies could help prevent pet
- Address pet owners' lack of awareness that their pet has
- Recommend adding water to dry food and/or decrease the
energy density of dry food (increase the air content).
- Provide more calorie information on labels and supporting
- Give specific exercise recommendations, including
recommendations for decreasing regular meal amounts.
- Supply clear feeding guidelines for treats, including
recommendations for decreasing regular meal amounts.
- Encourage pet owners to adjust food intake so that their
pet maintains an ideal body condition. Stress that
recommended feeding amounts are only starting points and will
likely need to be changed.
Obesity can have numerous adverse effects on pet health. In
addition, it has been proven to decrease the lifespan of pets.
A major goal of preventative medicine should be preventing and
treating pet obesity.
Sales trends that may be impacting the incidence of pet
obesity are evident. Data from "The Petfood Report" (
, November 2000 and November 2003) show:
- Dry dog food sales increased by 16% from 1999 to 2003,
while wet dog food sales increased by only 7.3%. The
estimated figures for 2003 showed that wet dog food sales
decreased by 0.4% compared to the previous year.
- Dry cat food sales increased by 17.3 % from 1999 to 2003,
while wet cat food sales decreased by 6%.
When pet owners go from feeding wet food to dry food, they
are shifting their pets' diets from a predominantly
water-containing diet to a more carbohydrate-containing one.
This shift from water to carbohydrate creates the potential for
inadvertently increasing energy intake.
To illustrate this potential, a survey of the top selling
cat and dog foods shows that the energy density of wet food is
generally lower than that of dry food. For dog foods, wet food
provided 228 kcal/cup, while dry food provided 391 kcal/cup.
For cat foods, wet food has 252 kcal/cup, while dry food has
Label feeding guidelines partially take into account this
increase in energy density. However, data show that the feeding
recommendations still need work. Dry dog food recommendations
average 87 kcal/kg body weight, while wet dog food
recommendations average 81 kcal/kg body weight. This 7.4%
difference is seemingly innocuous, but, over the course of one
year, it would lead to a 27% increase in body weight. Dry cat
food recommendations average 76 kcal/kg body weight, while wet
cat food recommendations average 64 kcal/kg body weight. This
19% discrepancy would result in a 48% increase in body weight
over the course of a year.
The 2003 "Petfood Report" also indicated that there is "a
shift in consumer preferences toward higher priced goods."
Although there are no AAFCO guidelines regarding the qualities
a "premium" petfood must possess, higher priced petfoods
generally are defined by their higher fat content. This is
mainly due to fat's ability to increase palatability, decrease
fecal bulk, and increase coat sheenall key consumer performance
As the percentage of calories from carbohydrate decreases
and the percentage of calories from fat increases, the energy
density of the diet increases. A review of diets available from
the companies that make up 65% of the US market share (four
companies) revealed that as price per pound of dry food
increased, so too did the percent of fat calories and the
energy density. For dry dog foods, this increase in energy
density was roughly 70% from the lowest fat-containing diet to
the highest fat-containing diet. For dry cat foods, the
increase in energy density was 24% between the lowest fat and
the highest fat diet.
A comparison of the AAHA 1995 "Pet Owner Survey" with the
2000 "Pet Owner Survey" revealed a general decrease in the
frequency and amount of exercise that pets are getting. An 8.9%
decrease in regular (daily) exercise occurred. Of note, 52% of
pet owners stated that their pet gets more exercise than they
Concurrent with this decrease in energy expenditure, dog
treat sales have increased by 27%, while cat treat sales have
increased by 50%. A look at the top-selling dog treat on the US
market showed that the feeding recommendation approached more
than 8% of a pet's daily caloric requirement. For the
top-selling cat treat, the feeding recommendation was "feed as
a snack for a happy cat!" with no reference to frequency or
amounts. In addition, no mention of reducing the regular meals
in proportion to the amount of treats fed was made.
Here again, in more detail, are ways the petfood industry
can do more to prevent and manage dog and cat obesity.
- In order to increase awareness of pets that are
overweight and obese, a body condition scoring (BCS) chart
with instructions can be included with package labeling.
- In order to minimize the impact of the shift from less
energy-dense wet food to more energy-dense dry food, petfood
manufacturers can recommend adding water to dry food and/or
decreasing the kilocalories per unit volume of dry food
(increasing air content).
- To address the effect of the preference for more
energy-dense premium foods, calorie data can be more readily
provided on labels and supporting websites.
- Reduced activity and increased treat consumption can be
countered by specific exercise recommendations and clear
feeding guidelines for treats, including recommendations for
decreasing regular meal amounts.
Of the utmost importance is providing guidelines for
adjusting food intake based on individual pet response (based
on BCS). Given this, pet owners can more readily tailor the
frequency and amount of feeding to meet their pet's specific
needswith the goal of maintaining an ideal body condition. Any
feeding recommendation based solely on body weight will be
prone to error. Energy requirements for normal dogs of the same
weight can vary as much as plus or minus 50%. Petfood labeling
should emphasize that recommended feeding amounts are only
starting points and will likely need to be adjusted.