Adventures in Pet Food

Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry, shares her insights and opinions on all things pet food, addressing market trends as well as news and developments in pet nutrition, food safety and other hot topics for the industry.

Pet owner behavior's influence on pet weight and obesity

The UK Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA) is taking a proactive step to address the growing problem of pet obesity: The organization is reaching out directly to UK pet owners with a "Weigh in Wednesday" campaign, complete with online tools, to educate owners on identifying their pets' body condition and working toward getting the pets to ideal weight and condition.

Zara Bolland, a veterinarian, says up to 50% of UK pets are estimated to "exceed their ideal body condition." PFMA research has also shown a mismatch between pet owners' perceptions of their pets' body conditions and the actual conditions. With the new campaign, owners can chart their pets' progress using specially designed tools and share their experiences on Twitter using the hashtag #weighinweds. The campaign involves various segments of the UK pet industry, including pet owners, petfood manufacturers, groomers and animal welfare groups.

The US pet population has a similar obesity problem and corresponding lack of awareness among pet owners. According to the latest survey from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), the US pet obesity rate hit an all-time high in 2012: 52.5% of dogs and 58.3% of cats are now considered overweight or obese by their veterinarians. That translates to about 80 million pets. What’s worse, many of the owners don’t see or acknowledge their pets’ conditions: The survey also showed that about 45% of these respondents consider their pets to be normal weight.

Unfortunately, these pets and owners aren't benefiting from an education campaign or, really, any support from the US petfood industry or affiliated associations -- perhaps other than the Association of American Feed Control Officials, which will now mandate that all petfood labels include calorie content declarations. True, the US pet market is much larger, with many more and varying segments and factions, than in the UK. And PFMA's program is just under way, with no results yet. But it begs the question: Could a similar campaign influence US pet owner behavior?

Pet obesity is really a human behavior problem, not just a nutritional disease, said Katherine Kerr, PhD, post-doctoral research associate in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Illinois, in a Petfood Forum 2013 presentation. After all, pets do not pour their own bowls of food.

But, Kerr also discussed the industry's role: Most petfoods today are very energy dense, as petfood companies have understandably ridden the premium/superpremium bandwagon to increasing sales and margins. With pets, excess energy intake of just 1 to 2% can lead to overweight or obesity, Kerr said. While most petfood labels say to adjust feeding amounts as necessary for each pet, she added, how can we expect pet owners to make those adjustments when many don’t realize or acknowledge their pets are overweight? Even if they do, they most likely don’t understand how energy values of the petfood translate to amounts fed.

Perhaps the new calorie content statements will help, especially since they will require calories to be expressed in terms of both per-kilogram and per-common unit (such as cups, pieces of kibble, portions of cans, etc.). But can and should our industry be doing more and enlisting retailers, veterinarians and associations in the cause?

I don't have the answer, I'm afraid. I do know that strong opinions -- not backed by research or scientific evidence -- don't necessarily help. For example, last week I received a press release with this bold headline: "Overweight owners lead pets to obesity." The release included statements from Richard French, DVM, MS, PhD, Dean of Animal Studies and Allerton Chair of Animal Health Sciences at Becker College. "In the veterinary sciences field, we have observed that the epidemic of overweight humans is being mirrored in the population of pet cats and dogs," he said. Yet the release included no references to or citations for actual studies backing up these "observations."

French is a veterinary pathologist, so presumably, he has the training and knowledge for this type of study -- but again, made no reference to any. He did cite various and compelling data from the APOP survey, the US Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the high incidence of pet obesity as well as human obesity. And he did offer useful -- if rather preachy -- recommendations to pet owners: "Get outside with your dog. Go for a walk or play fetch. Run around the house with a feather on the end of a lead with your cat. Take an unflinching look at your lives together. Rather than sit together, play together. Exercise together. Eat right together."


Most of French's statements make sense on the surface, but I find it a dangerous practice to make assertions and correlations without any scientific proof behind them. How does that help pets or their owners?

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