This article first appeared on LinkedIn
The most recent Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) report stated that 56% of all canines and 60% of felines in the US were overweight or obese. If you've followed APOP and Dr. Ernie Ward, you know he has been sounding the alarm on pet obesity for a very long time. I may not shed any new light on pet obesity, but I hope I can provide another perspective that helps move the industry to action. Of course I have to do my obligatory disclaimer that I am not an animal nutritionist, nor am I a veterinarian (I don't even play one on TV). I am not attempting to provide medical advice; that is a conversation for you and your veterinarian. It is my hope that by simplifying how things are done in the industry and bringing awareness to it all, we can begin to have productive conversations and make meaningful, healthy changes in the lives of our pets. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of pet obesity is painfully obvious and there are three major factors that contribute to the staggering increase in pet obesity. These are 1) overfeeding 2) lack of exercise and 3) the composition of our pet's food itself.
Look, there isn't anything mystical about weight gain. If you consume more calories than you burn, you will eventually gain weight. Every living mammal has a resting energy rate (RER). This is how many calories your dog requires to fuel basic bodily functions. The Ohio State University veterinary school provides the following formula to determine your dogs RER: multiply the animal's body weight in kilograms raised to the ¾ power by 70, for example, a 30kg (66lb) adult neutered dog of healthy weight needs RER = 70(30kg)3/4 ≈ 897 Calories/day. I know...I had a flashback to my college math classes too! The actual needs of your dog can vary by up to 50% based on breed (e.g. Jack Russel vs Great Dane), known life stages (e.g. puppy, senior) and corresponding factors (e.g. pregnant, nursing, neutered, intact). So much for simplifying things! This is just a fancy way of saying your 66lb dog, just hanging out every day, requires about 897 calories/day just to properly fuel all of it's bodily functions. What about for a dog that is more than a rug? The Waltham Research Center states that the above formula is revised to be 110(30kg)3/4 ≈ 1410 Calories/day. Unfortunately they base this off of less than 3 hours of exercise/day which is a fairly broad range. Obviously your dog will burn more calories if they are active for 179 minutes/day vs 9 minutes/day (both are less than 3 hours)! An oversimplified formula (from petnet.io) is in the chart below:
So now we have the daily caloric requirements for a "normal" dog. This will cover basic bodily functions as well as varying levels of activity throughout the day. For those of you following along at home, our 66lb dog will need 1386 calories/day, 897 of which go to RER and 489 calories that go towards activity. Are you feeling pretty good about the basic physiology? Good because this was the easy part.
So now we've got our "targeted" kcal/day for our 66lb fur baby, whats next? You've gone to your local pet store, spoken with the employees and other shoppers and you've settled upon a very regal sounding brand that is specifically made for your Golden Retriever. According to their feeding guidelines, my 66lb dog with "normal activity"should be fed 4 + 7/8 cups (8 fluid ounce cups) each day. This particular diet claims to have 276 kcal/cup so doing the math I will be giving my dog 1345.5 kcal/day! So we are just under the pre-calculated requirements from above and feeding 39oz (2.4lbs!!) of this pet food daily! Considering that only 20% of pet owners actually weigh/measure their pet's food regularly, it's not too hard to imagine (see photo) that while filling those 4 7/8 cups we may unknowingly serve up an extra 1oz per cup (5oz/day). If we did, based on 34.5 kcal/oz for our chosen food, we would be overfeeding our pup with an additional 62,962 kcal annually, or just under 47 days worth of "extra" food.
As if 47 days of "extra" food wasn't bad enough, 56% of pet owners admit to giving their pet "more" food/treats so that they, the owner, get more perceived affection from their pet. An average treat will have about 13 kcal/piece. Three treats/day is roughly equal to 1oz of food (although not "complete and balanced"). When you combine the accidental overfeeding with the intentional overfeeding, my 66lb dog could be getting an incremental 77,197 kcal annually! That works out to be an extra 211 calories per day, every day, for the year. In a worse case scenario, that can be a weight gain of over 20lbs!
But we exercise our pets, right? Well, in the US, 22% of pet owners NEVER exercise their dogs and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, 23% walk their dogs 5 or more times each week. Veterinarian Dr. Ken Tudor states that a dog will expend 0.8 calories per pound of body weight per mile walked (assumes a 15 minute mile pace). If we assume 3 walks per week of 2 miles per day, the weekly walks total 6 miles and our 66lb dog will burn (66 x 6 x 0.8) 317 calories over the course of one week or 16,474 calories for the year. Great!! Only 60,723 more calories to burn to get back to "even"!
"If your dog is fat, YOU are NOT getting enough exercise!"
I'm not trying to discourage exercise or outdoor activities with our dogs. If anything, I think if we make feeding easier, created portion control and made feeding more convenient, we would be taking our dogs on more adventures. The key takeaway from this section is that if you don't change your dog's eating habits and portions, you wont be able to effectively change their weight by exercise alone. Most DVMs that tout weight loss agree that 70% of the results come from diet and 30% from exercise.
So now we find ourselves at the root of the issue; the food itself! Pet food companies do a great job of marketing ingredients but not so much at educating pet parents on nutrients. Just to be clear, ingredients are the vehicles that provide nutrients and nutrients are what is metabolically necessary to support life. Nutrients are broken down further into macronutrients (e.g. Protein, Fat and Carbohydrates), vitamins (important for bodily functions and mineral metabolism), minerals (necessary for healthy functioning of muscles and nerves) and water (the carrier of nutrients to the body). Once the nutrients are broken down and absorbed through your dog's intestines, the source of the nutrient (ingredient) no longer matters, only the quality and bioavailability of the nutrients themselves.
Royal Canin's Dominique Grandjean's booket, Everything You Need to Know About the Role Played by Nutrients in the Health of Dogs and Cats is a fantastic resource. In it he states that, "Cats and dogs can live without carbohydrates in their food as they can synthesize the carbohydrate they need for the cells from amino acids." Carbohydrates do play a larger role within extruded pet food, not as a necessity for the pet but rather as a convenience for the manufacturer. When it comes to the benchmark energy source, we are talking about fats. They provide 2.5x the metabolized energy of carbohydrates and proteins and are easily converted. Several fatty acids are considered "essential" as they play structural roles for cells. Grandjean goes on to say that, "Proteins are molecules that contain amino acids that are needed to build or regenerate organs and cell structures, convey certain molecules, send messages from one organ to another (hormones) and combat disease (antibodies) among other things".
Now that we know something about nutrients, it is pretty clear that there is no way to determine the quality of any pet food simply by reading the ingredient list or the guaranteed analysis. Individual ingredients DO NOT determine the quality of the pet food. The nutritional value of each ingredient, individually and blended with the other ingredients, as well as the digestibility and bio-availability is what matters.
"People think that if they pay a lot for a food and there are a lot of exclusions on the bag, that the food is healthier, but they're buying an idea, not necessarily a superior product." - Jennifer Larsen, clinical nutritionist UC Veterinary School at Davis
When you have nutrients that are easily digested, your dog will require less food and produce less stool. The vast majority of today's pet food contains up to 60% carbohydrates and are only 80% digestible! It is no wonder that you'll have to feed almost five 8oz cups daily of the pet food above. With just 80% digestibility, almost one of those five cups will pass straight through your dog without providing ANY benefit whatsoever. If you do the math, annually that equates to 180lbs in your backyard (7.9oz per day x 365 days/16oz)!! Even at Chewy's $2.43/lb pricing, this pet food will have you scooping up $437.93 every year! I Shih Tzu not!
Pet obesity in the US is well beyond the epidemic threshold. If, like most veterinarians, we believe that 70% of the problem/solution is dietary, then we MUST make changes to the foods we are feeding! I'm not talking about simply changing brands. What I'm talking about is how pet food is made, how it is marketed and how it is fed! To illustrate the point, "grain free" foods are more than a $3 billion dollar segment and are fed by an estimated 44% of US pet households. Some of these brands get 60% of their calories from carbohydrates; a macronutrient that is NOT essential but convenient for the manufacturer in the making of the food. And these carbohydrates aren't "whole and intact"; these are refined and more processed carbohydrates like potato, pea and tapioca starches. Since "grain free" started making inroads in 2011, pet obesity has grown 4% and 5% in dogs and cats, respectively. Rather than market ingredients and exclusionary lists, it is time to be transparent with nutrients and digestibility. It is time for "truth in advertising". This includes adherence to the FDA and AAFCO guidelines and the integrity to stop misleading claims (e.g. no more succulent images of Thanksgiving dinner on the label when turkey meal is the 3rd ingredient on the deck)! It also means that pet food labeling must become more transparent, easier to understand, share a common platform (dry matter basis) and contain the information that consumers and veterinarians WANT to see (caloric distribution by macronutrient). It would also help if the industry were able to agree upon consistent guidelines when it comes to feeding. One industry "advocate" has claimed that current guidelines suggest anywhere from 30%-100% MORE than what is actually required by the pet.
It's no wonder we have an epidemic that is costing us hundreds of millions of dollars in related pet healthcare issues. Did you know that 25% of overweight dogs develop serious joint complications? Obesity also leads to diabetes mellitus, heart disease and increased blood pressure, respiratory issues, decreased stamina, heat intolerance, decreased liver function, reproductive issues, increased risk with anesthesia and surgeries, skin and coat problems, decreased immune function, digestive disorders, increased risk of certain cancers and a shorter, lower quality life! I wouldn't expose a member of my family to these risks, especially when it can be avoided. So what do we do? Well, we need to either stop calling them family or ACTUALLY treat them like it! I'm "all in" and I've made my decision...what's yours?