Local advocates raise awareness of pet obesity

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More than half of American dogs and cats are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

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Go ahead, give a dog a bone — but make it low fat.

Jas Mattu, a veterinarian for Berkeley-based University Veterinary Hospital, is raising awareness of the pet obesity epidemic. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than half of cats and dogs in the United States are overweight or obese.

Mattu said the fault lies with humans, not with their pets. Some physical causes of pet obesity, such as too much food and not enough exercise, are clear cut. But other contributing factors, like human obesity and a sense that well-fed pets are better cared for, add to the problem.

“Our pets give us love, and we are letting our personal desire to give back, to feed them and give them more and more food, lead to health problems,” Mattu said. “Don’t kill your pets with love.”

Some instances of human owners overfeeding their pets have proved fatal. Just last month, news broke that a woman in Ottawa, Canada, was charged with animal cruelty after she allowed her cat to reach more than 25 pounds. The cat later needed to be put down due to obesity-related health problems.

Often, pet owners may not even realize their pets are unhealthy — a phenomenon referred to as the “fat pet gap” by Ernie Ward, president of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. The gap is used to describe the difference between pet owners’ perception of overweight and what is medically considered overweight.

“Pet owners come in and deny their pets are overweight,” Ward said. “They’ll say, ‘Oh he’s just a big boy,’ or ‘she’s just big-boned.’ This denial results in inactivity and inaction when it comes to pet health.”

More than 45 percent of dog and cat owners surveyed incorrectly identified their dogs or cats as being at a normal weight when they were actually overweight or obese, according to the 2012 National Pet Obesity Survey.

Escalating human obesity could also explain the rise in pet obesity, said Bela Kisamov, medical director of the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society, in an email.

“As people become increasingly unable to exercise due to their own medical conditions, the pets suffer the same fate of becoming increasingly unable to exercise,” she said.

Kisamov also notes that a lack of transparency on the part of pet food companies may be leading to a rise in pet obesity.

“The pet food industry does not, and is not required to, state calories per cup or can on the packaging, like it is required for human food consumption,” Kisamov said in the email. “Calories in pet food can vary drastically from one brand to the next, just like the quality of the ingredients can vary from one variety of food to the next.”

Also, while pet food packaging usually recommends a serving size, according to Kisamov, this amount is listed in a wide range.

“If a bag of dry cat food recommends 1/4-1/2 cup per day, it does not differentiate between an active indoor/outdoor cat with lots of expended energy versus an indoor only cat that does little but stare out the window all day,” Kisamov said in the email.

But the answer to healthier pet diets may also lie in alternative dog food brands, said Evan Ho, an employee at Pet Food Express in Berkeley and a volunteer at Berkeley Animal Care Services, in a Facebook message. Holistic and natural dog food brands have fewer calories and are more accountable than other supermarket brands, Ho said.

However, holistic dog foods sometimes carry a heftier fee than generic brands do.

“It is definitely more expensive to buy from a holistic brand than a supermarket brand,” Ho said in the message. “The price difference is what makes people hesitate to want to help obese animals.”

The added expense associated with obese animals has discouraged some Berkeley residents from adopting overweight pets in animal shelters.

“Last year, Carmen, one of my favorite dogs, had to be put down because no one was willing to rescue or adopt an obese dog,” Ho said of his time at Berkeley Animal Care Services. “It’s a serious issue because people often take (obese pets) as a joke … these animals have less of a chance to be taken care of.”

Contact Nico Correia at [email protected]