Food For Thought: Canine Obesity

Is overfeeding the owners' or dogs' fault? Yes! A summer research project looked at the human/dog relationship as it pertains to feeding and the dog's weight.

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Canine obesity has reached epidemic proportions, and it’s clear that one contributing factor has to do with the close relationship we have with our dogs. 

Dogs play an important role in the lives of many people. They help reduce their humans’ anxiety and stress, and even motivate their owners to exercise. Of course, they are adorable and always willing to listen. It’s been widely observed that many millennials choose to have pets instead of children – and it’s long been a trend that couples get a dog for the first shared family member before making the big parenting commitment. And many empty-nesters fill the void with a dog.

Unfortunately, people might demonstrate their affection by overfeeding their dogs. In the past two decades, there has been a dramatic increase in rates of obesity among the pet population; more than 50% of dogs in the U.S. are either overweight or obese. 

The issues with obesity include a tendency to develop metabolic diseases such as diabetes, increasing insult to aging joints resulting in osteoarthritis, and other health issues related to inflammation. Sadly, this decreases the dogs’ life expectancy. 

As a project for her undergraduate summer internship at Kansas State University, Alyssa Perry, from Prairie View (Texas) A&M University, decided to examine the dog/owner relationship – specifically, the effect of dogs’ behavior on their humans, and whether it might have something to do with overfeeding.

How This Study Came About
Food For Thought: Canine Obesity
Alyssa Perry (with her Australian Shepherd, Roscoe) enjoyed her K-State summer internship from hundreds of miles away.

Last summer, in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, a few faculty members at Kansas State University (KSU) were presented with a new educational and research challenge as part of the annual Summer Research Multicultural Fellows Professional Development Series. The task: to engage student interns in research – without bringing them to campus. 

With the help of K-State faculty members, graduate students, research associates, and subscribers of Whole Dog Journal, we were able to launch the first step in a program that has been resting on the shelf for several years – a silver lining to the pandemic. 

Our intern was Alyssa Perry, a Prairie View A&M undergrad. Perry is studying agriculture with an animal-science concentration; after she graduates from Texas A&M, she plans to attend veterinary school and study animal behavior. Perry’s internship project was this: a survey of engaged dog owners that would help us begin to understand how much impact the dog has on food and treat provision as it relates to weight management. 

With involvement from WDJ editor Nancy Kerns, participation from some of WDJ’s subscribers, and a whopping dose of midnight oil, Perry and her academic support team put together a preliminary report in a quick six weeks. 

The KSU team’s involvement didn’t stop there, though; after a year of wrestling with the data, we wanted to share the outcome of this project with WDJ readers. 

STARTING THE SCIENCE

While Perry wasn’t able to attend her internship in person due to the COVID-19 restrictions, in a way, she was fortunate: A talented team of academics was unusually available to help her conceive, build, execute, and largely complete a research study. As Perry’s internship advisor (and KSU professor), I recruited and led the team: fellow K-State faculty Dr. Kadri Koppel, graduate students Isabella Alvarenga, Krystina Lema, and Lonnie Hobbs, and research associate Dr. Siim Koppel. 

To address the issue, we created a survey. Through an acquaintanceship with editor Nancy Kerns, I reached out to WDJ’s publisher, asking for access to a sizeable email list of dedicated dog owners to survey. Belvoir Media Group emailed the survey to nearly 20,000 subscribers and 2,342 responded. 

To get at the most meaningful data, we disqualified some of the responses, omitting, for example, responses from people who indicated that they were not involved in their dogs’ feeding, or who had more than four dogs (because we wanted to focus on owners with a more typical number of dogs). 

That left 1,456 qualified responses. These owners were actively involved in feeding their pet, had fewer than four dogs, and their “chosen” dog (if they had more than one dog, they were asked to choose just one to keep in mind when answering the questions) was between the ages of 1 and 10 years old. 

Participants answered 35 questions. Some had to do with the dogs, including their body-condition scores and their behavior before and during meals. Some had to do with the owners, including their background and feeding practices. Finally, some had to do with the interactions and attitudes of the dogs and owners during feeding. 

RESULTS OF SURVEY

Food For Thought: Canine Obesity

The majority of the participants (78.6%) were women over 50 years of age. The vast majority of participants described themselves as very attached to their dogs and strongly agreed that being with their dogs brought them comfort, as well as a lot of happiness and pleasure. 

Nearly 40% of dogs were mixed breeds; 25% of the dogs were from 10 breeds. The most common: Golden Retriever, Labrador, German Shepherd, Standard Poodle, Australian Shepherd. Owners reported that 33% of their dogs had an ideal body score, 47% were overweight, and 20% were obese. 

The majority of owners (62%) indicated that their decisions regarding daily food allowance were based on perceptions of their dogs’ body weight; 30% followed the food’s feeding guidelines or their veterinarians’ recommendation. Most (71%) metered their dogs’ daily food by use of a measuring cup, and 12% weighed the dogs’ food on a scale. At the other extreme, 16% did not measure food at all and 1% allowed food access continuously. 

The vast majority (70%) of owners provided treats one to three times per day, but less than a third of dogs received treats “on special occasions.” The primary reasons for giving treats was for rewards or training, with “pampering” or showing/receiving love and affection secondary motives. One-third of owners reported giving table scraps to their dogs. 

The respondents reported that when waiting for the meal, their dogs commonly exhibited behaviors that included gazing or staring, sitting and waiting with excitement, or tail-wagging. The least common behavior was whining or barking. There was a significant correlation between gazing or staring at the owner while waiting for food and the frequency of treats given (see Figure 1). Those suggestive glances are powerful!

These results suggest that most owners are diligent about controlling food amounts for their dog – but they may not be aware that their pets are overweight (recent studies put the number of obese dogs at more than 50% of the population). And the data suggest that dogs may have significant influence in overriding their owners’ self-discipline. The dogs’ behaviors (eye gaze, anticipation, excitement) encourage the owner to provide more treats or table scraps. These added calories accumulate over time. 

Veterinary nutritionists recommend that owners limit treats to no more than 10% of the dog’s daily calories and reduce food portions to account for any treats or table scraps provided. Given the power of persuasion from our pets, this may not be an easy task. 

MORE WORK TO DO

Our next steps include submitting the full research manuscript for peer review and publication in a scientific journal. Then, we plan to start on another research series, including an intervention study to better understand how we might solve the obesity puzzle and where economics might play a part in the dog owner’s decision-making. 

 

Greg Aldrich, PhD, is a research professor and the Pet Food Program Coordinator at Kansas State University. He writes a column for Petfood Industry, has authored several textbook chapters regarding pet foods and nutrition, and is a frequent speaker at industry and scientific forums.

9 COMMENTS

  1. I failed to transition my Shelty from puppy portions to adult portions with the result of him becoming obese at the age of 5. I have cut him back to a third of what he had been fed and I can see that he is slimming down. His diet continues to be raw beef, lamb, turkey and duck with organic veggies all prepared by Darwins Pet Food. I have not changed his treats – he gets a pizzle stick in the morning and a grain free lamb biscuit in the afternoon. I feel that I must be more involved in his eating habits to keep him at a healthy weight.

  2. Truly, I think you also should have tracked the BMI of these owners. My husband has embarrassed me, after somebody has commented on our mixed breed’s weight, by commenting “well she should cut back on HER nibbles too!” We’ve cut back on our dog’s kibble (inactivity after ccl surgery) and our own, but all of us still have a way to go!

  3. I agree that owners usually feed their dogs too much, most often equating treats and big meals with showing love. I run a small dog boarding business out of my home for the last 21 years. This is the conversation I have most often with clients — trying to get them to take some weight off their dogs. The vast majority simply cannot do it which is a crying shame. Their dogs are totally at their mercy.

    What I want to know is why no one is talking about the huge amount of starchy carbs we push into are dogs these days and the affects it has on insulin. This makes an enormous difference in human health. Nowadays many people can get off of insulin by changing their diet and drastically reducing the amount of sugar, starchy carbs, and processed foods they eat. Why wouldn’t the same rationale apply to dogs?? Dogs are designed by nature to eat far more meat-protein and far less carbs than humans.

    It’s so sad that almost every day I care for dogs so fat that they waddle, can’t do stairs, and develop arthritis and other health issues very early.

    The “Big Dog-Food” industry has led us quite far away from what dogs were designed to eat. Everything today seems to be geared to end user convenience and corporate profits — not dog health with diets created to prevent disease.

    Nuff said.

  4. It seems like you are assuming that a staring dog causes frequent treats. In my house, frequent treats cause a staring dog. I have a flat-coated retriever who is at her ideal weight. She gets “frequent” treats because she gets 1-3 Charlee Bears or kibbles when we come in from potty. Her staring doesn’t affect what or how many she gets any more than her dancing affects whether she will lick the dinner plates or not. She’s a hungry, hungry optimist! I applaud your efforts to curb canine obesity. Fat animals break my heart.

  5. This study focus is on food. But that is only 1/2 of the equation. The other is exercise. In this day of computers, phones and hi tech. Owners have become more sedentary. That could be another whole study!

  6. Thanks for a timely article. Our Goldendoodle had two surgeries in early spring and never had I envisioned her legs being so thin, as when they had to shave a leg. I knew she was over weight but by how much I had no clue. Not wanting her weight causing pressure on her legs, I started looking at the calories she was taking in daily, counting treats, “kibble”, canned food, toppings and more. I was astounded how fast the calories added up.
    I then, with the help of her Vet, came to a calorie count that would help her lose the weight, especially since she was almost house bound for weeks.
    I created an Excel chart of all her daily foods and treats, their portion weight and calorie count for each. (I feed three small meals a day because it seems to satisfy her hunger longer). Now every portion that goes into her meal is weighed. Her afternoon treat is now half, and the other treats are reduced. There is just something about seeing the calorie figure total, at the end of the day, then average during the week, that helps us to help her. She now is able to resume her daily walks.
    Another plus to this schedule, she has NEVER turned down a meal. She has lost about 8-10 lbs.
    We tell her to “go lay down” while we eat. So she takes a nap. IF, she gets a human food treat, that is added to the daily calories on her chart.

  7. most of the comments imply that 1 person is in charge of feeding. I feel that often there’s a spouse involved. my spouse doles out the treats, and also buys the treats. there are days when the two dogs aren’t interested in their food because they’ve drilled up on treats. I’m here to ask, how does one control a stubborn husband’s penchant for feeding treats? divorce is not an option as the spose is as loved as the dogs.
    PS: I’ve even brought home a “report card” from the vet strongly stating the dogs both need to lose weight.

  8. Dog obesity is indeed caused by humans, but not in the way this article assumes. Just as people do not get obese simply by eating too much, neither do dogs. It has far more to do with WHAT you eat. Additionally, diseases that contribute to this problem, such as diabetes, is also caused by poor diet. The underlying problem is Kibble. There is no doubt that feeding natural, whole, raw foods to your dog is more expensive and a lot of work (just as it is for feeding ourselves that way). But we all need to stop pretending that Kibble was invented to benefit dogs. Kibble only exists to make it easier for people feed their dogs.

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