Pet obesity: Causes, effects and how to fix it

A loved pet can lead a pretty charmed life. Sharlene James-Whited brings her dog Lexi to the dog park every day.

"We’ve got to come every day or she gets pretty wound up," James-Whited said. 

All this attention should keep two year old Lexi lean and agile, which is why we were surprised to find out Lexi is actually a little overweight.

"The vet just told us she's a pound higher than she should be," James Whited said. 

A whole pound. It doesn’t sound like much, unless you see you through your pet’s eyes.

Dr. Kate Knutson of Pet Crossing Animal Hospital and Dental Clinic puts it this way, "If your cat were me and I'm 153 pounds right now today, I would be 245 pounds. And they [clients] look at that and they go OK, yep, you wouldn't look very good at 245 pounds."

Dr. Knutson is so passionate about keeping pets fit she helped found the Pet Nutrition Alliance.

"We're bad with dogs, we're abysmal with judging a cat's weight," she said.

She worries about a six-year trend of swelling obesity rates. More than half the dogs and cats in America are now overweight or obese. And most owners either have no idea or don’t want to believe it.

"Is it uncomfortable? Yeah it's uncomfortable talking about weight," Dr. Knutson says. "But it's no more uncomfortable talking about weight or cancer or diabetes or any sort of chronic condition."

So let’s start at the beginning. What does an ideal weight really look like on our pets? We asked Dr. Knutson to show some of us here at FOX 9 how to size up our pets. And we all learned pretty quickly we have some work to do. Dr. Knutson found just about every one of us had dogs that were overweight.

One of our producers, Alyssa Kroeten, just got her rescue dog Harley a few days ago. But Alyssa also inherited a little bit of a weight issue.

"I think most people would think he's pretty skinny, he's not," Dr Knutson said. "What that means is you want to keep him really thin. Otherwise he's going to be prone to back problems."

Dr. Knutson says the easiest way to tell if your pet is overweight is to feel for ribs. She asks all of us to run our hands over the top of her hands as she makes a fist. Those boney knuckles are what our pets ribs should feel like.

If we can’t feel the ribs, there’s excess weight. She also looks for an hourglass figure from above and a definitive tuck underneath. Also, stretching your four-legged into a two-legged can expose trouble spots.

"When you look at them like this, she looks very thin, but when you do this," Dr. Knutson said. "She probably needs to lose at least a pound."

Dr. Knutson says weight issues in dogs is one thing but cats are another, more complicated story.

The same rules apply to cats – ribs, hourglass and tuck. But for obvious reasons cats bear the brunt of the pet obesity epidemic. Dr. Knutson showed us a resident cat named Patsy. 

"She used to weigh 16 pounds," Dr. Knutson said. "If you look at her face it's very small."

Now Patsy weighs eight pounds, half her old weight, thanks to good old fashioned calorie counting and having to hunt for her food. But Patsy’s one of the lucky ones. Dr. Knutson said up to 30 percent of all cats are morbidly obese. Which means if Patsy were a person, she would weigh about a thousand pounds.

So how many calories does your pet need a day? Dr. Knutson uses this formula: First convert your pet’s weight in pounds to kilograms. You do that by dividing the pounds by 2.2. Then take that number and multiply it by 30. And then add 70. That’s how many calories your pet should get each day. And if they are spayed or neutered they only get 80 percent of that total.

Erin Ring is one of the managers at Chuck & Don’s Pet Food and Supply.  

"If you really look at all the calories you're putting in there and the amount [versus] the size of your dog, people would be really shocked," she said. 

Like Dr. Knutson she preaches calorie count--not just following whatever is on the bag. She learned the hard way with her own Rottweiler.

"I fed her a cup and a half for many years and then I realized one day that she was overweight," Ring said. "So I cut back and just started giving her a cup of food. Meantime I added carrots or green beans to it so she still felt like she was getting a cup and a half but she was only getting a cup. So she was happy as a clam and was losing weight."

And if you’re maxing out your pet’s daily calories with meals there’s not room for much else.

"People don't understand that when they give a treat like this they're like oh I only gave my dog one treat," Ring said. "Well this one treat to a Rottweiler is going to be different than to a beagle. To a beagle this is like a cheeseburger."

Food treats aren’t bad. You might even try mixing rich and low calorie goodies to break it up. Or re-define the way you treat.

"Non edible treats are just as exciting to a dog, so give him something like a water buffalo horn," she said. "Give it to them for 20 minutes and then take it away, so just like a toddler take it away out of their mind it's a new thing again."

Getting real about your pet’s weight also means getting real about the consequences of obesity--hypertension, arthritis, diabetes and cancer.

“In order for my four legged to live as long as I want them to with the best quality that they can I need to engage my two legged into doing the things on a daily basis that I want them to do," Dr. Knutson said. "If you keep them at the perfect weight you're going to have 2-5 more years with them, fewer medical bills, so hopefully they're going to be 17 or so."

Which gives them more time to lead that charmed life.