10/16/2012 02:28 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

Chewing the Fat: The Growing Problem of Pet Obesity

October 10 was National Pet Obesity Awareness Day. In the six years since the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention began marking the day, our pets have been tipping the scales at ever more alarming weights. It is now estimated that more than half of the pets in the United States are overweight; nearly a quarter can be classified as clinically obese. Despite our increased understanding of veterinary science and our unprecedented spending on all things pet-related (U.S. spending on pets surpassed $50 billion last year for the first time), it seems we are still unable to confront the hard truth about fat pets: we're killing them with food.

An obese pet's life expectancy can be decreased by as many as 2.5 years. Quality of life suffers, too; in addition to new physical limitations like being unable to groom themselves or climb the stairs, comes a host of health complications ranging from pressure sores to congestive heart failure. Common conditions include diabetes, arthritis, kidney failure, incompetence, joint disorders and cancer. At Petplan, five of the top insurance claims we see all have a close correlation to obesity.

Not only do obese pets suffer from health conditions secondary to their weight, but they are more difficult for veterinarians to treat. Physical examination, blood sampling, diagnostic imaging (especially ultrasonography) and administration of anesthesia, among others, are all treatments that can be compromised by a pet's excessive weight.

Defined as being more than 15% above an individual's ideal body weight, obesity is the most common form of malnutrition in dogs and cats. That's right - just because hefty pets have too much to eat doesn't mean they are getting sufficient amounts of the nutrients they need from what they're eating. The likely culprit: inappropriate food sources like low-quality pet food and high-fat-and-calorie people food.

By now, everyone knows that diet and exercise are the keys to maintaining a healthy weight (for pets and for people!), yet obesity has been on the rise and shows no signs of slowing down. The hurdle often lies in the perception gap between what veterinary medicine defines as clinically overweight and the ability of pet parents to objectively observe their pet's body condition. Put simply, we refuse to believe that our pets are overweight.

Defeating Denial
The fact of the matter is, stuffing our pets with snausages can be as dangerous as letting them play in traffic. Without commitment and cooperation from us as pet parents, our pets have no way of losing excess weight and living a healthier lifestyle. So take a second look at your pet. Feel the ribs; there should be a small covering of fat over them but the ribs should still be visible. Stand over your dog and look down at his or her back; the waist should be clearly defined. Walk to the side of your dog and observe the area behind his or her ribs; the abdomen should go up at an angle, not rest flat. If your dog fails any of these simple tests, it is time to consult your vet about designing a weight loss plan that will address your pet's specific nutritional needs.

If your pet passes the test, but you're still concerned about Fido or Fluffy packing on the pounds, there are a few tips you can try to help manage food intake and increase activity:

Size Matters
Practice portion control. Although pet foods generally have feeding guidelines on the label, ask your vet what an appropriate feeding schedule might look like for your pet. Food labels are often based on the assumption that a pet is in an active stage of life; senior pets or pets with certain health conditions may have different needs.

Limited Access
Your pet should not have 24-hour access to all the food he or she could ever want. Mealtime should be just that; all-day grazing will only lead to trouble. Switch up where you serve your pet's dinner -- changing locations can help get pets moving, and having to find their food taps into their natural desire to hunt. If you're concerned about convenience, consider investing in an automatic feeder that will dispense a pre-determined amount of food at the times you designate. (Bonus: the slow dispensing of food can help prevent dogs and cats who "gulp" from bloating.)

Riddle Me This
Make mealtime more engaging, and increase your pet's activity level, by serving kibbles in a food puzzle. Not only will your pet have fun being mentally and physically challenged, but working for their food can help ease some behavioral problems related to boredom at home.

Rethink Rewards
Pets love treats, but too many biscuits can quickly take a toll on their waistlines. Your pet's treats should comprise no more than 10% of his or her total daily calories. If you use treats in training, consider switching to a healthier alternative like baby carrots or dehydrated sweet potatoes, or try a bake-at-home recipe to cut calories.

At the end of the day, we are responsible for the health of our pets, and we owe it to them to take obesity prevention and nutrition seriously. We've all tossed an extra treat to a pet with pleading eyes -- it's hard to say 'no' to those cute furry faces! -- but when those treats are packing on uncomfortable pounds, loving our pets with food can spell big trouble for the future. So next time you want to praise your pet for being a good boy or girl, remember: treats don't have to be edible to be enjoyed. Rewarding your pet with a favorite toy or a few extra cuddles can be just as sweet, and it will go a long way to keeping your pet happy and healthy for life.