Understanding pet owner behavior to achieve weight loss in companion animals (Sponsored by Nestlé Purina)
Obesity in companion animals has become a serious medical problem. Data published in Australia found 33.5% of dogs were classed as overweight, whereas 7.6% were judged to be obese, findings which are likely comparable to those in the USA.1,2 The prevelance of obesity in cats appears to be similar.3 Overweight animals may experience orthopedic problems, metabolic diseases, a reduced quality of life, and a shorter life span. Even with a plethora of weight-loss diets available to them, some pet owners seem unable to help their companion animals lose weight. When owners try a weight-loss diet for their pet, and the pet does not lose weight, the owners may conclude the diet or your advice is ineffective. Considering the behavioral factors in weight loss will improve owner compliance and benefit the pet with better overall health.
Health risks associated with obesity
Research has indicated that overweight dogs with hip osteoarthritis will show fewer clinical signs of lameness with an 11% to 18% weight loss.4 Caloric restriction and maintaining a lean body condition throughout life have been associated with an increase in the median life span of dogs.5 Research has found that the risk of health problems was higher in overweight cats—"heavy cats were 2.9 times as likely to be taken to veterinarians because of lameness not associated with cat bite abscesses. Obese cats were also 3.9 times as likely to develop diabetes mellitus, 2.3 times as likely to develop nonallergic skin conditions, and 4.9 times as likely to develop lameness requiring veterinary care."6Indoor confinement and physical inactivity (often found in cases of obesity) have also been associated with diabetes mellitus.7 Puppies and kittens that are overweight are more likely to become overweight adults. Spayed and neutered individuals may be at a higher risk for weight gain because of decreased energy requirements.8 Naturally, certain chronic disease conditions and medications can also contribute to excessive weight gain. Finally, obesity can lead to other behavior problems if it causes pain or if it causes anxiety or competition over food resources, which may even result in aggression.
Understanding the problem
In most situations, the weight issue is not complicated. Pet obesity results from overconsumption of food provided. Yet the problem goes deeper; with both the owner and the pet contributing issues and behaviors that make food consumption about more than nutrition. For many owners feeding their pet is a bonding experience associated with love and caring. They like to show their pet how much they care, and providing the pet with delectable food, treats, and special tidbits symbolizes love. Owners of overweight cats were found to have a closer relationship with their cats and view them as substitutes for human companionship when compared with owners of normal weight cats.9 Owners of overweight dogs also tend to feel that their dogs are a substitute for human companions and spend more time with their dogs during meals.10 Additionally, owners of overweight dogs tend to interpret every need of their dog as a request for food.10
Feeding ecology of dogs and cats
Because of the feeding ecology of canids, a dog's food-seeking behavior may not be hunger driven, but the natural food-scavenging behavior of dogs. Dogs tend to eat in a "feast or famine" mode, eating large quantities when food is available since hunting and catching prey is unreliable. In life, food is an important commodity; some dogs will ask for food even if they receive adequate daily nutrition. The smell or presence of food is enough to elicit this response in most dogs. If they receive food, this reinforces scavenging and begging behavior, making these behaviors more likely to recur. Acquiring food through a certain behavior is a Pavlovian learned response that is difficult to extinguish.
The feeding ecology of felids is different, and many owners are unaware that cats would naturally eat multiple small meals daily rather than one or two larger ones. Even if owners are aware of a cat's natural tendency, they may not know how to feed their cat in that manner and maintain weight or achieve weight loss. Cats may vocalize to the owner for attention or to play, but owners often assume that the cat is hungry, especially if the cat follows them into the kitchen. Even rubbing behavior, a typical cat greeting behavior, can be misinterpreted as food seeking.