lockdown roll

The pandemic made cats and dogs fat for one insidious reason, study reveals

Humans aren't the only creatures to gain a lockdown roll in 2020.

As Covid-related anxiety skyrocketed in 2020, humans turned more than ever before to their furry friends for comfort.

Studies report an enormous increase in dog adoptions, and pet owners themselves have shared stories of how their animal friends have acted like personal therapists and supports through this time. At the same time, studies also show pet owners are more attuned to their critter's psychological needs during the pandemic, showering them with love and affection.

But it turns out that we might be just a little too tuned into our pets' needs, channeling our attention into habits which actually endanger their physical health. As we feed our pets' souls, so too, it seems, are we over-feeding their bodies.

New research provided by pet food company, Hill's Pet Nutrition, in conjunction with consumer insights firm Kelton Global, found substantial impacts on the pandemic on dogs' and cat's waistlines.

According to the research, more than 70 percent of pet professionals surveyed as part of the study state the pandemic has affected pets' eating habits — and not exactly for the better.

Dog owner Becky Jones pets four year-old labrador Chubby Charlie in Northfield Birmingham, United Kingdom, October 24, 2001. Chubby Charlie is forced to go on a crash diet after ballooning to an astonishing 168 pounds.Photo by Mike Thomas/Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Among the key findings from the survey:

  • A third of owners with overweight pets say their pets specifically gained weight during 2020.
  • Owners with overweight dogs were more likely to report the pandemic affected their pets' weight.
  • A third of dog owners reported problems encouraging their pets to exercise.
  • 20 percent of pet owners admitted to giving pets more treats.
  • Overweight pets were more likely to be bored or needy, owners reported.

What's new — Just as humans are gaining weight during the pandemic, so, too, are our pets.

The biggest headline from the study: one-third of owners with an overweight dog or cat say their pets gained weight specifically during the coronavirus pandemic.

Although we like to think we're reliable judges of our pets' physique, it turns out that we're not as proactive as we might think.

According to the study, nearly 3 in 4 owners believe they can accurately detect when their pet has gained weight, but only 12 percent proactively raise these weight-related concerns with a veterinarian.

Plus, nearly 2 in 3 pet owners become shocked or defensive when a veterinarian informs them their pet has put on a few pounds — not unlike when we are confronted with uncomfortable news of our own weight gain.

But through surveys of veterinarians, the researchers confirmed pet owners' suspicions.

The veterinarians surveyed report 45 percent of the dogs seen since the start of Covid-19 were overweight or obese. That percentage is slightly lower for cats, with 43 percent of pet cats being reported as overweight or obese.

How they did it — Through an online study conducted between November 23 and November 30, 2020, the researchers surveyed more than 200 veterinarians and 1,000 pet owners.

Roughly half of the owners had dogs, while the other half owned cats. More than half of the dog owners — 261 in all — had an overweight pup. The number was only slightly lower for the 250 owners with fat cats.

A female runner with her dog. Reduced exercise was a contributing factor to weight gain in the study.Zing Images

Digging into the details — According to the research, there were two major culprits behind the weight gain:

  1. Excessive snacking
  2. Lack of exercise

More than 1 in 5 pet owners self-reported that they gave their pets more treats during Covid-19 compared to pre-pandemic times.

Owners of pudgy pups were five times as likely as other dog owners to report an uptick in treats, and owners of fat felines were six times as likely as other cat owners.

Naturally, with more people working from home — and thus able to lavish more time on their pets — it's perhaps expected the level of pet snacking would increase.

Due to a change in their own work routines and pets spending more time indoors and exercising less — perhaps due to pandemic-related lockdowns — owners reported that was more challenging to maintain their pets' weight.

But it turns out pets' weight gain may also be linked to their owners' affection, which has flourished during the pandemic.

As people spend more time at home, they're more clued into their pets' emotional needs, and some have turned to treats to make their cats and dogs happier. Nearly 30 percent of owners reported their pets were needy, and one-quarter of owners report their pets were bored.

Not surprisingly, people with overweight animals were more likely to report their pets were bored or needy, prompting the owners to feed the critters treats as a coping mechanism.

A fat dog lying on the floor. The study reported a higher gain in owners with overweight dogs, perhaps due to lack of exercise.wakila

Why it matters — It's easy to dismiss findings from a pet food company which sells weight-loss-related products, but their research is actually in line with previous data on rising pet obesity rates.

A 2018 study by Nationwide — one of the largest providers of pet insurance — found obesity rates for dogs and cats were on the rise for the seventh year in a row.

Researchers in that study noted pet obesity was linked to more than $62 million in veterinary fees in 2016. Pet obesity has also been correlated with an increased risk of cancer, urinary tract infections, and heart disease.

In a 2018 report, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found a quarter of cats and more than 35 percent of dogs were overweight, according to veterinary health professionals. That same report noted an alarming 33.8 percent of cats were categorized as obese.

The Hill's Pet Nutrition study also found owners with overweight dogs were more likely to report that the pandemic affected their pet's weight, compared with cat owners.

30 percent of veterinarians say they've seen more overweight or obese dogs compared to pre-Covid-19 visits, though the margin of difference is lower for cats, with only 13 percent of vets reporting seeing in an increase in visits with overweight and obese cats.

This is in line with previous studies, too. Past research has found a link between overweight owners and pudgy pups, along with similar studies showing higher rates of type 2 diabetes in both dogs and owners. Dogs require more intervention from owners — compared to cats — to receive exercise.

So, if our couch potato tendencies have increased during lockdown, that's going to naturally lead to weight gain in some dogs, which will spend less time getting the play they need. One-third of owners of overweight dogs reported issues with encouraging pups to exercise during Covid-19.

But it turns out that humans are willing to sacrifice for their pets, too. According to the study, nearly 50 percent of people would go on a diet to help their pets lose weight, and more than a quarter would cancel Netflix for a month.

Now that's true love.

A woman cradling a heavy cat. The study found a link between owners' affection for their pets and weight gain.sdominick

What's next — As the study looks ahead to 2021, the future isn't exactly promising. Just like humans expect to put on a few pounds over the Christmas and New Year's holidays, so too can their furry little friends.

According to the study, 44 percent of pet owners surveyed expect they — along with their pets — will gain weight this holiday season.

Veterinarians interviewed in the survey back up this hypothesis, with six in ten pet professionals reporting that pets seen in January are more likely to be overweight or obese.

Ultimately, if you are worried about your pets' health, book them a check up with their local vet.

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