It might seem logical that the states with the highest prevalence of overweight people would have the highest percentages of hefty pets. Surely all those fit Coloradans with their outdoorsy lifestyles have slim dogs, right?
Not according to a new report based on the physiques of more than 2.5 million dogs and 500,000 cats in the United States. In some cases, it found nearly the opposite patterns for people and pets: Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi — which have some of the nation’s highest rates of human obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — all ranked in the bottom five states for overweight or obese pets. Dogs and cats in Colorado were in the top 20.
Topping the list for both chunky dogs and fat cats: Minnesota, where 41 percent of pooches and 46 percent of kitties were rated by veterinarians as overweight or obese. In second place for both species was Nebraska, where the figures were 39 percent for dogs and 43 percent for cats.
The animals were all seen in 2016 at one of the 975 veterinary hospitals run by Banfield, a chain that operates in 42 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Overall, 1 in 3 of those dogs and cats were overweight or obese, according to a five-point body conditioning score the hospitals’ veterinarians assign to animals after a visual and physical examination. They want to be able to see pets’ waistlines and feel their ribs (but not see them, because that would mean a dog or cat is too thin).
The folks at Banfield were surprised to find that pet and people weight problems don’t correlate by state, said Kirk Breuninger, a veterinarian who’s on the Banfield research team. But while regional trends and people-pet relationships are murky, the overall picture when it comes to pet heft is not. Lots of American dogs and cats are far too heavy, and as a group they’re getting heavier all the time. Banfield says it has tracked a 158 percent increase in overweight dogs over the past 10 years. The prevalence of overweight cats has shot up 169 percent.
And it’s worth noting that Banfield’s numbers are actually lower than other commonly cited figures from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). According to that organization, which relied on a far smaller sample size, a stunning 54 percent of dogs and 59 percent of cats were overweight or obese in 2016.
Experts cite multiple reasons our furry friends are swelling in size. More than ever, pets are treated as family members, and Breuninger said owners often “show love” to them with table scraps, treats and extra scoops of kibble. There’s also been what he called a “normalization” of bigger-than-ideal bodies. A 2015 study, for example, found that 1 in 4 dogs that placed in the top five of their class in Britain’s renowned Crufts dog show — where contestants are judged on how close they are to a perfect example of their breed — was too heavy.
“Many pet owners don’t quite understand that their pet is overweight,” Breuninger said.
Other factors might also be in play, including genetics. Last year, researchers identified a variation in a gene in Labrador retrievers, which tend to pack on pounds, that drives overeating; whether it’s present in other breeds is not yet known — and even if it is, Breuninger said, it wouldn’t give owners an excuse not to manage a pet’s weight.
There’s also ample confusion among owners about what to feed their pets: Grain free? Organic? Raw meat? There’s no right answer for every animal, said Breuninger, who advised people check with a vet. (Vets, according to the APOP survey, aren’t generally as hot on low-grain, raw or organic diets as their pet owners are.)
All in all, if you’ve got a fat pet and want to fix that, the answer in most cases will sound pretty familiar: diet and exercise. A vet can advise on the quantity and type of food, Breuninger said, but the exercise part will be up to you and your fur baby. That includes indoor cats, who aren’t so easy to take to the dog park. Laser pointers, feather toys and food puzzles — which make cats work for their food — can be helpful weight-loss tools, he said.
“The truth is that very small changes in activity levels for cats can lead to long-term changes in their health and weight,” Breuninger said. “Even playing with them 10 minutes a day … can really have long-term impacts.”
Need more motivation? Do it for your loyal friend’s health — and for your wallet. More than 20 common pet diseases, including diabetes and arthritis, are linked to obesity. Banfield says owners of its overweight dog patients spent 17 percent more on health-care costs and 25 percent more on medications at its practices, while owners of pudgy cats spent 36 percent more on diagnostic tests.
Here are the states with the highest percentage of overweight dogs, according to Banfield’s State of Pet Health Report:
- New Mexico
And here are the top 10 for cats:
- New Mexico
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that states with higher percentages of overweight pets also had higher percentages of intestinal parasites. In fact, the states with a lower prevalence of overweight cats and dogs had higher percentages of intestinal parasites.