This Food Is Often Linked to Pet Obesity

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

obese dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Overweight or obese dogs are twice as likely to have an owner who’s overweight or obese as well, according to researchers at the University of Copenhagen
  • Researchers suggested that overweight owners were more likely to use dog treats as hygge-candy, referring to the Danish word “hygge,” which means cozy
  • In one 2017 study, 78% of overweight/obese owners had overweight/obese dogs, including all dogs in the study diagnosed with obesity-related metabolic dysfunction
  • Diet composition — specifically the consumption of dry food — is linked to increased obesity risks; so one of the most impactful changes you can make is to swap out dry food for a fresh food diet

Overweight or obese dogs are twice as likely to have an owner who’s overweight or obese as well, according to researchers at the University of Copenhagen.1 The finding came when 268 Danish dogs were analyzed for risk factors related to obesity, which included not only dog-related factors but also those pertaining to their owners.

Overall, 20.5% of the dogs in the study where overweight or obese, and several factors increased this risk, including providing only one meal per day, feeding treats during relaxation and, ironically, increased duration of daily walking — but only if the owner was overweight too.

What’s so fascinating about this study to me is that all three of these variables: feeding once a day, well-timed, healthy treats and increased exercise are all very healthy choices to intentionally create metabolically fit dogs. In theory, these three choices should result in extra healthy dogs and should provide a solid foundation to create lean, well-muscled dogs … so what happened?

This study is a great example of how one variable, humans, can foil a healthy blueprint for companion animal health. At least five previous studies have also found a link between obesity in dogs and obesity in owners, so one thing is clear: our habits and lifestyle, good or bad, rub off on everything living in the house.

‘Hygge-Treats’ May Be Making Dogs Fat

While all the owners gave their dogs treats on occasion, the act of feeding treats during relaxation time was problematic for dogs’ weight, as opposed to using treats for training activities. Treats have two main challenges that are risks for dogs: type and timing.

Most dog snacks (treats) are the wrong type: the portions are too big and provide too many calories from carbs. This study validated both type and timing of treats were a problem.

Blueberry-sized morsels of healthy meats or produce make excellent training treats throughout the day to communicate “job well done,” but consuming inappropriate human comfort foods “just because” they’re cute, begging or happen to be around when you’re eating, is a recipe for obesity disasters.

The Danish word “hygge” has no direct translation in English, but generally refers to the feeling you get when you’re cozy and relaxed. The researchers suggested that overweight owners were more likely to use dog treats as hygge-candy, or cozy candy,2 which promoted weight gain. According to Charlotte R. Bjørnvad of the University of Copenhagen's Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences in a news release:

"Whereas normal weight owners tend to use treats for training purposes, overweight owners prefer to provide treats for the sake of hygge. For example, when a person is relaxing on the couch and shares the last bites of a sandwich or a cookie with their dog.”3

Other studies have demonstrated similar results. In one 2017 study, 78% of overweight/obese owners had overweight/obese dogs, including all dogs in the study diagnosed with obesity-related metabolic dysfunction.4 Another study also found a link, with the degree to which dogs were overweight being related to the body mass index (BMI) of their owners.5

In a 2010 study that also found owners of obese dogs were often obese themselves, the researchers noted that such owners also talked to their dogs about a greater variety of subjects and were less concerned with contracting diseases from their dogs, which they interpreted as “overhumanizing” their dogs.

“The obese dogs were indulged as ‘fellow-humans,’” but they were no longer treated as typical companion animals,” they noted.6 In contrast, the featured study did not find any relationship between an owner’s attachment to the dog and the dog’s weight.

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Neutering Increases the Risk of Obesity in Male Dogs

The study also revealed that neutering increased the risk of being overweight or obese for male dogs. It’s an important finding, considering pet obesity is at epidemic levels, with more than half of adult dogs being overweight or obese.7

This is just one reason why, over the years I've changed my view on the techniques used to spay and neuter dogs, based not just on a mounting body of research, but also on the health and behavior challenges faced by so many of my canine patients after I desexed them.

That’s why my current approach is to work with each individual pet owner to make decisions that will provide the most health benefits for the dog. As veterinarian Dr. Patty Khuly said in an article for Veterinary Practice News:

“There’s no doubt about it. The inconvenient truth is that dog sterilization leads to fatter dogs. This we know. No one disputes it. Whatever you think about all these new studies on sterilization and certain diseases, the reality of the situation is this: Intact dogs are much more likely to enjoy healthy weights.”8

That being said, the increased risk of obesity posed by neutering can likely be overcome by addressing some of the most common factors leading to pet obesity.

Risk Factors for Obesity in Dogs

Fresh pet food company NomNomNow evaluated the influence of a wide range of factors on overweightness/obesity and obesity alone in dogs.9 The results indicate the following eight factors are significantly associated with both overweightness/obesity and obesity alone:

Diet composition

Age

Probiotic supplementation

Food motivation level

Treat quantity

Pet appetite

Exercise

Neutering

While probiotic supplementation and exercise were protective against obesity, diet composition — specifically the consumption of dry food — was linked to increased obesity risks. “Specifically, we found that, compared to fresh food, dry food is significantly associated with overweightness/obesity, both alone and in combination with canned or fresh food,” the researchers noted.

So one of the most impactful changes you can make is to swap out dry food for a low carb fresh-food diet. Many dogs love their crunchy, salty, high-carb kibble, but metabolically it’s a recipe for perpetual weight gain, with most dry foods containing more than 30% unnecessary starch (which becomes sugar in your dog’s body). I recommend you do the carb calculation the food you’re feeding and make sure it’s less than 20% (and ideally less than 10%).

Food Is Fuel, Time Is Love

Treats were another important factor in weight gain, but only when they composed more than 10% of a dog’s diet. Treats can be a healthy part of your dog’s diet, but only if type and timing are considered. My favorite treats are berries, other safe fruits (e.g., melons, green bananas and apples), bits of dehydrated meat, and raw sunflower and pumpkin seeds (pepitas).

If your dog needs to lose weight and is missing out on treats, try bone broth ice cubes. Here’s a link to all of the safe fruits and veggies you can cube and use as training treats for your pooch.

Part of the humanization of pets often involves giving species-inappropriate, ultra-processed treats “just because” (we love them), with the end result being weight gain and compromised health. Pet parents forget that in a dog’s brain, food does not communicate love. Food is fuel (energy) and dogs are resourceful: if the ability to consume extra calories presents itself, dogs take advantage of the opportunity.

If you want to show your dog love, show them affection. The good news is this is how you speak your dog’s love language, and it’s zero calories! Spending quality, focused time with your dog is the best way to reinforce your emotional bond. Stop and pet them. Put your phone down and be fully present on your walks. Play more.

Your pet’s weight is the result of a complex variety of factors, of course, including activity levels, so if your pet needs to lose weight, I suggest reviewing this comprehensive guide to help your dog reach an ideal weight.