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  • Obesity in pets is at epidemic proportions. 
  • Obesity and overweight are an important health issue for more than half of our furry friends. 

Domestic cat

Obesity continues to be the greatest health threat to dogs and cats. It is a disease that kills millions of pets prematurely, can cause complications in almost every system in the body with conditions ranging from diabetes to osteoarthritis, creates immeasurable pain and suffering, and costs pet owners tens of millions of dollars in avoidable medical costs.

“Pet owners and vets both agree that good nutrition can extend a pet’s life. But they differ sharply on what constitutes good nutrition. Pet owners are far more likely to think corn and other grains are problematic” writes Ted Kyle in ConscienHealth. “Many think that food labelled organic and raw diets are better. And yet, none of this is supported by good evidence. In fact, no standards exist for pet foods that claim to be organic. Or “holistic”. Or for “treats”, (the pet industry’s fastest growing segment).”

All the little extras that your dog gets everyday can add up to a lot of extra calories and unbalance the diet if you’re not careful say the veterinarians at Tufts who recommend no more than 10% of calories come from foods that are not your dog’s main pet food. Experienced dog owners tend to use them only as a training tool when teaching a dog to walk on a lead, or sit etc. – a reward for good behaviour and carrying out a command.

A report in Vet Record finds that most commercially available dog treats often exceed the recommended daily energy allowance for treats. Researchers led by Giada Morelli at the University of Padua, compared the nutrient composition of different categories of treats to see if the daily intake recommendations on the label were in accordance with WSAVA guidelines. They analysed 32 popular dog treats available in pet shops and supermarkets (five biscuits, ten tender treats, three meat-based strips, five rawhides [dry bovine skin], twelve chewable sticks and six dental care sticks).

Three out of four treats contained between four to nine ingredients, and the ingredients were not precisely described. For example, biscuits and dental sticks had ‘cereals’ listed as the first ingredient, while tenders, meat strips, rawhides and chewable sticks had ‘meat and animal derivatives’ listed first. Almost half mentioned ‘sugars’ on the label’s ingredient list and all contained varying amounts of minerals. The most calorically dense treats were biscuits, whereas the least calorically dense were dental sticks. When caloric density was expressed as kcal/treat, rawhides were the most energy-dense products, followed by chewable sticks and dental sticks.

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Researchers from the University of Liverpool’s Small Animal Teaching Hospital and Royal Canin have recently completed the largest ever international weight loss trial in dogs, involving 340 veterinary practices in 27 countries across the world. All dogs received a specially-formulated high-protein high-fibre weight loss diet for a period of a three months, and the amount of weight loss was determined. In addition, owners were asked to score levels of activity, quality of life, and food-seeking behaviour throughout the trial.

The majority of dogs enrolled in the study lost weight, with the average being 11% of their starting body weight. However, differences were noted between intact and neutered dogs, with neutered dogs losing less on average. Owners also reported improvements in activity and quality of life during the study whilst, despite being on a diet, their food-seeking behaviour became less pronounced.

“While the short-term duration of the study meant that many dogs did not reach their target weight, the fact that owners observed improved activity and quality of life suggests real benefits to wellbeing,” said Professor Alex German. A spokesperson for Royal Canin added: “In addition to improvements in quality of life and activity, owners believed that their dogs begged less as the study progressed, findings that can hopefully assure pet owners that returning their pet to a healthy body condition is beneficial and worthwhile.”

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The recent JAMA theme issue on obesity includes a range of articles on its prevention and management. Edward Livingston notes in an accompanying editorial that: “The approach to the prevention and treatment of obesity needs to be reimagined. The relentless increase in the rate of obesity suggests that the strategies used to date for prevention are simply not working … From a population perspective, the increase in obesity over the past 4 decades has coincided with reductions in home cooking, greater reliance on preparing meals from packaged foods, the rise of fast foods and eating in restaurants, and a reduction in physical activity. There are excess calories in almost everything people eat in the modern era. Because of this, selecting one particular food type, like SSBs [sugar sweetened beverages], for targeted reductions is not likely to influence obesity at the population level. Rather, there is a need to consider the entire food supply and gradually encourage people to be more aware of how many calories they ingest from all sources and encourage them to select foods resulting in fewer calories eaten on a daily basis. Perhaps tax policy could be used to encourage these behaviors, with taxes based on the calorie content of foods. Revenue generated from these taxes could be used to subsidize healthy foods to make them more affordable.”

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A systematic review and meta-analysis in Nutrients shows that male mice and rats fed high GI diets increased their body weight, body adiposity, and fasting insulin levels compared to those on low GI diets. While slowing carbohydrate digestion and absorption might be key to beneficial health effects, the low GI diets were also typically high in fibre including resistant starch which may exert mechanisms on metabolism independent of effects on postprandial glycaemia. However, the authors were not able to analyse the metabolic effect of dietary fibre as fibre content was typically not quantified in the original reporting articles, with only two paper specifying fibre content.

What about female mice and rats? “There are too few studies in female animals to be confident of effects,” report the authors calling for future experiments to include females given that the maternal nutritional environment is critical for the development of chronic diseases later in life.

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