This week CBS News ran a clip on the pet obesity crisis in the United States. What strikes me about the piece is the news broadcast shows dogs licking ice cream cones and eating cake as if it is only the owner’s fault that their dog is overweight.  It reminds me of the obesity epidemic in humans. The media, health professionals, and the government spin the fallacy that it is a lack of will power on the part of individuals which leads to the crisis. Rather than focusing on the role that the GMA (Grocery Manufacturers Association) and the National Restaurant Association and yes, even the U.S. government plays in the problem, let’s just blame America’s lack of willpower. The United States government subsidizes corn products, which makes nutritionally low quality products like soda and candy cheaper than higher nutritionally charged foods. If you are a sedimentary woman between 30 and 50 years old, you should burn 1800 calories per day. There are 563 calories in a Big Mac, 340 calories in a medium fry, and 310 calories in a large coke. This comes to 1213 calories for one meal. This leaves just 587 calories left for the remainder of the day. These figures do not reflect the added calories consumed through super-sizing. Is it any wonder Americans are overweight? But, wait, what is making our pets fat? Is it really the treats we are sharing with our animals? Lets take a look at the facts.

Why Are Pet’s Overweight?

     One in three pets are overweight in the United States.  Fifty-four percent of dogs and fifty-nine percent of cats are obese. While genetics may play a role in some breeds putting on pounds more readily than others, the bottom line is pets are not getting enough exercise for the amount of calories they are consuming. It is not just that fat pets are aesthetically unpleasing.  Obesity kills. Obesity leads to diabetes mellitus, orthopedic disease, cardiorespiratory disease and abnormalities in circulating lipid profiles, urinary disorders, neoplasia, reproductive problems, and skin diseases. Overweight pets undergoing simple anesthetic procedures are at greater risk as well.  Where does the problem lay?

The Pet Food Industry

     Despite the increase in pet deaths from contaminated, commercial pet food in recent years, the sale of such food continues to rise with sales reaching 7.83 billion dollars in the United States. What are consumers getting for their bucks? The biggest claim of most commercial pet foods is that they contain 100% balanced nutrition. Veterinarians regularly advise their clients to feed only food, which is listed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) as being 100% balanced. But are these claims and the manufacturer’s products leading well-meaning consumers down the garden path?

Only the minimum amount of fat, protein, and carbohydrate is listed on pet food containers. This is because the AAFCO only requires the manufacturers to list the minimum percentage, not what is actually in the food. So a consumer may think that their pet is being fed 8% fat per serving when it is actually consuming 18% or more. So what happens if you feed your pet too much fat per serving? Besides gaining weight, the pet can develop acute pancreatitis because it is the pancreas, which produces the enzymes, which break down the fats.

Let’s looks at carbohydrates in pet food. Enzymes in the small intestine of dogs break down carbohydrates and turn them into simple sugars, which can be used as energy. If the amount of sugar is more than the body can use, it is stored in the body as, you guessed it, fat.*  Why use carbohydrates? Carbohydrates are cheaper per calorie than proteins or fats. Carbohydrates are more abundant. The manufacturers need carbohydrates to manufacture dry dog food. Carbohydrates extend pet food shelf life. Can consumers accurately determine the amount of carbohydrate in a particular brand of pet food? Since the National Research Council does not make any recommendations as to the amount of carbohydrates an animal needs in its diet each day, most dog food manufacturers don’t even list the amount of carbohydrates in their food. When 1500 dry and canned pet foods were examined, it was estimated that carbohydrate content ranged from 10 to 85%.

Since both dogs and cats are listed as carnivores with cats being obligate carnivores, why is so much carbohydrate included in the manufacture of pet food? Money. In the scientific article “Nutritional Sustainability of Pet Foods” published in the Advances in Nutrition journal stated “A unique issue in the pet food industry (vs. livestock feed industry) is the large disconnect between the protein requirements of dogs and cats and the crude protein (CP) concentration present in the average pet food. Because dogs and cats are both members of the Carnivore order, many believe that dogs and cats require very high dietary protein concentrations to thrive. The natural preferences of dogs and cats may support these consumer opinions. A series of recent experiments in cats focused on macronutrient selection demonstrated that when given the choice, cats will select dietary protein (52% of metabolizable energy) and fat (36% of metabolizable energy) at much higher levels than required metabolically. Studies in dogs have shown that protein content of the diet is also positively associated with food selection, albeit at a somewhat lower level than in cats (∼25% metabolizable energy) Despite this evidence and the fact that the cat is an obligate carnivore and requires more dietary protein than the dog, which is considered to be an omnivore or semicarnivore, the concentrations required are not nearly as high as that provided by a meat-only diet.” Carbohydrate based diets are just plain cheaper than protein and fat based diets.

How Are the Calories in Pet Food Calculated?

      The food manufacturing industry uses the Atwater system to determine caloric content of their food products. Under this system each gram of protein is 4 calories, each gram of carbohydrate is 4 calories, and each gram of fat is 9 calories. The AAFCO uses a modified Atwater system, which lists a gram of protein as producing 3.5 calories, a gram of carbohydrate as producing 3.5 calories, and a gram of fat as producing 8.5 calories. Thus the AAFCO uses a system that calculates fewer calories than is actually available. The article “Pet Food Calorie Mis-information” found this small difference results in thousands of additional calories consumed per year. Depending on size of the animal, this could result in a 15-pound or more weight gain per year. An examination of one brand of dog food found that one ounce of food contained 11.62 grams of carbohydrate, 4.81 grams of fat, and 8.5 grams of protein. This comes to 866 calories consumed per day by a 30-pound dog. The National Research Council, which uses the original Atwater scale, recommends an inactive dog consume 674 calories per day. As we can see from this evidence, with this brand of dog food, a 30-pound dog would be consuming 192 more calories than what is needed per day. Is it any wonder that our pets are obese?


     Just as humans are consuming cheaper foods with higher caloric values, pet food manufacturers are using ingredients, which the body is converting into simple sugars. These unused sugars are then converted into fats when caloric intake is greater than the number of calories burned per day. Manufacturers are under no obligation to inform consumers of the amount of carbohydrate in their products. Many pets are consuming more calories than is listed on packaging. It becomes clear that pet foods are at the heart of the obesity epidemic afflicting pets today.


* The American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine recently stated carbohydrates are not an essential or required nutrient for cats, but cats can utilize carbohydrates. My question is, if they do not need carbohydrates, why feed them? The answer is carbohydrates are cheaper for manufacturers to use in the production of cat food than proteins or fats.

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