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Study Reports Increase in Portly Pets

Tue Sep 9, 2003

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - For millions of Americans pets are part of the family, and it now appears that tubby tabbies and portly pooches are also sharing the national propensity to be overweight.

As many as 25 percent of pets in the Western world are obese, says the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies.

In its first update of "Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats" since 1986 the Council details the needs of these pets for veterinarians, petfood makers and scientists. In addition, the 447-page study provides some useful pointers for people who keep pets.

Kathryn Michel, a veterinary nutritionist at the University of Pennsylvania, said in recent years she has noted more overweight pets, particularly cats, and the overweight seems to occur at younger ages than in the past.

"A big problem that people don't always recognize," she said, is that the pets "are members of our families, we show them affection and one way is by sharing food and giving treats."

"For a cat, 10 calories a day more than that cat needs for a year is a pound of fat," she said. "We really have to think about what we're doing when we share food with our pets."

That doesn't mean one has to ignore those sad eyes looking up so hopefully, she said, just be careful about what they get. A piece of a biscuit will help bond with the animal just as much as the whole biscuit, she said.

Like people, obese pets have a greater risk of developing such diseases as diabetes, heart disease and other health problems, said Donald C. Beitz, chairman of the committee that prepared the report.

Beitz, a professor of animal science at Iowa State University, said the new study adds a chapter on physical activity for pets and pointed out that the council has established a Web site for pet owners to learn more about nutrition for their animals, how to determine if they are overweight and suggestions for helping them lose weight.

"Obesity is estimated to occur in 25 percent of dogs and cats in westernized societies," the report states, noting that obesity increases with the age of the pet and is more frequent in neutered animals.

Cats, the report notes, are descended from carnivores and their digestive system is designed for absorbing nutrients from animal-based proteins and fats.

Cats should not be fed a vegetarian diet because it could result in harmful deficiencies of certain amino acids, fatty acids, and vitamins, the report stresses.

While dogs prefer animal-based food, they can survive on a vegetarian diet as long as it contains sufficient protein and other nutrients, the report adds.

Cats like to snack, the report found, while dogs like to feast.

In tests where animals were allowed to eat whenever they wanted, cats ate 12 to 20 smaller meals spread out through day and night, while dogs ate seven or eight times, mostly in daytime.

The report stresses that fresh water should be available to a dog at all times, and more during exercise, to prevent overheating.

It's fine to feed an adult dog just one or two times a day, but puppies need to eat two to three daily meals. Puppies, kittens, and lactating dogs and cats need more daily calories, as may pets that are sick or injured.

Cats don't drink as much water as dogs, perhaps because cats evolved as desert animals. Given a choice they will usually choose moist over dry food, though. The weak thirst of cats puts them at higher risk for urinary tract stones.

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