Canine obesity has reached epidemic proportions, and it’s clear that one contributing factor has to do with the close relationship we have with our dogs.
Dogs play an important role in the lives of many people. They help reduce their humans’ anxiety and stress, and even motivate their owners to exercise. Of course, they are adorable and always willing to listen. It’s been widely observed that many millennials choose to have pets instead of children – and it’s long been a trend that couples get a dog for the first shared family member before making the big parenting commitment. And many empty-nesters fill the void with a dog.
Unfortunately, people might demonstrate their affection by overfeeding their dogs. In the past two decades, there has been a dramatic increase in rates of obesity among the pet population; more than 50% of dogs in the U.S. are either overweight or obese.
The issues with obesity include a tendency to develop metabolic diseases such as diabetes, increasing insult to aging joints resulting in osteoarthritis, and other health issues related to inflammation. Sadly, this decreases the dogs’ life expectancy.
As a project for her undergraduate summer internship at Kansas State University, Alyssa Perry, from Prairie View (Texas) A&M University, decided to examine the dog/owner relationship – specifically, the effect of dogs’ behavior on their humans, and whether it might have something to do with overfeeding.
How This Study Came About
Last summer, in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, a few faculty members at Kansas State University (KSU) were presented with a new educational and research challenge as part of the annual Summer Research Multicultural Fellows Professional Development Series. The task: to engage student interns in research – without bringing them to campus.
With the help of K-State faculty members, graduate students, research associates, and subscribers of Whole Dog Journal, we were able to launch the first step in a program that has been resting on the shelf for several years – a silver lining to the pandemic.
Our intern was Alyssa Perry, a Prairie View A&M undergrad. Perry is studying agriculture with an animal-science concentration; after she graduates from Texas A&M, she plans to attend veterinary school and study animal behavior. Perry’s internship project was this: a survey of engaged dog owners that would help us begin to understand how much impact the dog has on food and treat provision as it relates to weight management.
With involvement from WDJ editor Nancy Kerns, participation from some of WDJ’s subscribers, and a whopping dose of midnight oil, Perry and her academic support team put together a preliminary report in a quick six weeks.
The KSU team’s involvement didn’t stop there, though; after a year of wrestling with the data, we wanted to share the outcome of this project with WDJ readers.
STARTING THE SCIENCE
While Perry wasn’t able to attend her internship in person due to the COVID-19 restrictions, in a way, she was fortunate: A talented team of academics was unusually available to help her conceive, build, execute, and largely complete a research study. As Perry’s internship advisor (and KSU professor), I recruited and led the team: fellow K-State faculty Dr. Kadri Koppel, graduate students Isabella Alvarenga, Krystina Lema, and Lonnie Hobbs, and research associate Dr. Siim Koppel.
To address the issue, we created a survey. Through an acquaintanceship with editor Nancy Kerns, I reached out to WDJ’s publisher, asking for access to a sizeable email list of dedicated dog owners to survey. Belvoir Media Group emailed the survey to nearly 20,000 subscribers and 2,342 responded.
To get at the most meaningful data, we disqualified some of the responses, omitting, for example, responses from people who indicated that they were not involved in their dogs’ feeding, or who had more than four dogs (because we wanted to focus on owners with a more typical number of dogs).
That left 1,456 qualified responses. These owners were actively involved in feeding their pet, had fewer than four dogs, and their “chosen” dog (if they had more than one dog, they were asked to choose just one to keep in mind when answering the questions) was between the ages of 1 and 10 years old.
Participants answered 35 questions. Some had to do with the dogs, including their body-condition scores and their behavior before and during meals. Some had to do with the owners, including their background and feeding practices. Finally, some had to do with the interactions and attitudes of the dogs and owners during feeding.
RESULTS OF SURVEY
The majority of the participants (78.6%) were women over 50 years of age. The vast majority of participants described themselves as very attached to their dogs and strongly agreed that being with their dogs brought them comfort, as well as a lot of happiness and pleasure.
Nearly 40% of dogs were mixed breeds; 25% of the dogs were from 10 breeds. The most common: Golden Retriever, Labrador, German Shepherd, Standard Poodle, Australian Shepherd. Owners reported that 33% of their dogs had an ideal body score, 47% were overweight, and 20% were obese.
The majority of owners (62%) indicated that their decisions regarding daily food allowance were based on perceptions of their dogs’ body weight; 30% followed the food’s feeding guidelines or their veterinarians’ recommendation. Most (71%) metered their dogs’ daily food by use of a measuring cup, and 12% weighed the dogs’ food on a scale. At the other extreme, 16% did not measure food at all and 1% allowed food access continuously.
The vast majority (70%) of owners provided treats one to three times per day, but less than a third of dogs received treats “on special occasions.” The primary reasons for giving treats was for rewards or training, with “pampering” or showing/receiving love and affection secondary motives. One-third of owners reported giving table scraps to their dogs.
The respondents reported that when waiting for the meal, their dogs commonly exhibited behaviors that included gazing or staring, sitting and waiting with excitement, or tail-wagging. The least common behavior was whining or barking. There was a significant correlation between gazing or staring at the owner while waiting for food and the frequency of treats given (see Figure 1). Those suggestive glances are powerful!
These results suggest that most owners are diligent about controlling food amounts for their dog – but they may not be aware that their pets are overweight (recent studies put the number of obese dogs at more than 50% of the population). And the data suggest that dogs may have significant influence in overriding their owners’ self-discipline. The dogs’ behaviors (eye gaze, anticipation, excitement) encourage the owner to provide more treats or table scraps. These added calories accumulate over time.
Veterinary nutritionists recommend that owners limit treats to no more than 10% of the dog’s daily calories and reduce food portions to account for any treats or table scraps provided. Given the power of persuasion from our pets, this may not be an easy task.
MORE WORK TO DO
Our next steps include submitting the full research manuscript for peer review and publication in a scientific journal. Then, we plan to start on another research series, including an intervention study to better understand how we might solve the obesity puzzle and where economics might play a part in the dog owner’s decision-making.
Greg Aldrich, PhD, is a research professor and the Pet Food Program Coordinator at Kansas State University. He writes a column for Petfood Industry, has authored several textbook chapters regarding pet foods and nutrition, and is a frequent speaker at industry and scientific forums.