Do you walk at the same pace? A sign of good training. Hugging and watching TV together? Lovely.
Stress eating together because both of you are at home all day due to a terrible pandemic? Less endearing – and potentially dangerous.
Veterinarians in the US are Noticing Weight Gain and Higher Levels of Obesity in pets since the pandemic began, said Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinary food therapist and founder of the Association for the Prevention of Obesity in Pets.
“We’re seeing reports from more and more vets saying, ‘Look, we’re seeing more weight gain this year than the year before,'” he told CNN. “(The pandemic) is the perfect storm.”
More snacks at home, less walking outside
Movement restrictions, along with more snacks at home, are likely to lead to weight gain and obesity in pets, Ward said.
Simon McDevitt, a corgi from New York, is a living example of what more snacks and fewer walks can do for a dog’s health.
His owner, Margaret McDevitt, told CNN that with more time at home, she has been prone to feeding Simon from the couch.
“He’s the ultimate Smartfood popcorn lover,” he said. “With us at home more, watching TV in the middle of the day … he sees the bag and just begs.”
McDevitt said he has noticed about two or three pounds increase as of March 2020, but that number is difficult to estimate due to the extra fluff that grows when their fur lengthens.
Living in a small apartment, McDevitt said it’s hard to get Simon to get enough exercise.
“During Covid, his long walks definitely got shorter,” he said. “Wanting to limit exposure to other people on the street was one thing, but also, they just weren’t pleasant anymore. Being with so many people, having to wear a mask … it’s just a different experience.”
In pre-pandemic times, he said, it was easier for Simon to exercise in the dog park or other public space. But the pandemic has made those opportunities less secure and now, with colder weather, there are several barriers to getting enough exercise.
You are stressed and so are your pets
There is another factor that Ward says is behind weight gain and obesity in pets: stress.
“When you’re stressed or anxious, your brain secretes a whole cascade of neurochemicals that encourages you to eat,” he said.
And pets realize this.
“Our pets tend to adopt these emotional attributes, because they are very empathetic,” he said. “They look to us for emotional cues.”
McDevitt said Simon has been eating stress since the pandemic. After she was fired from her job in March and spent more time at home, she noticed that he ate his meals faster and begged for food more often.
“He’s having a harder time when I leave the house,” he said. “I had separation anxiety to begin with, so after spending so much time at home, I began to notice that I was doing this as a coping mechanism.”
He said he plans to bring Simon to a healthy weight.
“Now that spring is approaching, I plan to extend her walks again,” he said. “I just got a new job, so I’m trying to put him on a meal schedule for when he leaves the house … now that I’m not at home that much, he will definitely drop the (popcorn).”
Keeping the chonk in check
Pet owners should keep their pets’ weight under control, no matter how cute that extra fluff may be, Ward said.
Obesity in pets can increase an animal’s risk of diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, arthritis and cancer if ignored, he said.
But Ward said diseases related to being overweight can be prevented.
“It’s like we have a crystal ball,” he said. “We know what will happen to your 18-pound cat in the future.”
For pet owners who want to control their pet’s weight, Ward said the first thing to do is assess the problem.
To check if their pet is overweight, owners can look at the side profile of the animal to see if it has a lower stomach. Or they can look at their pet from above; if they have a blimp or a balloon, he said, it is a good indicator of being overweight.
Once pet owners understand their pet’s weight, they can begin to reconfigure some of those negative quarantine habits, like being too sedentary or snacking excessively.
As always, taking pets to the vet is a sure way to understand the risk posed by a pet’s weight.
But Ward said that ultimately, pet owners shouldn’t be chasing a number on a scale, they should be chasing quality of life.
Simon has come a long way since his rescue in 2014, McDevitt said. She has worked hard to ease his anxiety and strengthen his confidence, and the two have formed a remarkably close bond in the process.
“He is my friend from the pandemic,” he said. “We have to take care of each other.”