Yes, your pets can gain pandemic weight.
Henry, a toy poodle in Chicago, is one of many pets who have surprised their owners with their weight gain in the past two years.Credit...Taylor Glascock for The New York Times
Henry's last haircut had been a year ago, and Michelle Holbrook had no idea that her 7-pound funny little poodle had grown to almost 9 pounds. His shaggy, charming appearance not only disguised his weight, but it also made it more difficult for the Holbrooks to ignore his begging.
Ms. Holbrook, a medical researcher in Chicago, described him as a little troublemaker. When I open the cheese drawer in the fridge, he'll hear me and come running.
Henry, 7, is one of many food-motivated canines whose weight gain has startled their owners in the last two years. While doctors and pet owners usually blame the extra weight on an increased desire to indulge in unhealthy behaviors during the coronavirus pandemic, pet obesity has been a problem in the United States for a long time.
In 2020, about 40% of cats and nearly 35% of dogs were identified as overweight, up from less than 20% a decade ago, according to Banfield Pet Hospital, which has over 1,000 veterinarian clinics across the country. From March to December of that year, at the start of the pandemic, Banfield noticed a minor increase — around 2% — in the number of dogs identified as overweight.
Jennifer Bolser, the Humane Society of Boulder Valley's chief clinic veterinarian in Colorado. Overeating, excessive snacking, and a lack of physical activity are all harmful behaviors for pets, just as they are for humans. When people are confined to their homes with their pets, it is more difficult to refrain from overindulging them.
Pavlov, a diminutive corgi, was taken to dog-friendly beaches, malls, and restaurants in Southern California, according to Anthony Osuna, a psychology resident. When the epidemic hit, Pavlov, 6, lost interest in going out - even for a walk.
Mr. Osuna expressed his disappointment, saying, "I felt like we were disappointing him." "The extra foods, desserts, boba, and coffee that you would do just to make yourself feel better in the epidemic contributed to a lot of humans' weight increase." And we'd do the same with him; we'd buy him presents and feed him food."
Mr. Osuna had to lower Pavlov's servings and limit his snacking after his weight crept up to around 28 pounds from 23 pounds (popcorn is a favorite).
Mr. Osuna stated, "He didn't appear to be overly overweight." "But it all built up with the extra snacks and the diminished activity."
John Owen, a retired contract manager in Boulder, Colo., who has fostered more than 150 cats over the past decade, said he had to establish a much tighter diet for his own cat, Vita. He was used to keeping food out for her and her sister Ginny all day, allowing them to come and go. Vita, however, who is three years old, began to eat excessively.
Mr. Owen remarked, "She went from about 15 pounds to 19 pounds – huge." "Of course, during the pandemic, I gained weight." But it is beyond the point."
Vita was placed on a diet of precisely portioned dry food. He also left Ginny's meals on the counter, out of reach of Vita, who isn't as fit. She, on the other hand, objected to her diet.
Mr. Owen explained, "She gets really affectionate." "She tries to bring me down."
According to a poll of pet owners conducted by Pumpkin, a pet insurance business, and Fi, a smart dog collar startup, more than half of dogs that gained weight during the epidemic did so with their owners – some even while they were more active. Humans and dogs can also replicate one other's moods and stress levels, according to several studies.
Rachel Kiri Walker, a Los Angeles resident, described herself as "extremely unhappy" during the start of the pandemic. After a breakup, her ex-boyfriend moved out, separating Senator Bucky, her 5-year-old dog, from his father.
"Whenever I was weeping, he'd come up to me and lick my face and be more loving," Ms. Walker explained. "It's incredible how intuitive a creature can be."
Bucky was also upset, she realized, after he urinated on furniture – on purpose, she added, something he had never done before.
Ms. Walker believes that his quick 10-pound increase was due to a combination of stress and more bone marrow treats and table scraps. Bucky, a Border collie and golden retriever mix, weighs around 45 pounds now.
Stress and anxiety in dogs manifest themselves in a variety of ways. More than 80% of the owners in a 2018 study published in The Journal of Veterinary Behavior believed their dogs demonstrated evidence of emotional eating, or "stress eating," behavior when they were "unhappy."
Pets may develop anxiety from various sources as owners return to prepandemic regimens. When Ms. Holbrook's toy poodle Henry's owners leave for work, he develops separation anxiety. Other dogs have had little socialization as a result of the pandemic, making them unable to have good interactions with people and animals in activities that were once common.
Bucky, who is normally peaceful, became possessive of Ms. Walker when other dogs tried to say hi, according to Ms. Walker. Bucky was thrilled to meet and play with other dogs when she first started bringing him on treks to help him lose weight.
When it comes to weight loss, however, Dr. Bolser believes that, like people, it is more difficult for pets to lose weight than it is to gain it. More walks will not always be enough to compensate for overindulgence in eating.
Dr. Preeti N. Malani, an infectious disease specialist and the University of Michigan's chief health officer, was surprised by how difficult it was to discourage antics like breaking into a neighbor's house to eat their dog's food and sniffing out pizza crusts that students had discarded on campus when she adopted an English Labrador during the pandemic.
Dr. Malani described Labradors like Sully, her puppy, as "vacuum cleaners. She's maintained him slim by only giving him fruits and veggies for snacks and enrolling him in a day care that keeps him active, social, and stimulated while she's at work.
The pandemic is one of those circumstances when you just have to be even more thoughtful," Dr. Bolser said, adding that pet owners should make long-term health plans for their animals. "Preventing obesity will help to prevent and lessen a variety of other health problems.
So when a visit to the veterinarian alerted Ms. Holbrook and her husband to Henry’s growing weight, they recognized which routines required altering.
I discovered that part of my husband's morning routine is to put five Cheerios in Henry's bowl because he thinks it's so charming, Ms. Holbrook said. It started with five, and now there are only a few.
I'm like, John, you've got to stop, she continued. He's getting a little too spoilt.