Yes, Your Pets Can Also Put on Pandemic Pounds

It’s been a year since Henry’s last haircut and Michelle Holbrook didn’t realize that her 7-pound toy poodle. Now weighed nearly 9 pounds. His cute, shaggy appearance not only masked his weight, but also made it difficult for the Holbrooks to resist his entreaties.

“He’s a little rascal,” said Ms. Holbrook, a Chicago medical researcher. “He will hear me when I open the cheese box in the fridge and come running.”

Henry, 7, is one of many food-motivated pets who have surprised their owners with weight gain over the past two years. While veterinarians. And pet owners mostly attribute weight gain to the growing push to kick bad habits during the coronavirus pandemic, pet obesity has long been a problem in the United States.

Banfield Pet Hospital, which operates more than 1,000 veterinary clinics in the country, found that nearly 40 percent of cats and nearly 35 percent of dogs were overweight diagnosed in 2020 compared to less than 20 percent a decade ago. Banfield also saw a slight increase – about 2 percent – in dogs diagnosed as overweight from March 2020 to December of that year, at the start of the pandemic.

“Pandemic pounds are coming into play for all of us,” said Dr. Jennifer Bolser, chief veterinarian at the Boulder Valley Humane Society Clinic in Colorado. In pets, just like in humans, bad habits include overeating, snacking too much, and not getting enough exercise. It’s harder for people not to spoil pets when they’re stuck at home with them.

Anthony Osuna, a resident psychologist, said he and his partner took Pavlov, their miniature corgi, to beaches, malls and dog-friendly restaurants in Southern California. But when the pandemic ended, 6-year-old Pavlov lost his enthusiasm for going out – even walking.

“I felt that we disappointed him,” Mr. Osuna said. “It has contributed to people’s massive weight gain — the extra snacks, dessert, beans and coffee you’ve been making to feel better during the pandemic. And with him too; we bought him treats, we gave him snacks.”

Pavlov’s weight jumped from 23 pounds to around 28 pounds, prompting Mr. Osuna to cut back on portions and limit snacking (popcorn is his favorite).

“He didn’t look very fat,” Mr. Osuna said. “But with the extra snacks and reduced activity, it worked out.”

John Owen, a retired contracts manager in Boulder, Colorado who has adopted more than 150 cats in the past decade, said he had to introduce a much more restrictive diet for his cat Vita. He was used to leaving food for her and her sister Ginny all day long, letting them come and go. But three-year-old Vita began to overeat.

“She went from 15 pounds to 19 pounds – gigantic,” Mr. Owen said. “Of course I put on pounds during the pandemic. But it’s neither here nor there.”

“She becomes very affectionate,” Mr. Owen said. “She’s trying to make me break.”

BUT survey pet insurance company Pumpkin, which makes smart dog collars, and Fi, which makes smart dog collars, found that more than 50 percent of dogs that gained weight during the pandemic gained weight along with their owners, and some even when they were more active. BUT number from research also found that humans and dogs can mirror each other’s emotions and stress levels.

Rachel Keery Walker, who lives in Los Angeles, said she was “very depressed” at the start of the pandemic. The breakup then prompted her then-boyfriend to move out, separating her dog, 5-year-old Senator Bucky, from his father.

“Every time I cried, he would come up and lick my face and be very affectionate,” Ms Walker said. “It’s amazing that a creature can be so intuitive.”

But she admitted that Bucky, too, was stressed out after urinating on the furniture—intentionally, she said, something he hadn’t done before.

His potential stress, along with extra bone marrow treats and table scraps, likely contributed to his rapid 10-pound gain, Ms Walker said. A fluffy Border Collie/Golden Retriever mix, Bucky now weighs around 45 pounds.

Symptoms of stress and anxiety in dogs can vary. IN 2018 study published in The Journal of Veterinary Behavior, over 80% of owners thought their dogs showed signs of emotional overeating or “food stress” when they were “unhappy.”

As owners return to pre-pandemic routines, pets may develop anxiety from other sources. Henry, Miss Holbrook’s toy poodle, has developed separation anxiety when his owners leave for work. Other dogs have had limited socialization during the pandemic, leaving them unable to interact normally with people and animals in what was once a typical activity.

Ms. Walker said that Bucky, who is otherwise calm, became possessive of her when the other dogs tried to say hello. When she started taking Bucky on hikes to help him lose weight, she found that he also enjoyed meeting and playing with other dogs.

But when it comes to weight loss, Dr. Bolser said that, like people, it’s harder for pets to shed pounds than to gain them. More walking may not always counteract indulgent eating.

When Dr. Preity N. Malani, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at the University of Michigan, adopted an English Labrador during the pandemic. She was surprised at how difficult it was to stop antics like breaking into a neighbor’s house to eat dog food and sniffing out pizza crusts that students threw away on campus.

“These are vacuum cleaners,” Dr. Malaney said of Labs like Sally, her puppy. She kept him slim by refusing to give snacks other than fruit and vegetables and by enrolling him in a daycare that keeps him active, social and motivated while she is at work.

“A pandemic is one of those situations where you just have to be even more thoughtful,” Dr. Bolser said, adding that owners should plan for their pets’ health over the long term. “Preventing obesity will prevent and help minimize a host of other diseases.”

So when a visit to the vet brought Henry’s weight gain to Miss Holbrook’s and her husband’s attention, they knew what habits needed to be adjusted.

“I learned that part of my husband’s morning routine — because he finds it so sweet — is to put five Cheerios on Henry’s plate,” Ms. Holbrook said. “The beginning was five, and now a small handful.”

“I’m like, ‘John, you have to stop,'” she added. He’s getting so spoiled.


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