People often smile when they see a chubby dog ambling through a park. There’s something endearing, even comical, about rotund pets. But look more closely and you’ll notice a stiffened gait, labored breathing and a lack of energy—nothing to smile about.
Sadly, this is not a rare sight: An estimated 17 million dogs in United States are overweight or obese—and, like canine waistlines, the numbers keep expanding.
“The reasons for the pet obesity epidemic are the same as the human obesity explosion: We’re eating too much and exercising too little,” says Dr. Ernest Ward Jr., a North Carolina veterinarian and president of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention  (APOP). “In addition, what we’re feeding dogs has changed.”
By doling out diets high in carbohydrates, sugar and fat, we’re making our dogs fat. Dr. Ward explains. They stay leaner and healthier with a higher protein diet.
On top of poor nutrition, we’re giving our dogs too much. Most of us rely on a combination of guesswork and feeding instructions to determine how to feed our dogs rather than working out a diet tailored to our specific pets. We don’t know how many calories they need (far fewer than you think) or how many calories are in the food (often more than you think). Calorie counts aren’t on most food labels, and when calorie counts are included, some can be confusing and inconsistent.
And then there are the add-ons—biscuits, cookies, jerky, table scraps and on and on. APOP estimates that 90 percent of pet owners give their dogs treats, many of which are high in calories, carbohydrates and sugar. They’re called treats for a reason.
“If I could only point to one factor causing the modern-day pet obesity epidemic, it would have to be treats,” Dr. Ward says. “It’s that seemingly innocent extra 50 calories a day in the form of a chew or cookie that adds up to a pound or two each year. By the time a dog or cat reaches mid-life, it’s overweight and health risks begin to skyrocket.”
There’s the rub. Weight control is not about winning beauty contests, at least not for most of dogs. It’s about the quality and duration of their lives.
“While those extra five pounds around your waist might not mean much to you and your health, that extra five pounds around your average dog and cat can pose a lot of health risks,” says Dr. Maria Manrique, a Chicago veterinarian speaking for the American Veterinary Medical Association  (AVMA). The AVMA links pet obesity directly with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, as well as an increased risk for cancer and orthopedic problems, including painful and debilitating knee injuries and arthritis. In addition, overweight dogs are more prone to heat exhaustion and exercise intolerance.
A key to our dogs’ health is getting a jump on the problem. Maintaining a healthy weight for your dog is lot easier and less expensive than treating any of the disease conditions that result from being overweight. Smart diet and consistent exercise not only saves your health care dollars and spares your dogs discomfort and suffering, it will probably extend their lives.
A 14-year benchmark study of Labrador Retrievers demonstrated that dogs kept at a healthy weight from puppyhood lived 15 percent longer than their overweight peers. That’s two additional happy, healthy years with your best friend. That’s the best treat of all.