Yes, your pets can also gain pounds during a pandemic.

It had been a year since Henry’s last haircut, and Michelle Holbrook hadn’t realized that her clumsy 7-pound toy poodle now weighed almost 9 pounds. Her cute, shaggy look not only obscured her weight, but it also made it harder for the Holbrooks to resist her plea.

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

Seven-year-old Henry is one of many food-motivated pets who have surprised their owners with their weight gain over the past two years. While veterinarians and pet owners mostly attribute the extra pounds to a growing urge to indulge in bad habits during the coronavirus pandemic, pet obesity has long been a problem in the United States.

Banfield Pet Hospital, which runs more than 1,000 veterinary clinics nationwide, found nearly 40% of cats and nearly 35% of dogs were diagnosed as overweight in 2020, up from less than 20% a decade ago. years. Banfield also saw a slight increase – about 2% – in dogs diagnosed as overweight from March 2020 to December of the same year, when the pandemic began.

“We all have pandemic books that come into play,” said Dr. Jennifer Bolser, chief veterinarian at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, Colorado clinic. For pets, as for humans, bad habits include overeating, too much snacking, and not enough physical activity. People find it harder not to abuse pets when they’re stuck at home with them.

Psychology resident Anthony Osuna said he and his partner used to take Pavlov, their little corgi, to beaches, malls and dog-friendly restaurants in Southern California. But when the pandemic shut things down, 6-year-old Pavlov lost his enthusiasm for going out — even going for walks.

“I felt like we were disappointing him,” Mr Osuna said. “It contributed to the weight gain of many humans – the extra snacks, dessert, boba and coffee that you would do just to feel better during the pandemic. And with him too; we bought him treats, we gave him snacks.

Pavlov’s weight soared to around 28 pounds from 23 pounds, prompting Mr. Osuna to cut portions and limit snacks (popcorn is a favorite).

“He didn’t look really big,” Mr Osuna said. “But with the extra snacks and reduced activity, it all added up.”

John Owen, a retired contract handler in Boulder, Colorado who has bred more than 150 cats over the past decade, said he needed to introduce a much stricter diet to his own cat, Vita. He used to leave food for her and her sister Ginny all day, allowing them to come and go. But 3-year-old Vita started overeating.

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

He put Vita on carefully proportioned dry food. He also left Ginny’s meals on the counter, which Vita – who is not so fit – cannot reach. But she protested against his regime.

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

A survey of pet owners by Pumpkin, a pet insurance company, and Fi, which makes smart collars for dogs, found that more than 50% of dogs who gained weight during the pandemic did so alongside their owners, some even when they were more active. A number of studies have also shown that humans and dogs can mirror each other’s emotions and stress levels.

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

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

But she acknowledged that Bucky was also stressed after urinating on furniture – deliberately, she said, something he hadn’t done before.

Her potential stress, along with extra bone marrow treats and table scraps, likely contributed to her rapid 10-pound gain, Ms Walker said. A fluffy mix of border collie and golden retriever, Bucky now weighs around 45 pounds.

Symptoms of stress and anxiety in dogs can vary. In a 2018 study published in The Journal of Veterinary Behavior, more than 80% of owners observed thought their dogs showed signs of emotional eating or “eating stress” when they were “unhappy.”

As owners return to pre-pandemic habits, pets may develop anxiety from other sources. Henry, Mrs. Holbrook’s toy poodle, developed separation anxiety when his owners went off to work. Other dogs have had limited socialization during the pandemic, leaving them unable to have healthy interactions with people and animals in what were once typical activities.

Ms Walker said Bucky, who is otherwise calm, became possessive of her when 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, like humans, it’s harder for pets to lose weight than to gain it. More walks can’t always counteract indulgent foods.

When Dr. Preeti 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 discourage antics like breaking into a neighbor’s house to eat their dog’s food and sniffing out the pizza crusts the students had thrown around campus.

“They’re vacuum cleaners,” Dr. Malani said of Labradors like Sully, his pup. She’s kept him slim by refusing to provide him with snacks other than fruits and vegetables and enrolling him in daycare that keeps him active, social and stimulated while she’s at work.

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

So when a visit to the vet alerted Mrs. Holbrook and her husband to Henry’s increased weight, they knew which habits needed adjusting.

“I found out that part of my husband’s morning routine – because he thinks it’s so cute – is to put five Cheerios in Henry’s bowl,” Ms Holbrook said. “It started with five years, and now it’s a small handful.”

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

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