Most dogs and owners share an unbreakable emotional bond. But can they also share expanding waistlines?
Yes, said Danish researchers, who found that Fido is twice as likely to be heavy or obese if his owner is as well.
'Hang out' indulgence
Why? "Based on our findings, it seems that the way owners give their dog treats is related to the owner's weight," explained study author Dr Charlotte Bjornvad, a professor in companion animal internal medicine at the University of Copenhagen.
"Trim and overweight owners both give their dogs treats," she noted. But "there seems to be two ways to use treats."
Some offer treats to reinforce training or coax more activity, explained Bjornvad. But others share treats as a "hang out" indulgence.
Danish people have a specific name for it: "hygge". Roughly translated as "cozy", the term refers to enjoying mutual relaxation, inactivity and snacking, either alone or with friends and pets.
Based on a dog-rearing questionnaire completed by 268 owners in Denmark, the study team concluded that overweight and obese owners are more likely to offer their dogs "hygge treats" than trim owners. (One-fifth of the dogs were either heavy or obese.)
It may also be that overweight owners "spend more time relaxing, and therefore they give more treats during relaxation," added Bjornvad, though her team did not test that theory.
Higher risk for osteoarthritis
But is the "hygge" affect a Danish problem or a global concern? It's "more a universal finding", Bjornvad said.
"Pet obesity is a major problem in most Western countries," she observed. "And, like in humans, [being] overweight decreases the dog's quality of life as well as expected lifespan."
The study, in Preventive Veterinary Medicine, pointed out that heavy dogs live 1.3 fewer years, on average, perhaps due to a higher risk for osteoarthritis.
Gender also affects canine obesity risk, with female dogs more prone to obesity than males.
But in a first, the study found that when male dogs are neutered, they face a three times greater risk for becoming heavy or obese, compared with male dogs who aren't. No similar finding was seen among female dogs who are sterilized.
"In Scandinavian countries, there is a very low rate of neutering in dogs and no street dogs," said Bjornvad. "Perhaps it is time to reconsider the policy widely followed in the US to neuter all dogs that are not intended for breeding."
Excessive snacking has consequences
And as to what the hygge affect might mean for dog rearing, Bjornvad said she hoped the findings "contribute to owners being more aware of how their habits can influence their dogs' risk of becoming overweight.
"It is difficult to deny your dog the pleasure of treats or snacks," she acknowledged, "especially if it is an important part of your time spent together. By becoming aware that also for your dog excessive snacking has consequences, it may motivate restricting the amount, or switching to low-calorie snacks, to the benefit of both the dog and its owner."
Lona Sandon is programme director in the Department of Clinical Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. She noted much has been said about how dog ownership can help owners stay trim, given the need for daily walking.
"But we probably have dog owners that are active health-conscious people who walk their dogs regularly and dog owners who may be less health-conscious for themselves and their dogs, and do not walk their dogs regularly," Sandon said.
Findings might have an upside
Regarding treat-handling differences, Sandon's theory "is that humans project their thoughts, feelings and habits onto their pets.
"We tend to treat our pets like kids," she added. "So if you use food to express affection to others like your kids, perhaps you're more likely to do that with your dog, too. Or if you use food, let's say ice cream, to treat a bad mood, and your dog is your best friend keeping company with you, you might also treat the dog, or share your ice cream, thinking the dog will feel better, too."
But Sandon said the Danish findings might have an upside.
"Maybe we could use this to get humans to make healthier lifestyles for themselves," she said. "Teach them to provide proper food and exercise for the dog, and maybe the dog's healthier lifestyle will rub off on humans."
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