Yes, Your Pets Can Put On Pandemic Pounds Too

It had been a year since Henry’s last haircut and Michelle Holbrook didn’t realize that her crazy 7lb toy poodle was now almost 9lbs. His cute, shaggy appearance not only disguised his weight, it made it harder for the Holbrooks to resist his begging.

“He’s a little rascal,” said Mrs. Holbrook, a medical examiner in Chicago. “He hears me when I open the cheese drawer in the fridge and he comes running.”

Henry, 7, is one of several food-motivated pets who have surprised their owners with their weight gain over the past two years. While veterinarians and pet owners usually attribute the extra pounds to an increasing urge to adopt 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 in the country, found that nearly 40 percent of cats and nearly 35 percent of dogs were overweight by 2020, up from 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.

“We’re all dealing with pandemic pounds,” says Dr. Jennifer Bolser, principal veterinarian at the clinic for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, in Colorado. For pets, as with humans, bad habits include overeating, snacking too much, and not exercising enough. People find it harder not to overindulge pets while they’re stuck at home.

Anthony Osuna, a psychologist, said he and his partner took Pavlov, their little corgi, to dog-friendly beaches, malls and restaurants in Southern California. But when the pandemic shut down, Pavlov, 6, lost his enthusiasm for outings — even hikes.

“I felt like we were disappointing him,” said Mr. Osuna. “That contributed to a lot of people’s weight gain — the extra snacks and dessert and boba and coffee you’d do to make yourself feel better during the pandemic. And with him too; we’d buy him treats, we’d give him give snacks.

Pavlov’s weight crept to about 28 pounds, from 23 pounds, prompting Mr. Osuna to reduce his portions and limit snacks (popcorn is a favorite).

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

John Owen, a retired contract manager in Boulder, Colorado who has adopted more than 150 cats in the past decade, said he needed to introduce a much stricter diet for his own cat, Vita. He was used to leaving food for her and her sister Ginny all day long so they could come and go. But Vita, 3, started eating too much.

“She went from about 15lbs to 19lbs – huge,” said Mr Owen. “Of course I gained a few kilos during the pandemic. But that’s neither here nor there.”


March 3, 2022, 7:53 PM ET

He put Vita on carefully portioned dry food. He also left Ginny’s meals on the counter, which Vita – who is not very fit – can’t reach. But she protested her diet.

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

A survey of pet owners by Pumpkin, a pet insurance company, and Fi, which makes smart dog collars, found that more than 50 percent of dogs that gained weight during the pandemic did so with their owners — some even when they were more active. A number of studies have also found 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. When a breakup prompted her then-boyfriend to move, her dog, Senator Bucky, 5, divorced his father.

“Every time I cried, he would come up to me and lick my face and be extra cuddly,” Ms. Walker said. “It’s amazing that a being can be so intuitive.”

But she recognized that Bucky was also stressed after peeing on furniture — intentionally, she said, which 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 mix of border collie and golden retriever, Bucky is now about 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 percent of observed owners thought their dogs showed signs of emotional eating or “stress eating” behavior when they were “unhappy.”

As owners return to prepandemic routines, pets may develop anxiety from other sources. Mrs. Holbrook’s toy poodle, Henry, has developed separation anxiety when his owners leave for work. Other dogs have had limited socialization during the pandemic, preventing them from having healthy interactions with people and animals in what were once typical activities.

Mrs Walker said Bucky, who is otherwise calm, had become possessive of her when other dogs tried to say hello. When she started taking Bucky on walks to help him shed pounds, she found that he was also excited to meet and play with other dogs.

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But when it comes to weight loss, said Dr. Bolser that, just like with humans, it is more difficult for pets to shed pounds than to gain them. More walks can’t always counterbalance indulgent food.

When Dr. Preeti N. Malani, an infectious disease specialist and the chief health officer of the University of Michigan, who adopted an English Labrador during the pandemic, was surprised by how hard it was to discourage antics like breaking into a neighbor’s house. eating their dog food and sniffing pizza crusts that college students had thrown away.

“They’re vacuum cleaners,” said Dr. Malani about Labradors like Sully, her puppy. She’s kept him slim by refusing to give snacks other than fruits and vegetables and enrolling him in a 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,” said Dr. Bolser, 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 what habits needed to be modified.

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

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

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