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Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

What Your Pet's Lifestyle and Diet Says about You

May 03, 2013 / (3) comments

I’m sure you’ve heard the adage about how dogs and their owners often look alike. Turns out we also often share diet and lifestyle characteristics, particularly as we get older.


A 2011 study looked at similarities and differences in diet and lifestyle between 155 cat and 318 dog owners and their pets. It came to some interesting conclusions.


Eighteen percent of the dogs were reported to be overweight, which is probably a significant underestimate since owners are notoriously bad at recognizing whether or not their pets are plump. Current, unbiased estimates put the number closer to 55 percent in the United States. Forty-nine percent of the dogs had access to food at all times — an unexpectedly high number, I thought.


Overweight dogs tended to have overweight, older owners. Not surprisingly, these owners and dogs both tended to suffer from poor health. Also, “younger dog owners were more likely to have an overweight dog if they themselves were obese. Similarities were found in owner’s and pets’ diet and lifestyle issues with ageing.” The older dogs got, the less exercise their owners tended to get, the fewer fruits, vegetables, and whole grains they (the owners) ate, the more added fat they (the owners) ate, and the higher the owner’s body mass index tended to be.


Cats and their caregivers didn’t fare much better. Fourteen percent of cats were reported to be overweight (again, almost assuredly a significant underrepresentation since current estimates are around 54 percent in the U.S.), with 87 percent having access to food at all times. Overweight, older owners tended to own overweight cats. The same trend was observed in younger cat owners but was not statistically significant.


All of these findings are correlations; in other words, characteristics that are associated but not necessarily caused by one another. That said, owners do tend to project their own behaviors, likes and dislikes, etc. onto their pets. Sometimes, this can be for the good. For example, a person who enjoys jogging may assume, rightfully so, that their dog likes to accompany them. On a cold or damp morning, when an extra cup of coffee and a donut sounds much more appealing, these owners may drag themselves out the door to avoid disappointing the dog. On the other hand, owners who turn to food for solace or to relieve boredom and don’t put a high priority on a good diet and regular exercise are unlikely to encourage healthier habits in their pets than they practice themselves.


I’m sure all of these factors are part of the reason why it can be so difficult to achieve meaningful weight loss in overweight dogs. Poor nutritional choices and exercise habits are often a family-wide problem. I wonder if there’s a need for veterinary and human nutritionists to team up and address the needs of the entire household. What do you think?



Dr. Jennifer Coates




Heuberger R, Wakshlag J. Characteristics of ageing pets and their owners: dogs v. cats. Br J Nutr. 2011 Oct; 106 Suppl 1:S150-3.



Image: LovelyColorPhoto / via Shutterstock

Comments  3

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  • Our habits and our dogs
    05/03/2013 07:09pm

    In my unscientific observations this may hold true much of the time. I knew a woman who spent many years on the brink of anorexia nervosa. Her horses were always very thin. Currently, I work with a VERY thin dog who has a VERY thin owner. She smokes a great deal and will not give her dog any treats. The dog gets treats only at our training sessions.
    I take care of three draft horses and a 165 pound dog when the owner goes out of town. The owner is VERY large, the horses are very large and so is the dog. The horses, though, are not overweight. They are just BIG. The dog and the owner, well, both are heavy. The other overweight owner I work with is very careful of her little dog, as she has competed in conformation. He dog is not fat at all.
    My dog and I get a lot of exercise. We hike or do run/walk sessions five or six times a week. I also do other workouts and my dog and I do formal obedience sessions three times a week. I really like to exercise; sometimes it is the only way I can relieve stress. I can tell you though, that my dog is extremely fit but he is NOT skinny. He is very food motivated and I do spoil him with home made treats. I also make sure he gets fresh food and high quality dog food and since he does get so many treats, his meals are small. Still, it is a good thing we get a lot of exercise or he would be a FAT sheltie. Come to think of it, although I choose healthful foods for myself, I do like to have dessert every night so I am not so different from my dog. I would rather exercise than deprive myself to stay slim!

  • 05/10/2013 05:10pm

    Like us, our pets only live once, too, so we try to provide what they like, and what will keep them healthy, rather than getting spastic over finding the ellusive "perfect" pet foods.

    It does make me cringe a little to read when an owner is smoking around pets as that was what caused me to stop smoking over 30 years ago. Seeing what the second hand smoke was doing to my pets, just externally, was enough to make me feel very bad about subjecting them to this toxin. Not surprisingly, we have also dealt with a lot of fosters/strays over the years and the only two cats who contracted cancer came from homes where there had been smokers.

  • Makes Sense
    05/03/2013 08:08pm

    It makes sense that if the human puts a high importance on food, that sense of importance will encompass the critter. If the human uses food for solace, it makes sense that treats for the critter will hold great importance, too.