The People and Pets Health Connection
People and dogs have always leaned on one another. In return for food, shelter, and affection, dogs are helpmates in everything from retrieving downed ducks to guarding the house and guiding the blind. For most of us, though, the “services” we receive from our dogs are much less utilitarian but equally endearing: they adore us when we’re up, when we’re down, and even when we’re having a bad hair day, wearing our rattiest old bathrobe, and feeling cranky. They sit on (not just at) our feet, wait for us at the door, and go to great lengths to wriggle into a spot right beside us whenever they can get away with it. They make us laugh by being silly and full of puppy charm, regardless of their age; and they have an uncanny ability to read our emotions and sync themselves up, ready and willing to be cheerful or mad just because we are.
Somehow all the small acts of affection, concern, loyalty, and furriness add up to more than just gestures and companionship. Research has proven that having a dog is good for your health in a number of measurable and not-so-measurable ways. Studies show that people who own pets tend to have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels than those who don’t. Pet owners have better odds of surviving heart attacks than patients without pets. As a group, pet owners find their chronic pain diminished, make fewer trips to the doctor, are less medicated, less lonely, less depressed, and less stressed than their petless counterparts—and those are just the subtle, unintended benefits of time spent with our four-legged and furry companions. For those who deliberately harness the health benefits of pets, there are even greater rewards to be reaped. Dogs have been trained to provide services that assist people with a vast range of needs—including guiding the blind, serving as hearing companions for the deaf, helping the physically challenged to overcome obstacles, and serving to alert their owners of imminent seizures or blood-sugar imbalances. Dogs are used to tremendous effect in therapeutic and educational settings, doing everything from helping kids learn to read in classrooms to providing much-needed inspiration for residents of nursing homes to increase their levels of activity and social interaction.
In these kinds of win/win partnerships, dogs also reap some surprising benefits. You may have read that when you pet your dog, your blood pressure drops and the level of the feel-good hormones such as oxytocin, prolactin, and serotonin in your blood increases. But did you also know that during that interaction, your dog experiences the same benefits—his blood pressure drops and he receives a biochemical spa treatment, too? Your dog’s longevity is directly tied to the care you provide; everything from a roof over his head at night and regular veterinary visits to optimum nutrition and the affection that makes him feel loved and needed contributes to his good health. A dog who’s been abandoned has a life expectancy of a year or less. Those who live in loving homes can expect to live to their breeds’ expectancy—anywhere from seven years to eighteen or more.
Despite all the good that people and pets do one another, in recent years our healthful relationship has taken an unexpected turn. In our increasingly sedentary, stressed-out, and overfed culture, people are consuming more calories, exercising less, and collectively getting more overweight by the minute. Without intending to cause any harm, many of us have shared our generous portions and inactive routines with our beloved pets. We share our couches and beds, as well as our ice cream and cookies, with our dogs, and they’re very happy to get on board with whatever lifestyle we’re offering—especially one that’s heavy on the treats. Centuries of species self-preservation have left most dogs with a strong desire to consume any edible bite they can find—they’ve historically survived as scavengers, after all. Many will eat as much, and as often, as you’ll let them.
Scaling Up, Side by Side
One big (and growing) result of these changes in lifestyle for pets and people is the effect Dr. Kushner has dubbed scaling up—weight gain that’s a common, if unwelcome, life experience. Scaling up describes how people put on pounds not just through failed willpower or the wrong mix of carbs and protein, but because we live in a society where every aspect of our food consumption and activity levels seems designed to add weight to our frames. Factors like crammed-full schedules, crammed-full plates, desk jobs, slowing metabolisms, and a lack of time to devote to the care and maintenance of our bodies all contribute to it gradually. Scaling up doesn’t even necessarily imply poor choices—it means that just following the basic eating and exercise trends our society offers is enough to make trying to maintain—or reduce—your current weight a losing battle.
The concept applies equally well to dogs, who are truly the victims of their environments as they pack on the pounds. Often, it’s just our generosity that’s making them chubby! Our food-is-love affection adds up to lots of treats, lots of off-the-table snacks, and too much kibble in the bowl from day to day.
Surprisingly, when you look past the basic calories-in/calories-out equation for both people and dogs, the roots of this crisis are very similar for both species. In a nutshell: most of us are not using our bodies the way nature—and natural selection—intended. The human body is “designed” for function—for movement. Up until the twentieth-century inventions of the automobile, the washing machine, riding lawnmowers, power tools, personal computers, and countless other gadgets and gizmos designed to reduce the physical labor in our personal and professional lives, average folks were in near-constant motion. A recent study that highlighted this point was led by researchers from the University of Tennessee. To try to come up with an assessment of the physical exertion previous generations might have made, the team asked members of an old-order Amish community in Canada to wear pedometers as they went about their daily lives. The chosen community is one that shuns modern conveniences and continues to maintain a self-sufficient farming lifestyle. Though there was no deliberate effort made by the participants
to “exercise,” as they kept up their normal routines, the men logged an average of more than 18,000 steps a day. The women logged an average of more than 14,000. To put those numbers in perspective, the average American is currently walking between 3,000 and 5,000 steps a day, and the goal you’ll read about in this book, the one fitness plans and gurus across the country have embraced as an ideal exertion level, is 10,000 steps. Taking close to double that number of steps, the Amish men were getting the same level of workout as a long-distance runner by just doing their daily work. Though their other physical efforts were not measured, it’s a pretty safe bet that the people in this community were also doing more lifting, bending, squatting, stretching, and general exercising than your average, say, computer programmer, magazine editor, or retail store clerk.
Just as we humans are not living up to our physical potential, neither are our dogs. Before selective breeding, rather than finding food in a bowl, they were always walking and running in search of “fast food.” In more recent history, hundreds of years of selective breeding designed most dogs to be tireless physical workers. Breeds like Labs and goldens and border collies and shelties and huskies and many, many others are genetically programmed to run, not just walk, for hours without getting worn out. Historically, the majority of dog breeds were selectively bred to either hunt or herd alongside their owners. Their functions ranged widely, but in most cases, the intent was to train an effective “tool” for the family. Everything about their frames, their musculature, and their mental abilities is designed for a life on the go. It contradicts your dog’s hardwiring and natural inclinations to sideline all that physicality on the couch, often alone, day in and day out, not far from pantries bursting with food and treats. As both species become more and more out of shape, we experience almost identical health complications of overweight and obesity, including heart disease, diabetes, joint ailments, and an increased risk of cancer. New studies even suggest those extra pounds may put us at higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease as well. What’s more, we share the experience of getting trapped by our own symptoms—the more weight we gain, the more the aches and pains and feelings of being tired and heavy keep us from getting the exercise that could help improve our circumstances.
In our “thin is in” culture, with underweight models and actors staring back at us from every billboard, magazine cover, TV, and computer screen, most people with weight issues are aware of the problem. If you have any doubt, it’s easy to find a Body Mass Index (BMI) chart and a scale to make an assessment. (For convenience we’ve added a BMI chart with some examples on page nnn.) For better or worse, that’s not at all the case for assessing the body condition of dogs. Because of substantial breed differences, nailing down pet-weight statistics is sticky business. Depending on the source, the number of dogs that are overweight or obese is about 40 percent and rising steadily. One recent study (of both dogs and cats) puts the number as high as 60 percent. Even more surprising is the fact that almost half of the owners of overweight pets that participated in that study described their pets’ body condition as “ideal.”
The perception of pudgy pooches as perfectly fine is one of the significant challenges pet owners and veterinarians face in trying to help dogs maintain healthy weights. We really do love them just the way they are, and there are no rail-thin dog models reminding us at our every turn that our pups might have a problem. As the study mentioned in the previous paragraph shows, we not only love our dogs at any weight or size, we’re often oblivious to the fact that there’s anything “wrong” with them at all.
So, if your dog is happy carrying around a few extra pounds, and if you adore him at any weight, why bother to help him get in shape? The fact is that overweight pets cope with almost all the same health implications that overweight people do—but they cope with them sooner and with more potential ill effects. Dogs don’t have the luxury of long lives to cushion the complications of weight gain. While you have a projected lifespan of seven decades plus a few years, your dog is looking at a much shorter life. With an average of twelve short years on this earth, dogs truly need every health advantage they can get. Research shows that trim pets live about 15 percent longer, or an average of two additional years, than overweight pets. That’s an incredibly sobering statistic for anyone who lives with and loves a dog. The fountain of youth for our furry friends may just be putting less food in their mouths and more miles on their feet.
The effect of extra weight on a dog’s lifespan carries across breeds, affecting dogs as different from one another as bichons and beagles and boxers. There is another big consideration to keep in mind when you assess your dog’s weight, though, and that’s his size. On a body frame that averages 150 pounds, humans have a little room to grow, so to speak. But small dogs begin to suffer health problems with just a couple extra pounds on their compact bodies. In fact, just 1 extra pound on the frame of a 10-pound dog is equivalent to more than 20 pounds on an average adult human! If you think that an extra pound on Fido is no big deal, just put a can of soup on the middle of your pet’s back, and imagine him packing it around 24/7.
A New Solution
Until now, the weight-related health crisis in people and the same crisis in dogs have been addressed separately. Veterinarians recommend diet changes and increased activity for overweight dogs. Doctors recommend diet changes and increased activity for overweight people. For some, those suggestions, or one of a host of programs designed to help them stick to the changes, help solve the problem. For many, the challenge is more than they’re ready to face. Many dog owners even tell us they aren’t able to stick to their dogs’ weight-loss programs because they can’t stand to see their four-legged friends deprived. (If you’ve ever watched your dog put on a full-fledged, Oscar-worthy “Can’t you see I’m wasting away?” routine to get a scrap of food, you can understand how this could happen.) The challenge, of course, is figuring out a way to change our eating and exercise habits without making our lives so miserable that we give up and quit before the program can make any difference.
The solution comes in the form of Fitness Unleashed, a simple, comprehensive program that encourages dog owners to harness the inspiration, companionship, and sense of duty to their friend by turning to the four-legged personal trainer who works just for the love of it. The National Institutes of Health estimates that Americans spend $36 billion a year on weight-loss products and services, but for many of us, the best piece of exercise equipment is standing by the door with its leash in its mouth, with no membership fees or installment payments required.
The Fitness Unleashed program came about when a research study caused our professional paths to cross. As authors and guardians of health, both of us have built our careers on promoting health and well-being—in people, in pets, and now in both. In our separate fields, we’ve kept our eyes and ears open for methods, ideas, and innovations that might make life easier or more enjoyable for the patients who rely on us. One eye-opening, ear-perking moment occurred three years ago when an executive from Hill’s Pet Nutrition called Dr. Kushner to propose jointly developing a weight-management program that would help both overweight people and pets. With so many proven, positive health implications of pets in other areas of medicine, it was a concept that made perfect sense. After all, many weight-loss studies had shown that social support for any diet and exercise program is one of the best predictors of its success. Having someone around to encourage you to stick with it, to participate alongside you, and to push you through the hard days is one of the true keys to successful weight loss. Why not take a hard look at how a group of overweight pet owners and their overweight dogs might be able to help each other shed pounds and gain health?
Both Dr. Kushner and Hill’s Pet Nutrition were interested to see if a study could prove dogs were as good at providing social support as people are. If it worked, a whole new type of fitness program might be possible.
Excerpted from Fitness Unleashed! by Marty Becker, D.V.M., and Robert Kushner, M.D.. Copyright © 2006 by Marty Dvm Becker. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.