No one needs to be reminded that Canadians are getting fatter. But it seems that as the numbers on our scales creep upward, we’re taking our pets along with us.

It’s hard to get a good handle on rates of pet obesity in Canada (estimates in the U.S. suggest it affects between 35 and 55 per cent of pets). But vets like Dr. Jim Berry can tell you it’s certainly a growing problem.

Berry, the president-elect of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, has seen some very portly pets in his time: dogs so overweight that just getting up to go to the bathroom is a struggle, or cats too rotund to even groom themselves.

“It can be really sad,” he told from his Fredericton clinic, the Douglas Animal Hospital. “Some of these pets are older animals and their owners are very bonded to them. And you have to try to gently tell them that their pet is so overweight because they have been killing them with kindness.”

On the one hand, the problem of pet obesity is a simple one: too much eating, not enough exercise. But just like with humans, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Often, the biggest hurdle, says Berry, is pet owners who are in denial.

“One of the things that owners are most shocked to hear about when they go for a vet visit is that their pet is overweight,” says Berry. “And yet from a vet’s point of view, it’s the most common health problem we’re seeing these days.”

Perhaps the reason pet owners are stunned is that our perceptions of “fat” have changed, just as they have with humans. There are so many overweight dogs and cats around now, pet owners have forgotten what normal looks like.

“What I usually tell people is that if people are telling you your dog is too thin, he’s probably about right. That’s where it’s gotten to now,” Berry says.

In general, the standard test for measuring pet obesity is to run your hands along their back. If you can’t feel good waist definition or their last two ribs, they’re too fat.

According to the Canada Pet Wellness Report released by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association along with Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a lack of exercise is another key problem. Vets estimate 55 per cent of Canadian dogs and 70 per cent of cats simply do not get enough playtime.

That’s too bad, says Berry, because play is what pets love most. 

“Most dogs and cats are built for all-day exercise. They don’t sit still all day unless we force that onto them,” he says.

The reasons why pets are not getting the exercise they need are likely for the same for why owners themselves aren't getting enough. But Berry says carving out time for pet playtime offers so many benefits -- especially for dogs.

“The beauty of exercise is not just that you will control your dog’s weight -- which is, of course, very important -- you will help them be a nicer pet to be around. Because you will settle them down,” he says. “And you get the bonus of interacting with your pet, which is hopefully why you got them in the first place. So it’s all win-win.”

Berry says something else in the culture of pet ownership has shifted in recent years. Twenty or 30 years ago, most dogs and cats stayed outdoors most of the day. If they were allowed in, it was only in the kitchen. These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a doghouse in your neighbourhood.

Nowadays, our dogs are not just in the house; they are curled up in our laps or sleeping in our beds, snuggled up under the covers. Cats, too, are more likely to be indoor pets than outdoor prowlers. If they get play at all, it’s with felt mice -- not the real thing.  

And yet it’s clear that Canadians adore their pets, seeing them as vital members of the family. It’s almost expected that pets will get gifts at Christmas time or stockings filled with treats. Pet stores are filled with colour-coordinated outfits, booties and Halloween costumes. Some owners are even choosing to ferry their small pets around in pet strollers that look an awful lot like prams.

Berry has noticed the trend toward “infantilization” of pets, too.

“And overfeeding has become part of that, because they become the pampered child,” he says.

Pet treats are a big cause of obesity, Berry says. So too are table scraps. But vets polled in the CVMA survey say the top problem is really just too much pet food.

Most owners who are overfeeding their pets do it because they feel sorry for them, Berry believes, often out of guilt. But the pet food industry can share some of the blame too.

There are now plenty of so-called “diet” and weight-loss pet foods out there, says Berry, but the calorie and fat counts of these foods can be all over the map. Because no one has set a standard, it’s no wonder pet owners get confused, he says.

“I know this sounds self-serving but honestly, the best nutrition advice you’re going to get is from your vet and veterinary staff. They can tell you the brands that they recommend, or give advice on best brands at the grocery store.”

Interestingly, pets have just as much trouble losing weight and keeping it off as humans, and research suggests that weight loss plans for pets are often abandoned.

But sticking to a weight-loss plan is crucial, Berry says, because -- again, just like with humans -- obesity can lead to all kinds of health problems, including diabetes, liver disease and even some forms of cancer. 

If left too long, overweight pets often develop arthritis or mobility issues that then make it nearly impossible to fix the problem, because the animals can no longer move without pain.

Even a weight loss of four or five kilograms on a dog the size of a lab can make a big difference in their quality of life, Berry says. And if pet owners are willing to hold off on the treats and get their pets moving, the weight will come off.

“I’d say about 10 per cent of the pet owners I see take it to heart,” he says, referring to his counselling on weight loss.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot – but in my world, that’s good. And once those pets lose the weight, they can get their energy back. And then, they’re just happier pets.”