It has been my experience that most people believe that they make healthier lifestyle decisions than their generational predecessors. There is a compelling causal narrative at the core of their beliefs: scientific researchers uncover new truths about the world every day; as that newly-discovered information trickles down into the mainstream over time, we all become more informed; and informed decision-makers are “better” decision-makers. For many of us, that “trickle down” process explains much of how we form beliefs about what types of lifestyles to avoid and what types to embrace.
Many behavioral health trends fit this model well but the popularity of smoking is a particularly nice one. Prominent studies linking smoking and cancer began appearing in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1980s per capita cigarette consumption had peaked and begun declining dramatically.
Seat belt use is another example. Studies demonstrating that seat belts save lives appeared in JAMA and other journals in the mid-to-late 1950s. And by the early 1980s seat belt use had entered the mainstream, with usage rates climbing dramatically between 1983 and 1993.
You’ll notice that in both cases — cigarettes and seat belts — change took some time. Like, a few decades worth of time. That’s why I like to frame discussions of the trickle down model of behavioral change in terms of generations. Unfortunately, when a groundbreaking new study is published, it takes a while for the majority of a population to accept the new and novel findings.
The trickle down model works, but it’s slow. Change is slow.
The canine obesity epidemic is no different. The trend lines that we’ve seen develop over the past few years fit the trickle down model well, for better or (mostly) for worse.
The Nestle-Purina Lifespan Study — the one that shows quite definitely that obesity causes premature death in dogs — was completed in 2001. It’s shocking findings — chief among them the conclusion that moderately overweight dogs tend to die, on average, 15% earlier than comparatively lean dogs — were disseminated to news organizations by 2002. The Lifespan Study was by no means the first documented account of the harmful effects of obesity but it framed the problem of canine obesity in crystal clear terms: if your dog is fat, it’s probably going to die too early. It’s a pretty difficult message to ignore.
Nevertheless, in 2011 (nine years after the publication of the Lifespan Study), the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention reported that 53% of adult dogs (more than 41.1 million animals) were classified as either overweight or obese by their veterinarian. In other words, according to APOP’s research, a dog selected at random in the United States in 2011 was more likely than not to have an unhealthy amount of fat in its body.
Yes, that’s right—more likely than not.
Compounding the unsettling nature of these findings is the fact that canine obesity actually still appears to be spreading. In 2009 APOP reported that, at that time, only 43.6% of the surveyed population of dogs had been diagnosed as overweight or obese. And an even broader survey conducted by researchers in 1995 (before the Lifespan Study) found that only 34.1% of dogs were overweight or obese at that time. So, despite the committed efforts of organizations like APOP, the prevalence of canine obesity in the United States seems to be steadily rising.
What does all this mean? Ultimately, the results of the Lifespan Study and other damning obesity-related studies haven’t begun to trickle down into the mainstream yet. If we want to reverse the spread of canine obesity, we all need to continue working on spreading information and helping dog owners make the easy behavioral changes that will help their pups lose weight.
You can even start this weekend. 🙂
– Coach Dan