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Can We Blame Obesity on Mom and Dad? Consult the Dog

New research looks at intriguing parallels between human parenting styles and styles of pet ownership.
(Photo: Phatthanit/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Phatthanit/Shutterstock)

Ever notice how, when it comes to dogs, people sometimes uncannily resemble the ones they own? There may be something more to this observation than cheap entertainment. A recent study published by Alexander J. German in the British Journal of Nutrition suggests that a pet’s physical appearance may offer unique insight into an unlikely phenomenon: childhood obesity.

Existing research already demonstrates that dogs with overweight owners have a higher likelihood of being overweight themselves. Pets today are gaining poundage at rates similar to humans (34-59 percent of dogs are overweight). Building on this correlation, researchers such as German are beginning to wonder if the underlying causes of obesity in pets (dogs and cats, primarily) could illuminate the underlying causes of obesity in children.

Integral to this prospect is the idea of a “family food environment.” The family food environment encompasses a wide range of conditions: Breakfast habits, eating in front of screens, oversight of kids’ consumption of sugary foods, a parent’s assessment or awareness of the home’s dietary culture. Such factors, which mom and dad can control, easily foster an overweight individual’s linear progression from childhood obesity to adulthood obesity.

Researchers are beginning to wonder if the underlying causes of obesity in pets (dogs and cats, primarily) could illuminate the underlying causes of obesity in children.

Exactly how they do so, however, remains unclear. Obviously, different types of parenting styles support different types of family food environments. But reasonable expectations of causality go haywire all the time. An “authoritarian” approach to child rearing, one that rigidly legislates what kids eat, for example, would seem to support an obesity-averse culture. But in fact what often results is an anxiety-induced sneak-off-the-grid-and-binge-on-cookies habit. And more weight gain.

So while experts know that the family food environment matters—that is, that mom and pop are responsible for the most important food culture children encounter—they’re not precisely sure how parents can productively engineer it to encourage healthy weight profiles in their progeny. This is where the pets come in.

Exploiting the intriguing correlation between pet and human obesity assumes a basic parallel between human parenting styles and styles of pet ownership, at least in so far as these styles contribute to a family feeding environment. Stressing how “limited information exists” on the many modes of pet ownership, German nonetheless offers some intriguing examples of what these parallels might look like.

He suggests, for example, that an “authoritarian” parenting style is evident in a pet owner who feeds his animals the same food at the same time every day, denies their companion animals snacks and scraps, and requires a pet to sit before eating. Similarly, an “indulgent” parenting style comes through in a pet owner who allows his animal to eat when and what he wants, permits the feeding of table scraps, and even feeds by hand rather than dropping food in a bowl.

How these divergent styles—and their respective impact on pets—might improve our understanding of the elusive family food environment/obesity connection requires deciphering the relationship between pet feeding styles and pet obesity. But this connection can be just as difficult to pin down for pets as for kids.

“There is a mistaken assumption that weight loss [on pets] is a straightforward process,” German explains, but the “reality is that it can be immensely challenging to ensure that a pet loses weight successfully.” Despite this challenge, German, in an email, summarized why he believes it is critical to keep exploring the familial causes of pet obesity:

Pet dogs are often viewed as substitutes for children, and the care that people give them mirrors that which parents provide for children. Such associations are not surprising since both species share the same environment, and a key to this are the feeding habits of the unit.... It is suggested that the attitudes of overweight parents to their food choices can predispose their children to unwanted weight gain; in a similar manner the attitudes of the overweight owners to feeding their dogs is likely to have the same effect.

German cautions that his research “is very much in its infancy, so a lot more needs to be done before we can prove a benefit.” But he also believes that there’s considerable potential in “approaching obesity concurrently in both species.” Given what we already know our pets can do to improve our health—from mediating depression to anticipating epileptic attacks—it seems perfectly reasonable to think they could help us fight the obesity epidemic. And if they pull that off, I say they deserve to be indulged with a pretty nice treat.