The "fat pet gap" continues to widen according to the latest nationwide survey conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). The fifth annual veterinary survey found 53 percent of adult dogs and 55 percent of cats to be classified as overweight or obese by their veterinarian. That equals 88.4 million pets that are too heavy according to veterinarians. "The most distressing finding in this year's study was the fact that more pet owners are unaware their pet is overweight," comments APOP founder Dr. Ernie Ward. "Twenty-two percent of dog owners and 15 percent of cat owners characterized their pet as normal weight when it was actually overweight or obese. This is what I refer to as the 'fat pet gap' or the normalization of obesity by pet parents. In simplest terms, we've made fat pets the new normal." Perhaps even worse was the finding that the number of obese pets, those at least 30 percent above normal weight or a body condition score (BCS) of 5, continues to grow despite 93.4 percent of surveyed pet owners identifying pet obesity as a problem. The study found 24.9 percent of all cats were classified as obese and 21.4 percent of all dogs were obese in 2011. That's up from 2010 when 21.6 percent of cats and 20.6 percent of dogs were found to be obese. "What this tells us is that more and more of our pets are entering into the highest danger zone for weight-related disorders," says Ward. Some of the common weight-related conditions in dogs and cats include osteoarthritis, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, breathing problems, kidney disease, and shortened life expectancy. Orthopedic surgeon, APOP Board member and Director of Clinical Research at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine Dr. Steve Budsberg states, "The prevention of obesity needs to be at the forefront of all discussions people have about the health of their pet with their veterinarian. The body of evidence that shows the negative impact of obesity on all the body's systems is overwhelming. As an orthopedic surgeon I see, on a daily basis, the effects of obesity on dogs and cats with osteoarthritis. It is very frustrating to see how much pain and discomfort excess weight has on my patients. Veterinarians and owners have the ability to stop obesity in our pets. No animal goes to the refrigerator or the pantry and helps themselves. We enable our pets to get fat!" Ward agrees. "Pet obesity is plainly a people problem, not a pet problem. The most important decision pet owners make each day regarding their pet's health is what they choose to feed it." Endocrinologist and fellow APOP Board member Dr. Mark Peterson agrees. "Obesity in dogs and cats is not just the accumulation of large amounts of adipose tissue, but it is associated with important metabolic and hormonal changes in the body. For example, heavy or obese cats are up to four times more likely to develop diabetes as a complication of their obesity. Losing weight can lead to reversal of the diabetic state in some of these obese cats." Treats continue to be a major contributor to weight gain in pets. An online poll conducted in October 2011 by APOP of 210 pet owners found 93 percent of all dog and cat owners gave treats. Ninety-five percent gave a commercial treat with 26 percent reporting they gave their pet treats three or more times a day. "Treats are the silent saboteur of slimming down," remarks Ward. "Those tiny treats often are hiding a significant amount of calories." Ward suggests offering single-ingredient rewards or fresh vegetables such as baby carrots, string beans, broccoli or other crunchy vegetables. Veterinary nutritionist and internal medicine specialist Dr. Joe Bartges from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine and APOP Board member notes that weight gain in pets can be prevented. "Prevention of obesity is much easier than treating it. The major obstacle is to convince pet owners what 'overweight' and 'obese' mean and what it looks like. Veterinary health teams must educate the owner and work with them to prevent and treat obesity in their four-legged family members."