My Pet is Overweight- What do I do?
So, you think your pet is overweight. Or you’re not sure if your dog is fat, but you worry there’s a little to much jiggle when Rover comes a’running toward the food bowl. Just like in people, weight is only a number.
Let’s take a look at some visual guidelines that will help us assess your pet’s condition:
We want him/her to have a bit of an hour glass profile from above, a nice tuck to the waist from the side, and a little padding on the ribs, but not too much. If your dog looks like a skeleton, something needs to change. If your dog or cat is like most pets, he’s clocking in at a 6 or higher. One study found from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), 45% of dogs and 58% of cats are overweight or obese (2009 numbers).
Why are so many pets getting fat? Well, part of the reason is that …so many pets are fat! Fat is the new normal. Most people probably think a score of 6-7 is okay. That’s what dogs at the dog park look like. Heck, that’s what some dogs in commercials look like, so it must be fine.
In reality, obesity is a life-shortening disease. Purina did a 14 year study on Labrador retrievers showing a life expectancy two years shorter for overweight dogs. Overweight dogs also developed arthritis two years sooner. Much like humans, few things can improve an animal’s life expectancy and quality of life more than weight management. [Kealy RD, Lawler DF, Ballam JM, et al. Effects of diet restriction and life span and age-related changes in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2002;220:1315-1321.]
Excess weight is one of the most important factors in the development of arthritis. A 10-15% weight loss results in improved clinical signs of arthritis, and as little as 5% to 10% weight loss improves mobility, according to pet owners. Keeping weight off is a key to preserving joint health for at risk pets. This goes especially for larger breed dogs. Here’s a long, yet not at all complete list of other pet health ills caused by excess weight: respiratory disease, inability to self groom, diabetes mellitus, increased anesthetic risk, fatty liver disease (cats), and several cancers.
So how do we get those excess pounds off?
Sure, exercise is part of the equation, but far and away the most important thing to do is to FEED FEWER CALORIES! If exercised and given half a chance, dogs will out-eat their activity every time. About 80% of the battle revolves around calorie intake. There are many strategies to help you do this:
- Limit treats – Treats are a common enemy in the weight loss war. A few treats a day can easily add up to an entire meal’s worth of calories. If multiple members of the house are giving treats without keeping track, treating can quickly get out of control. It is recommended that no more than 10% of daily calories come from treats. Try lower-calorie alternatives, like baby carrots or apples for dogs. Some dogs are perfectly happy with a piece of regular kibble for a reward.
- Measure food, and decrease the volume fed – Some owners just put a full bowl down without knowing how much food it contains. Get a reliable measuring cup (like for baking) and use that to determine the number of cups you’re currently feeding per day. Then, cut down by 25%. If your canine companion flashes you the sad puppy dog eyes of starvation with this new reduced ration, you can add back in some volume in the form of baby carrots or low sodium canned green beans. Conversely, you can feed the amount recommended on the food bag, but aim for your pet’s GOAL WEIGHT or slightly below. For instance, if Rover weighs 80 lbs but SHOULD weigh 65 lbs, feed the amount listed for a 60 lb dog.
- Weigh your pet – Regular weigh-ins will help determine how effective your weight loss regime has been. Most veterinary offices will be happy to let you come in to use their large scale, and will log his progress using their management software. If no weight is being lost, cut OUT treats, and cut back the regular food even more.
- Prescription weight loss diets – If you get down to an unreasonably small volume of food, or if your pet is just acting ravenous all the time, it’s time to try a prescription weight loss diet. Why not try an over the counter weight loss food? First, not all terms on these food bags are even regulated. Unfortunately, terms like “weight control” and “weight management” are fairly meaningless. Terms like “light” and “low calorie” ARE regulated, but: Lisa Freeman, DVM, PhD, and a boarded nutritionist at the veterinary school at Tufts University, did a study on OTC brands of “lite,” “light,” “low calorie” or “less calorie” diets that was published in JAVMA in Jan. of 2010. She found that 50% of them exceeded the limits on calories per cup for low calorie diets set by government regulations. In other words, many pet foods sold as low calorie really aren’t.
- Exercise – Though food, food, and FOOD are most of the battle, increasing exercise will help us in our cause. Regular walks for dogs, as well as playing fetch, can certainly help with the calories-out end of the equation. For cats, laser pointers can be a great source of exercise – and a source of entertainment for the owners! Just make sure you’re not overdoing the activity, especially outdoors during hot summer months, or with older, arthritic pets.
- Medical conditions – There are certain medical conditions which can undermine our best attempts at weight loss. Dogs can be affected by hypothyroidism, which is essentially an autoimmune disease that decreases the amount of active thyroid hormone in the blood. Bloodwork can screen for this issue, but hormone levels can fluctuate over time, so testing more than once may be necessary to catch the thyroid red-handed. Sometimes, fat dogs are just fat dogs, with no thyroid to blame.
Hopefully I have driven home the importance of maintaining your pets at a healthy weight, and given you the advice you need to get them there.
Just remember, food is not love! Taking good care of your pets and keeping them healthy certainly is.