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The Pet Pudge Epidemic

As a developed nation, we are constantly bombarded by reports addressing our obesity epidemic and the toll it is taking on human health.  As your pet's medical staff, we see another side of the story: the pet obesity epidemic.  Our dogs and cats are prone to obesity for the same reasons we are: a plentiful food supply and a less active lifestyle.  Like humans, overweight pets have a higher risk of many health problems, including but not limited to arthritis, musculoskeletal injuries, cancer, diabetes mellitus, and other metabolic disorders.

It is important to remember that obesity may be due to an existing health problem.  If your pet has a ravenous appetite or you are unable to control your pet's weight with a reasonable diet and exercise plan, a medical problem must be ruled out.  Also, any rapid changes in weight (up or down) are a cause for concern.  Ask us about blood testing to check for existing metabolic problems such as thyroid disease or diabetes mellitus.  

 It is often difficult for pet owners to assess whether a pet is overweight.  Partly, this is because we are used to seeing pudgy pets and begin to accept it as normal.  Also, excess body fat in our pets does not make them any less "cute" in our eyes.  In order to help with this, body condition scoring has been developed by pet health professionals to help objectively assess pets' body fat.  It goes beyond simply addressing weight as measured in pounds by addressing fat storage areas.  Thus, we are able to objectively measure body fat in all body types of pets, from a lanky greyhound to a stocky, heavily muscled bulldog.  Key points in body condition scoring include fat cover over the ribs, waist line contour, degree of abdominal tuck, and storage areas over the tail head and rump.  Please use the links below to see body condition scoring charts for dogs and cats.

Dog Body Condition Check

Cat Body Condition Check

Pet weight control plans are most effective when diet and exercise are used together.  Keep in mind that particular methods of calorie control and exercise go farther than others.  Following is a brief overview.

There are several feeding strategies for pets.  Here is a listing of some used by pet owners:

1.)    Ad libitum feeding: There is food available at all times, for the pet to eat at will.  This is the most convenient method of feeding.  However, while this method may be okay for some pets, such as highly active hunting or working dogs, it often results in overeating.  For a pet requiring weight control, even feeding "light" or "reduced calorie" diets by this method often results in too many calories.

2.)    Timed feedings: The food is available for a set amount of time.  For example, Fluffy is allowed to eat as much as she wants for 15 minutes, one hour, etc.  Unfinished food is removed when the time is up.  This method is valid for some pets, but for the weight-challenged pet, it often results in consumption of too much food.  Many pets can stuff themselves to the brim within a few minutes.  Remember that our dogs' and cats' ancestors could eat a lot at one time; they did not know where their next meal was coming from!

3.)    Measured feedings:  A measured amount of food is given at set intervals of time.  For example, Fluffy is given 1 ½ cups of food three times daily.  Any bones, treats, chews, or table scraps given are accounted for, and the daily amount is decreased based on the amount of other calories fed.  This amount is determined by estimating caloric needs, then adjusting the amount over time based on changes in the pet's body condition score.    There are often feeding recommendations by body weight on commercial food bags.  Remember!  These are only suggestions.  Every pet will have different, individual feeding needs.  Pets prone to obesity will likely require a substantially smaller amount than is suggestion.  For example, one 50 pound dog may require up to 3 cups of a certain food twice daily to maintain a good weight, while another 50 pound dog may require only 1 cup of the same food twice daily to maintain good body condition.  This difference is due to many factors, including genetics and lifestyle.     

Commercial pet foods vary in nutrient and calorie content.  This is important to consider if changing among food types; you may need to adjust the amount fed when changing your pet to a new food.  While many pets achieve weight loss success by simply decreasing food amounts of the regular diet, some pets benefit more from prescription veterinary diets which are high in fiber and low in fat.  The high fiber helps your pet feel more full and satisfied while on a weight loss plan.  Ask us if one of these diets would be appropriate for your pet.

Watch the treats!  Treats and table scraps are often perceived as "love" given to our furry friends.  While it is okay to give treats, the calorie content of treats cannot be ignored when considering the daily diet regiment, and should not constitute more than 10% of the daily caloric intake.  High fat treats and snacks include cheese, meat, and rawhides.  Alternative, low calorie snacks include carrots, green beans, celery, apples, and dehydrated sweet potato chews.

Regarding exercise, it is important to keep your pet's joint health in mind.  Short, frequent bouts of exercise are preferable to long, rigorous runs.  You can work in little bits of activity throughout the day.  Here are a few suggestions:

1.)    For dogs, instead of one long walk or run, try several 10-15 minute walks throughout the day.  Exercise science indicates that exercise times are additive.  Thus, four 15-minute walks add up to one hour walk, with all the benefits.  At the same time, your pet's joints will be less strained and be able to build strong, supportive muscles around them.

2.)    Throw out the food bowl!  Scatter your pet's food all over the floor or lawn.  This will exercise your pet's mind and muscles as she scouts out all the pieces with her nose and eyes.  Food toys are also available, such as Kong toys.  These are durable toys which can be filled with food.  They are designed to keep your pet occupied for awhile while working the food out a little at a time.  You can freeze wet food into these toys to extend the time it takes to remove the food.  CAUTION: Toys may be swallowed if chewed into pieces and pose a choking or obstruction hazard.  Also, you may need to separate your pet from other animals or people while having a food toy, in order to prevent possessive aggression.  NEVER leave a child unattended with a pet who is eating.      

3.)    Yard fencing or installation of an  invisible fence are a great way to allow your pet more activity.          

4.)    For cats, provide vertical spaces.  Commercially made cat shelves are available; wooden window shelves are also appropriate.  In addition to giving your cat a safe haven away from their vulnerable position on the floor, vertical spaces encourage jumping and climbing, enriching your cat's environment.  You can position some shelves in front of windows, where the cat can look out and watch birds, passersby, etc.  It is important to remember that mental activity burns calories too!

5.)    Toys!  The best toys stimulate your pet to play and interact with humans or animals.  They can often be very simple, such as cat nip mice, tunnels, towers, and scratching posts for cats and tennis balls, Frisbees, ropes, and stuffed animals for dogs.  As mentioned above, be aware that chewed toys may act as a choking or obstruction hazard if swallowed.

Here, we have provided a brief explanation of the principles involved with managing your pet's weight.  As you pursue a weight loss plan, remember to keep your veterinary professionals involved, weigh your pet in frequently (at least monthly) to make adjustments to the plan, and aim for slow, steady weight loss.  A reasonable goal for a big dog may be about 1-2 pounds of weight loss per month, while a cat may be ¼- ½ pound per month.  As your pet loses weight, you may need to continue to decrease the amount of food over time to continue on the road to success.  Best of luck! 

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