We Have A Big Problem
It is one of the most prevalent diseases in our pet population. In America, an estimated 56 million cats and 50 million dogs are affected. This disease not only has a direct, negative impact on quality of life but can also contribute to higher blood pressure, kidney disease, diabetes, and even cancer. It slows down healing times, exacerbates minor injuries, and promotes earlier-onset, worse arthritis. In essence, it leads to our pets living shorter, less happy lives. It’s pet obesity, and it’s a (pardon the pun) BIG problem.
How can I tell if my pet is overweight?
Determining whether or not your pet is overweight can be tricky because our pets come in such a wide range of shapes and sizes. Generally speaking, veterinarians use body condition scoring (BCS), not just the number on the scale, to decide if a pet is actually overweight. BCS is a system that assigns a number (typically 1-9) to your pet based on how much fat is present at certain locations on their body. On the 9-point scale, the ideal BCS for dogs and cats is 4 or 5, with anything less than that being underweight and anything more than that being overweight. You can ask your veterinarian to score your pet at their next visit but in the meantime, I recommend you ask yourself these three things:
- When looking at my pet from above, can I see a distinct waist where their chest meets their abdomen?
- When I am looking at my pet from the side, can I see a distinct tuck where their chest meets their abdomen?
- Can I easily feel and count my pet’s last 3-4 ribs?
For the vast majority of our pets, if the answer to any of those questions is no, your pet likely has some extra pounds that they should lose. Just like with all things in life, the first step to making positive change is admitting there is a problem. The next step is taking reasonable measures at home to address your pet’s weight.
What can I do to help my pet lose weight?
While weight assessment and weight loss goals are unique to each individual animal, I do have some general tips that I recommend for most of our pets. These tips may not apply to your specific pet, so be sure to ask your vet before making any drastic changes to their lifestyle.
- Diet. What you feed and how much you feed may be the most important daily decision you make on behalf of your pet. Here are some basic guidelines for picking a food and determining how much to feed:
- With so many pet food companies out there, it can be daunting to pick a brand. I encourage you to do your research and go with a brand that has *veterinary nutritionists* formulating their foods, a fact that is usually proudly stated somewhere on their website.
- At this time I do not recommend grain free diets. Current research suggests a link between grain free diets and heart disease in our canine population.
- Avoid “high protein” diets. House pets being fed high protein diets can easily pack on the pounds. This is generally because 1) they are not using the energy from the excess protein to run the Iditarod, survive in the wild, or work cattle on ranch so their body stores it as fat and 2) many diets that are high in protein are also high in fat to make them more palatable. Instead of a “high protein diet,” opt for a balanced one!
- Feed a size and age appropriate diet, such as “Small Breed Senior” for your 11 year old Chihuahua. Feeding age appropriate diets is especially important for cats, who often develop kidney issues as they age, which changes the way they process proteins and carbohydrates. Keep in mind that there are no regulations in place for this kind of labeling so, again, stick with a brand that has veterinary nutritionists formulating the food.
- Use the back of the bag to determine how much to feed. It is commonly recommended to feed 75% of what the bag recommends if your pet is neutered/spayed because they have less caloric needs than they did when they were “intact”. For more specific feeding recommendations, using a calorie calculator can be helpful – Pet Nutrition Alliance’s calculator is one of my go-tos.
- Treats. Treats are just that – TREATS. I encourage pet owners to think of commercial treats (including dental treats) like candy bars. Hopefully, you wouldn’t give your child 8 chocolate bars a day, so why are you giving Wendy the Labrador 8 dog treats? If minimizing treats doesn’t seem possible to you, consider low-to-no calorie treat alternatives such as carrots, green beans, peas, or canned pumpkin. No seasonings, sweeteners, or butter/oils, please.
- Satiety. Increasing how satisfied our pets feel after a meal or treat can help prevent annoying begging and scavenging behaviors. Puzzle feeders and games can be mentally enriching and slow down your pet while they are eating, hopefully making them feel more satiated. While taking a break from working from home, research “puzzle feeders,” “snuffle mat,” “treat balls,” etc to find a toy that may work for your pet. If you are using pumpkin or peanut butter as a dog treat, consider freezing them inside of a Kong toy before giving them to your dog – it will take them substantially longer to consume all of it. In essence, encourage your pets to play with their food!
- Play. A major contributor to pet obesity is guilt as an owner. Owners tell us all the time that their pets seem so sad or hungry if they aren’t constantly getting treats. Or that their pet seems to love the person in the family that feeds them the most. Many pets, just like people, love food. However, your pets also love spending time with you. The next time you are tempted to give a treat to your pet, I encourage you to play with them instead. Go for a walk or hike (an APPROVED activity during Shelter in Place!), play fetch, brush their coat, or teach them a new trick. Bonding with your pet in these ways has direct effects on weight management as it avoids excessive treating and burns calories but more importantly, it strengthens your relationship with your pet. Bonus: spending quality time with animals has been proven to lower stress and anxiety in people!
What are the next steps for addressing my pet’s weight?
If you are concerned about your pet’s weight, you are encouraged to take a trip to the veterinarian’s office. This visit will allow you to get a precise weight and body condition score for your pet, discuss their weight loss goals, determine how to achieve those goals, and most importantly, will allow the veterinarian to perform an exam on your pet. While many pets are overweight solely because of lifestyle, there are several diseases that can make our pets pack on the pounds. At the vet visit, we can help ensure that your pet isn’t battling one of these diseases. Additionally, some pets may need to be on prescription weight loss diets that can only be prescribed by a veterinarian. Be prepared – you will likely be asked what specific food you are feeding them, how much you’re feeding, how often you’re feeding, if you give any treats or human foods (and if so, how much and how often) as well as general health questions about their appetite, thirst, activity levels, and any signs of illness they may have displayed recently.
It’s a big problem…
.. but, luckily, it’s a fixable one. You have the power to help your pet maintain a healthy weight so that they are at lower risks for other diseases and can live long, happy, and active lives. If you think your pet is overweight and would like an assessment, please don’t hesitate to stop by for a visit. Until then, consider trying some of the tips from this article and let us know which tip was your pet’s favorite on our Facebook page! Major bonus points for cute pictures or videos.
Want to learn more? Here are some great resources with information discussed in this blog:
- Association for Pet Obesity Prevention
- Body Condition Scoring Pets
- Pet Nutrition Alliance Dog Food Calculator
- Pet Nutrition Alliance Cat Food Calculator
- Grain free diets and heart disease
- The Power of Pets (NIH)