Q: My vet says my pets are a little overweight. What is the best way to help them get healthy?
A: It is very important not to let our pets become overweight. Overweight animals are more susceptible to certain diseases and joint problems. Lean pets tend to live longer than those with excess weight. Most pet food stores carry special foods that can help your pet stay lean or even lose weight. Diets designed for less active or senior pets tend to have fewer calories and fat.
There are also diets formulated specifically for weight loss. If over-the-counter foods don’t work, your veterinarian will most likely carry prescription weight-loss foods.
But diet alone is not enough to get your pet to lose weight.
Exercise plays a big role in weight loss and dogs will greatly benefit from longer walks and more running. Indoor cats can be coaxed to exercise by playing with them with toys or laser lights, which cats enjoy chasing.
More than half of U.S. Pets are overweight – but why?
According to a survey conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, approximately 53% of cats and 55% of dogs in the U.S are overweight or obese. Data released from a nationwide collaboration with Banfield Pet Hospital reveals pet obesity continues to be a serious problem. [A 2004 study by Nestle Purina PetCare found dogs with a healthy body weight had a median lifespan of 15% longer than overweight dogs.]
So, how and why are our pets growing wider and wider? I talk about this to veterinary professionals around the world at veterinary conferences. Here, in a random order, are some reasons why there are so many overweight pets.
1) Some pet parents believe being overweight is “normal.”
People may not recognize their pets as overweight since the pets didn’t grow wider overnight. The trend of overweight pets has been happening for decades. So, while 20 years ago, those same pet parents might have been shocked, today the view of what is normal is skewed.
2) In small dogs and cats even a few pounds can be the difference between a healthy weight and obese.
Think about it, it may be 3-lbs gained in six months in a 14-lb cat or 20-lb dog — that’s like me or you gaining around 15-20 percent of our own body weight. Still, because it is only a few pounds, and because you live with that pet, it may be hard to notice without the pet being weighed.
3) Veterinarians may have a hard time bringing up the subject.
Some veterinarians do so and are ignored.
4) Dry food-only diets may lead to eating more calories.
As the moist food vs. dry food debate for feeding cats rages on, it does seem clear that — for some cats — a diet of dry food only may add pounds.
5) Too many table snacks are adding extra calories.
There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of turkey (for example) if there’s no fat on the slice. But one slice for a Yorkshire Terrier is very different than a slice to a German Shepherd — a 65-lb. German Shepherd can easily handle that occasional slice. To a 7-lb. Yorkie, a generous slice is nearly like you or I eating a quarter or half a turkey. While little mini carrots or little pieces of apples are actually healthful to dogs (as they are for us), we tend to offer what dogs like (salty lunch meats, for example). Again, truth is, every once in a while, it’s likely no big deal — but many pet parents make these table snacks a daily ritual and the calories do add up.
6) Free-feeding may lead to eating more.
We tend to free-feed our cats, leaving the food dish out all the time. Most people with a cat actually have more than one cat. How do pet parents know which cat is eating and how much? Well, you can’t know. What’s more, in time the cats train us to be automatic food dispensers. While some cats do have an “automatic turn-off switch” for their appetite, many do not. If food is there — they will either nibble away at it or chow it down.
7) Most pets don’t get enough exercise.
This is very true for dogs, and likely even more true for cats. We mistakenly believe cats either don’t need or won’t want to exercise. As dogs or cats move around less, their metabolism transforms over time. And this is when the snowball effect occurs — the cats or dogs move around less, except to eat more. Their metabolism transforms slowly, so they are less inclined to want to move around — so they gain even more weight and on and on. It’s safer for cats to be indoors only — but as we’ve kept them inside only, they often do little indoors, except to eat.
Is My Dog Fat or at the Top of His Weight Class?
The statistics are sobering: Approximately 25 to 40 percent of adult dogs are overweight or obese. Obesity is associated with conditions such as heart disease, impaired breathing, decreased liver functions, diabetes, musculoskeletal diseases, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal disorders, and increased stress on bones, joints, and tendons.
A study conducted by Nestle Purina PetCare in 2004 found that dogs who maintained ideal body weights throughout their lives had a median life span of 15 percent longer than dogs who were consistently overweight (almost two years for the Labrador Retrievers in the study). Potentially gaining up to two more years with our canine buddies is a strong incentive to keep them in shape. As with humans, dogs will gain weight if they consume more calories than they burn. And as with human food, the lower the caloric density of a given dog food, the healthier it will be, and the more it will help your dog lose weight.
Although pet food companies are not currently required to list the caloric density of their food on the container, most companies have this information on their website.
The causes of obesity generally fall into three categories: genetic predisposition, hormonal disorders, and an inappropriate diet, and a sedentary lifestyle. Certain breeds (such as Beagles, Basset Hounds, Dachshunds, and Labrador Retrievers) pack on the pounds more easily than others.
Thyroid or pituitary gland dysfunction affects hormone balance in the body and may contribute to the development of obesity. Talk to your vet if you have concerns about either of these causes. Inappropriate diet and sedentary lifestyle is by far the most common reason for obesity in dogs. A dog cannot decide to cut calories or hit the gym; it is our responsibility to make sure that our dogs don’t become obese due to too many table scraps and not enough long walks.
If your adopted dog is overweight when you get him, you’ll need to do some maintenance work to get him to a more manageable size. If you notice that your once-svelte pooch has started to expand, you need to change your habits (and by extension, his).
Reducing the amount of food he eats will obviously help, but don’t forget about exercise. Unlike many of us, dogs don’t view exercise as punishment; they think it’s fun.
What if Your Dog Is Underweight?
It’s common for adopted dogs to be underweight, and if a pup moves from shelter to shelter, frequent changes in food types and feeding schedules can often lead to diarrhea and other gastronomic distress.
Unlike humans, who think that “thin is in,” being underweight is not healthy for dogs and can compromise their long-term health and quality of life.
If your dog is underweight — have this verified by your vet — start feeding him either a calorically and nutrient-dense food that is formulated for performance, or a veterinary diet that is formulated for weight gain in chronically ill pets. These foods are both energy/nutrient-dense and highly digestible.
If your dog does not begin to gain weight within a week or two, it’s possible that he is suffering from an undiagnosed illness or parasites, or is nauseous from a medication he is taking. Again, talk with your vet about any concerns.
Be sure that as your dog reaches his ideal weight, you adjust his diet accordingly, so he doesn’t inadvertently become overweight. As with any weight management program, the key is to go slowly to allow your dog time to adjust to his new meal plan.
In the meantime, keep in mind that underweight dogs (especially those with less fur) can get colder than dogs of normal weight, especially during the winter months. Provide your dog with warm sleeping accommodations and don’t be afraid to dress him in a chic canine coat!