The “battle of the bulge” is nothing new. Now, more than ever, the human obesity epidemic is receiving daily attention in the news and media. But did you know that our pets’ waistlines are growing as well? Recent studies suggest that 52.5% of dogs and 58.3% of cats are overweight. And, just like in people, this excess weight increases the risks for many secondary problems. Arthritis, diabetes, respiratory disease, heart disease and even certain types of cancer are all more common the overweight pet. Lean pets, on average, can live up to two years longer than their overweight counterparts.
As a veterinarian, I assess the body condition score of each patient as part of a routine physical examination. It is often surprising and, truth be told, sometimes upsetting when I suggest to an owner that their pet will benefit from weight reduction. I completely understand this sentiment. I remember back to my fourth year of veterinary school when I volunteered my first dog, Ralph, as a practice patient for our student physical exams. I distinctly remember the professor stating that my “87 pound Labrador was really a 75 pound dog hidden within a much larger body!” I was crushed. Ralph got plenty of exercise and I fed him only the best food. I measured his food every day (kind of) and was very careful with the amount of treats I gave him (kind of!) But Ralph, like many dogs, was always hungry. He inhaled his food in five seconds flat and looked at me as if he was starving every moment of every day. He counter-surfed, he raided the garbage can on a regular basis and he kept his snout to the ground on walks in hopes of inhaling any tiny morsel of food left behind. Still, I was shocked to hear that he needed to lose close to fifteen percent of his body weight to achieve his optimum body condition. I made a commitment that day. I measured his food using an actual measuring cup, we started jogging together, and I paid close attention to the amount of treats I was feeding. It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t easy. It was painful to say “no” to that face and those eyes. But seven months and multiple weigh-in’s later, Ralph was down to 72 pounds and he was more handsome than ever! There were other benefits too – his fur appeared more shiny and he had less dander, he had more energy than he had in months past, and he wasn’t begging as much because he learned that I wasn’t going to give in to those sad-face eyes. Keeping Ralph at a lean body weight was a daily project for both of us throughout his entire life. As a veterinary professional and an owner, it was an eye opening and incredibly valuable experience.
Just like in human medicine, weight loss in pets is not a quick fix – it’s a lifestyle change. There is no magic pill or special food that will instantly take the weight off. There are bound to be ups and downs. It is a lifelong commitment between a pet and their human. That said, here’s the skinny on weight loss:
1 Start with a physical exam. In a recent study, 45% of people incorrectly identified their overweight pet as having a “normal body weight.” Your veterinarian can help you determine the optimum weight for your pet and the best plan to achieve it. There are also some underlying medical problems that can make weight loss more challenging. Hypothyroidism is one of the more common endocrine diseases in dogs and may hinder weight loss efforts. Your veterinarian may want submit bloodwork before embarking on a weight loss plan.
2 Measure your pet’s food. And by measure, I mean use a measuring cup! The “scoops” that we dole out to our pets are often much bigger than we realize. Using an actual measuring cup will allow you to have a more accurate account of the calories you are providing your pet each day.
3 Tame the treats. One small Milkbone puppy treat is 15 calories. Just 5 of these treats can make up a big percentage of the recommended daily calorie intake for a small dog. And, though it may be tempting to offer scraps from the table, keep in mind that many human foods are laden with calories that make a big impact on out pets’ small bodies. I am huge believer in treats – but they must be given in moderation.
4 Read your labels. Not all pet foods are the same. And, just like people, every pet is different. A food that works well for one pet may not work well for another. There are so many foods on the market these days, it is almost impossible to keep up. Read the labels to be aware of the ingredients and the calorie content. Low carb and “organic” foods are not necessarily low calorie. Let your veterinarian help you find the best choice for your pet.
5 Get moving. We’ve all heard the saying, “eat less, move more!” The same is true in our pets. Sometimes we need to get creative to entice our pets to exercise (especially with cats.) That said, the benefits of exercise goes far beyond calorie burning. Exercising with your pet creates quality time and enriches their (and our) environment. It helps us and our pets both physically and mentally.
6 Think long term. Weight loss in pets can be slow and frustrating at times. It is human nature to want to see quick results but, like humans, weight control in pets is about maintaining a long term, healthy lifestyle. Consider monthly weigh-ins at your veterinary hospital. Celebrate your successes and forgive any small set backs.
We all love our pets, but showing our love by showering them with excess treats and food is a mistake that even the most dedicated pet owner can make. National Pet Obesity Awareness Day is October 8th, 2014 – but lets not wait. Let’s resolve to create healthy lifestyle changes for us and our pets now. We will love them just as much…even if there is less of them to love!