As pet parents, there isn’t much we wouldn’t do for our pets. Americans spend approximately $60 billion per year on vaccinations, veterinary care, heartworm prevention, food, toys, and professional services, all meant to ensure our pets’ health and happiness. But what if one of the things we offer them on a daily basis actually has the potential to do harm?
It does. And ironically, the culprit is one of the very things our pets depend on us to provide for their survival: Food.
The Pet Obesity Epidemic
According to a study by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), approximately 53 percent of dogs (44 million total) and 58 percent of cats (55 million total) in the United States qualify as overweight or obese.
Obesity, which is medically classified as a disease, is defined as “increased body weight caused by an excessive accumulation of body fat”. It can be caused by certain medical conditions (such as an underactive thyroid), but more commonly, obesity results from a simple combination of overeating and a lack of exercise.
The cost to medically treat obese pets in the U.S. is approximately $5 billion annually. Most costs are related to orthopedic conditions – such as ligament and tendon injuries, and herniated spinal discs – that result from the stress of carrying extra body weight.
In addition to orthopedic problems, overweight pets are also at an increased risk for:
- Reduced lifespan (by as much as 2 ½ years)
- Arthritis and joint problems
- Liver Disease
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Digestive disorders
- Respiratory disease and breathing difficulties
- Cruciate ligament (knee) injuries
- Cancer (particularly of the abdomen)
- Skin problems
- Adverse reactions to anesthetic
- Surgical complications
Unfortunately, as few as 5 pounds above your dog’s ideal weight can put him at risk. According to the APOP, a 12-pound Yorkshire Terrier equates to an average human female who weighs 218 pounds, and 14-pound cat is equivalent to a 237-pound man.
The Simplest Factor: Overfeeding
The most common reason why pets gain weight is simply because they are taking in too much food (or eating too much of the wrong kinds of food). Oftentimes pet parents don’t realize that proportionally, a 2-pound weight gain in a small dog or cat is considerably greater than a 2-pound weight gain in a human!
First, do I think all people who overfeed their pets are inherently evil and deserve to be vilified? No, I don’t. While working in private veterinary practice, I saw many otherwise caring pet parents who loved their pets and spared no expense when it came to providing the best care for them, yet often failed to see and understand how their pets’ weight was impacting their health.
I believe there are several reasons why people overfeed their pets:
- “He was begging and he looked hungry.” (Dogs always look hungry. They’ve perfected that look because IT WORKS.)
- To alleviate guilt caused by having to leave their pet home alone all day while they’re at work.
- As misguided as it is, it’s how they show love.
- They just can’t see how overweight their pet truly is.
- They forget that all those treats have calories in them, and they lose track of how many treats per day they’re actually giving.
- They have no idea what normal portion sizes are for pets.
- Whenever they eat or snack, they give their pet food or treats at the same time.
They think rewarding their pet with more food will make their pet love them more – and it gives them a rush to make their dog or cat happy.
That being said, once someone is aware that their pet is overweight, I believe they have a moral obligation to do something about it. The pet didn’t become fat on his own, and he is dependent on his caretaker to provide him with healthy food in proper portion sizes.
Could Your Pet Be Overweight?
If you feel your pet might be overweight, start by taking a long, hard look at his body condition. Stand over him and look down at his back while he is standing upright (this works for both dogs and cats). Does he have a tapered waistline from rib cage to hips, or is he oval shaped? Is there visible fat around his hip bones and neck, or a fat pad in his abdomen that hangs down?
Next, put your hands on your pet’s spine and run them down over his ribs. You should not be able to see your pet’s ribs and spine, but you should be able to easily feel them. If all you feel is fat and padding, there’s a good chance your pet is carrying too much body fat.
Tips for Helping Your Pet Stay Trim
If you think your pet is carrying a few extra pounds, here are some tips to help get him back in fighting shape.
- Before you do anything, consult your veterinarian first. It’s important to make sure your pet doesn’t have an underlying medical condition that needs treatment. Your vet will also recommend a customized diet plan (this may need to be a prescription diet at first), to ensure that all your pet’s nutritional requirements are being met and that he’s not getting too many (or too few) calories.
- It’s very important that your pet is not put on a diet that is too restrictive – this is especially critical for cats. Severely reducing a cat’s caloric intake can cause a potentially fatal condition called hepatic lipidosis, which leads to liver failure.
- Be precise – always measure your pet’s food! Keep in mind the recommended feeding amounts listed on bags of commercial pet food are almost always generous (this sells more food). Consult your veterinarian on how much to feed your pet; the amount will depend on her activity level, age, and current weight.
- Use a puzzle feeder (available for both dogs and cats) to slow down eating.
- Vegetables like carrots, celery, and green beans will help dogs feel more full between meals. Although cats are not veggie fans, many cats like canned pure pumpkin. Just be careful not to give them too much, as the calories still count towards their overall intake!
- With your vet’s approval, get your pet MOVING. For dogs, two 20-minute brisk walks per day is ideal. Cats can also be taken for walks, even if just in the backyard (be sure to use a walking vest or harness). If you can’t walk your dog, you may wish to consider investing in a doggie treadmill.
- Weigh your pet once a week. Weight loss should be gradual, so don’t expect to see big changes between weigh-ins. However, you should see a slow and steady weight loss over time.
- Rotate your pet’s food bowl to different locations so she always has to walk to get to it.
- If you have multiple pets, feed them separately so you can monitor their intake and make sure they don’t eat each others’ food.
- For cats, substitute high-quality dried catnip for treats.
- Play with your cat for at least 10 minutes twice a day. You can also play “Find the Food” by dividing up her food into several paper muffin cups hidden around the house. This will keep her moving, as well as satisfy her instinct to “hunt” for food.
These techniques work. Recently Obie the Dachshund, a surrendered 5-year old dog who was literally fed almost to death, was able to go from a whopping 77 pounds to a healthy 27 pounds over the course of a year.
No matter what, don’t give up! The general guideline for safe weight loss in dogs is 3-5% body weight loss per month, and for cats it’s ½ pound (for obese cats) to 1 pound (for moderately overweight cats) weight loss per month.
Most pets will achieve their ideal body weight within 6-8 months. Some will lose weight quickly, others more slowly. The idea is to have a slow, steady weight loss that leads to a healthy target weight – and keeping the weight off for good.
Ways to Show Love to Your Pet – Without Using Food
There are many other ways to show you pet you love him without using food. Instead of feeding treats, take your pet for a walk. Play with him. Give him warmth and affection through physical touch and petting. Talk to him constantly. Physically and verbally acknowledge him whenever he’s in the room. When he seeks you out for attention, really give it to him – without using food or treats.
In short, if you love your pet, please don’t overfeed him. All obesity-related health issues (and resulting shortened lifespan) can be avoided simply by feeding your pet a healthy diet in the proper amount, augmented by daily exercise.
By helping your pet stay at a healthy weight, you’re giving him the ability to run, play, stay healthy, and feel great long into his senior years.
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Have you ever put your pet on a diet and exercise plan? What are some of the things that worked for you? Please share your tips with us in the comments below!