By Dr. Bruce Little
Beginning in the 1990’s, it became obvious that an increasing number of dogs and cats were overweight or downright obese. Veterinarians began to diagnose this malady and to instruct pet owners that they needed to address the weight problem in their pets before the excess began to take its toll on the overall health and well-being of that pet. Seminars in weight control methods were offered to veterinarians and animal hospital staff. Weight reduction programs were developed utilizing pet scales, exercise programs, dietary restrictions and charts that outlined the normal weight and shape for dogs and cats according to their breed, age, life stage and living accommodations.
In 2005, Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinary practitioner in North Carolina, stated that, “among all the diseases that perplex the veterinary community and plague our population of pets, obesity has the greatest collective negative impact on pet health, and yet it is almost completely avoidable.” Dr. Ward led the charge to organize a group of veterinarians, veterinary internists, and nutritional experts to address this rapidly developing nationwide epidemic. That organization, named the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), was created in 2005 with a primary mission of documenting pet obesity levels in the United States to raise awareness of the issue and its negative impact on pets. The APOP group has now morphed into a broad coalition of veterinary and pet nutritional organizations that direct attention to the overweight and obese conditions in our pets, and to develop programs to correct this crisis in our pets. They have designated October 10, 2018 as National Pet Obesity Awareness Day.
Recent studies have confirmed that the overweight and obesity issues America has with its pets has worsened over the past ten years. The OPOP issued its 2016 clinical survey indicating that 54% of all dogs and 59% of cats are overweight. This is a crisis in our pet population. Why do pets become overweight? There are many answers to this question; however, in the final analysis, it’s up to the pet owners to show responsible pet ownership. Dogs and cats cannot open refrigerators and cans of pet food. Nor should they be able to tear open a sack of dry pet food, as it should be stored in a safe place out of reach.
How do I know if my pet’s weight is healthy?
Have an honest conversation with your veterinarian about your pet’s weight. They can assess your pet’s weight and overall health and make recommendations regarding diet and exercise. You will be taught how to monitor body conditions relating to body shape. A healthy weight isn’t just a number on a scale, it’s also about body composition.
What are the benefits of keeping my pet at a healthy weight?
Keeping your pet at a healthy weight lowers its risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, respiratory disease, kidney disease, and some forms of cancer. It can reduce the risks of injury to bones, joints and muscles that are associated with excess weight. Excess weight aggravates arthritis pain, especially as the pet gets older. Reaching optimal weight for your pet according to its breed, age and lifestyle gives them the best chance of a longer, healthier, and pain-free life.
How do I reduce my pet’s weight?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach or magic remedy to help your pet shed excess pounds. What works for one pet may not always work for another. Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight requires a commitment to a healthier lifestyle that achieves a balance between the calories consumed and the calories used by the body for normal function and activity. It often takes longer to lose weight than it did for your pet to gain it.
The primary reason pets become overweight is lack of exercise and over feeding. Dogs should be taken on a daily walk for a minimum of 30 minutes, longer for the larger breeds. They should be encouraged to run and jump by throwing a ball, or Frisbee. Cats should be encouraged to play with a ball, a feather teaser on a string, jingle toys and treat toy for food. These food dispensers offer a treat in the end if the pet can figure out how to search out the treat in the toy.
I’m especially fond of a treat or meal dispenser called Clever-Pet, an internet connected feeding device that requires your dog to activate buttons or pads in a special order to get the food or treat out. It takes physical activity and brain power to gain success. Recently, I saw a food dispenser named PortionProRx that requires the dog and/or cat wear an electronic device on its collar, so it can access only a certain portion of food from the dispenser. These special items are worth the price.
Perhaps the biggest reason pets get fat is that owners often use food or snacks as a form of communication and love. Instead of treats, go for a walk with your dog or play with a toy with your cat. Build a climbing structure that cats can climb up and down daily. Cats like to be above the commotion of most home environments anyway, and a climbing pole or platform forces them to use muscles and stretch tendons that help them keep their optimal weight. Don’t feed your pets from the table. They have a habit of begging for treats and we choose to show love by giving them excess calories. Don’t do it!
Below find a guide to help your pet reach optimal weight and maintain that healthy state throughout the various stages of their life. It will improve your pet’s well-being and health. Consult with your veterinarian about creating a plan.
- Put your pet first.
Work with your veterinarian to assess your pet’s health and weight. Your veterinarian may test the thyroid gland, a small gland that produces hormones and is one of the most powerful glands in the body. Imbalance in the thyroid gland can sometimes cause excess weight gain. Is excess weight contributing to health problems, or might health problems be contributing to your pet’s weight?
- Your pet’s weight isn’t about you.
Your veterinarians’ honest assessment of your pet’s weight and health isn’t a judgment or assessment of your own weight or level of health, or a statement about your ability to care for your pet. Your veterinarian has your pet’s best interests in mind, and their recommendations are based on a commitment to your pet’s good health. It’s not about you, it’s about your pet’s health.
- Make a family commitment.
A commitment to reach and maintain a healthy weight for your pet requires a commitment from the entire family. Any weight loss plan isn’t going to succeed if one family member sneaks your pet extra food. Remind your family there are many ways other than food to demonstrate and express love for your pet.
- Provide a nutritious and healthy diet.
Eliminate table scraps and fattening high-calorie treats. Consult your veterinarian about the best food choice for your pet. Don’t give in to those sad, begging eyes as your pet meows or begs for food. Select one of the food dispensers mentioned above, or that your veterinarian suggests. The recommended feeding amount printed on the pet food label might not be a good amount for the breed you have. Your veterinarian can prescribe the proper amount and frequency of feeding that is right for your pet.
- Set goals for reducing and maintaining optimal weight.
Work with your veterinarian to develop realistic goals for reducing your pet’s weight in a healthy manner. Rapid weight loss can result in serious health problems, so ask your veterinarian for recommendations for healthier eating and exercise that will produce a reasonable and safe rate of weight loss based on your pet’s overall health and age.
- Make it fun.
Being more active and living a healthier lifestyle benefits the entire family. Find activities you enjoy that can include your pet, and the journey will be more enjoyable for all of you. Many people meet and become friends with others through their pets. Pets bring people together for a better mental life and a better physical life as well.
- Monitor and record your progress.
Once you have set reasonable goals to achieve and maintain your pet’s healthy weight, be sure to monitor and record your pet’s progress. As with all weight loss programs, there will be successes and there will be failures. By monitoring and recording your progress, you can determine what is working and what’s not effective and adjust as needed to the program.
Overweight and obese pets are not unlike their human counterparts regarding shedding off the pounds. It takes discipline and commitment to accomplish the goal. Develop a plan, stick to it, and the reward will be a more active, more loveable and longer-living pet with fewer trips to the veterinarian to treat conditions that develop due to excess weight. Maintaining your pet’s healthy weight gives your pet the best chance of living a healthier, longer life as a beloved member of your family. And remember to “walk your dog, it will do you both good!”