5 steps to a healthy weight

Is Rover carrying around more weight than he should be? He’s not alone. Use these five steps to help whip him back into shape.

Obesity among companion animals has reached an all time high. Recent research by the United States National Research Council indicates that as many as 25 percent of cats and dogs in the Western world are overweight. We’re bombarded by advertisements claiming that if you take a little red pill or try the latest diet, you can lose four to seven pounds in five days. A growing number of similar products are being offered to guardians of pudgy puppies and chubby cats, but like their human equivalents, they aren’t the solution. Battling obesity involves a multi-faceted approach that includes understanding its causes and complications, and working closely with a vet to tailor a weight loss program. Here are five steps that will help your companion move successfully from fat to fit.

1. Find out if he’s fat

Animals that weigh anywhere from 10 to 20 percent above their ideal body weight for their size and breed are considered obese. Luckily, it’s easy to tell if your animal is overweight or obese. If a cat looks fat, she is. You should not see fat deposits on her back, face, or limbs, and her abdomen should not be rounded.

A healthy dog will have a waist when viewed from above, and a tucked stomach when viewed from the side. His ribs should be easily felt through a thin layer of flesh. If one of these signposts is missing, your dog may be overweight; if more than one is missing, and you see fatty deposits over your dog’s chest, spine, and the base of his tail, he is obese.

2. Be aware of the risks

Obesity causes many of the same problems in animals as it does in us. Dr. Donald Strombeck, DVM, PhD, author of Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative, says that obesity is the most common form of malnutrition affecting dogs in Western countries. According to Dr. John Rush, Professor of Clinical Sciences at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, overweight dogs often have extra fat deposits on their chest walls or inside their chest cavities, which places an additional burden on their cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

Another common medical problem caused or aggravated by obesity is arthritis. Your animal can also experience orthopedic problems, from herniated discs to ruptured stifle ligaments. Obesity can also contribute to heat intolerance, skin problems, and even surgical complications, leading to longer recovery time.

Overweight cats are at risk of developing diabetes mellitus, lower urinary tract disease, and hepatic lipidosis, a severe form of liver failure typically occurring in obese cats who have undergone a brief period of stress, which could be as simple as a change in diet. In order to avoid this potentially fatal disease, treatment of feline obesity needs to be approached with caution, and always under the care of a veterinarian.

3. Visit the vet

If your dog or cat is overweight, a trip to your veterinarian is in order before any kind of weight management program is put into place. Your animal’s medical history should be considered, along with a thorough physical examination, including a complete blood panel and urinalysis, to ensure that endocrine diseases such as hypothyroidism, an insulin imbalance, hyperadrenocorticism or Cushing’s disease, aren’t behind your animal’s weight gain.

Dr. Martin Goldstein, DVM, author of The Nature of Animal Healing, recommends the use of a metabolic analysis which examines your animal’s body, evaluates immune system function, and determines nutritional and glandular requirements. This information can then be used as part of a complete weight loss program for your companion.

4. Take a look at diet

Once hypothyroidism or other metabolic disorders have been ruled out by your veterinarian, it is time develop a weight loss program for your animal. This should be done with the help of a veterinarian, and perhaps an animal nutritionist. Try keeping a food journal for even one week. (If more than one person feeds your animal, ask them to note quantities and times.) The results may surprise you: Fido and Fluffy may be eating much more than you thought!

Once you really know how much and how often your animal is being fed, you may have to make some changes:

• Only one person should feed the animal.

• Feeding smaller, more frequent meals is often beneficial.

• Throw guesswork out the window: all food should be measured, and the best way to do this is by actually weighing your animal’s daily ration, including treats.

• Consider using fresh fruit or vegetables for treats, rather than biscuits. Chunks of fresh apple, carrots and zucchini are great alternatives for dogs.

• Even many finicky cats enjoy the taste of fresh melon, but keep in mind that a cat needs animal-based proteins and fats and should never be fed a vegetarian diet.

• If you do give your companion biscuits, break them into tiny pieces. He’ll love you just as much, whether the treat is big or small.

• Dr. Strombeck points out that fewer calories convert to fat when an animal’s metabolic rate increases. You can help your companion’s body burn more energy by supplementing his diet with Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil sources. Other foods that increase metabolism include vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fruits.

Contrary to popular belief, love is not always spelled f-o-o-d. Free feeding is a major contributing factor to obesity in companion animals, so you can’t give in to those soulful eyes and humming purrs!

5. Get him moving

Like diet, exercise is a key tool in the fight against obesity, so make a daily activity date with your companion. Going for regular walks, or participating in other activities like swimming, can help dogs become healthier and happier. Dr. Howard Erickson, Professor of Physiology and Anatomy at Kansas State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, adds that even a simple game of ball in the backyard will provide sufficient aerobic exercise for your dog.

Cats also need regular exercise. You can’t take her jogging, but you can coax her off the windowsill for some interactive play. Consider buying “Da Bird,” one of the top rated toys for cats, whose twirling feather action mimics the motion of a bird in flight. Catnip mice are always popular, and a foil ball makes a great little “hockey puck” for your feline friend.

There is no magic bullet to help your dog or cat lose weight, but with the guidance of your vet, you and your beloved companion can successfully make the trip from fat to fit, and have lots of fun along the way.


Suzi Beber has been successfully creating special needs diets for companion animals for two decades. She founded the University of Guelph’s Smiling Blue Skies® Cancer Fund and Smiling Blue Skies® Fund for Innovative Research. She is the proud recipient of a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, and was honored with the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, for her work in cancer, from the University of Guelph/Ontario Veterinary College. The Smiling Blue Skies Cancer Fund is also the recipient of the “Pets + Us” Community Outreach Champion Award.