Tipping the scales: avoiding pet obesity

A lean dog or cat is much healthier than one that’s overweight, and will also enjoy a longer life. This simple five-step plan will help keep obesity at bay.

Obesity is the most common nutrition issue faced by dogs and cats. Up to 44% of pets are estimated to be above their ideal body weight, and that puts them at risk for a range of serious health problems. Keeping our dogs and cats lean is one of the best things we can do for their long-term health, and unlike many other issues, it’s something we can control by taking the right steps.

Obesity is linked to many diseases

Many life-threatening diseases affecting dogs and cats are associated with obesity. In cats, for example, diabetes and obesity often go hand in hand. For dogs, even a slight increase in weight may decrease lifespan and quality of life. Osteoarthritis, renal disease, pancreatitis and respiratory issues are common consequences of excess weight in dogs, and the negative effects of being overweight can start to develop just a few weeks after the onset of obesity.

As with humans, body weight in dogs and cats involves a balancing act of “energy in” (food) versus “energy out” (activity). To lose weight, food consumption needs to be decreased and/or the level of activity needs to be increased. It is best to prevent weight gain in the first place since weight loss can be difficult to achieve. Also, pets that have lost excess weight may be more susceptible to regaining it.

Why are so many pets overweight?

Why are growing numbers of dogs and cats overweight? There are a number of factors at play. As opposed to 50 or so years ago, pet foods are more widely available and convenient than they used to be. And grocery store shelves are mostly full of low quality commercial diets with fillers and additives that can pack on the pounds. Additionally, pet food has become highly palatable, which means animals may want to eat more. Of course we want our pets to fully enjoy their food, but it is our job to ensure they don’t overeat. Treats should also be used sparingly, and only healthy products used. This is especially true for small dogs and cats.

The other side of the energy-balance equation, physical activity (or more accurately, a lack of physical activity), is also contributing to pet obesity. As more people become city dwellers, more pets become couch potatoes. Daily physical exercise is very important for the health of people and their animal companions.

Weight loss plan for pets

How do you determine if your pet’s shape is not ideal, and what should you do if he’s overweight? Here’s a five-point step-by-step guide to keep him fit and trim for years to come.

Step 1: Consult a body scort chart

A body score chart (you can find one at petcurean.com/bodyscorechart) allows you to determine if your pet is underweight, overweight or at his ideal weight. When at an ideal weight, dogs and cats should have a proportioned, slightly hourglass-shaped body when viewed from above, a slight tummy tuck, and a thin covering of body fat over the ribs and spine. When running your hands along your pet’s body, you should be able to feel the ribs and hips without pressing hard.

If you discover your dog or cat needs to shed a pound or two, proceed to Step 2. If he is already at an ideal body weight, congratulations! Careful monitoring and adjusting his food intake as needed will ensure he stays lean for the rest of his life.

Step 2: Determine his actual weight

Visit your vet to weigh your dog or cat,  and for a health check to make sure there are no underlying health conditions. For weekly follow-ups at home, you can weigh your pet using a bathroom scale. Weigh yourself, then pick up your animal (if he’s not too big to lift!) and weigh again. Subtract the difference to determine his weight.

Step 3: Consider food selection and quantity

If your dog or cat only needs to lose a little weight, you may decide to continue feeding him the same food and just reduce the quantity. If more weight needs to be shed, choose a high quality diet made with whole food ingredients, formulated to help with weight loss. It can help keep your pet feeling satisfied while reducing calories.

Ideally, your pet’s food should be weighed, not measured or free-fed. Weighing is more accurate and allows you to monitor exactly how much you are feeding. Using a smaller food dish and scoop may also help prevent overfeeding.

Determine how much you are currently feeding your dog or cat and cut this amount down slightly. After a week, weigh him again to see how much has been lost. A 1% to 2% weight loss per week is ideal. Weekly weigh-ins are important because a rapid decline in weight can be harmful to your pet — especially to cats, which are more susceptible to developing a severe liver disease called hepatic lipidosis.

Step 4: Monitor progress and stay on track

Adjust the amount of food your pet receives until a slow and steady weight loss is achieved, and continue to monitor his weight and body condition score. Avoid the temptation of giving him extra treats. It is also helpful to keep a record of your dog or cat’s progress.

Step 5: Make sure he’s getting adequate exercise

Don’t forget to include regular physical activity in your pet’s weight loss program. Start slowly, and cater the amount and duration of exercise to your dog or cat’s age, breed, health status, etc. A daily walk is essential for most dogs, while indoor interactive play can help keep your cat active.

A team effort keeps him in tip-top shape

And if you need some help or guidance developing a weight loss plan for your dog or cat, talk to your vet or contact a pet health and nutrition specialist. Whenever you take your pet to the vet, discuss his weight. Also be sure to educate everyone in your household about not overfeeding or giving extra treats, about your pet’s exercise plan, and about monitoring for optimal body weight.

Diet trends and your pet

Everywhere you turn in the human nutrition world, there seems to be someone promoting a new weight-loss diet. Unfortunately, most of these diets do not result in long-term weight loss. Myths and misconceptions also routinely surround weight loss regimes for pets.

High-protein low-carbohydrate diets have been a popular diet trend for humans. For dogs and cats that are overweight, extra protein may provide some benefit in helping prevent the loss of muscle mass during calorie restriction. Carbohydrates are often blamed for weight gain, but they are not a direct cause. In fact, carbohydrates provide less than half the amount of energy fat does. A diet low in fat and high in dietary fiber will provide fewer calories, which may help pets lose weight while keeping them satisfied and preventing them from begging for food.

Humans are known to respond differently to weight loss diets, depending on factors like insulin resistance, genotype, and the types of microbes in the gut. The same is true for pets. So, if one type of diet does not seem to be helping your dog or cat lose weight, it may be worthwhile trying another. Be sure to work with a holistic or integrative veterinarian with a good knowledge of healthy nutrition.

L-carnitine and weight loss

L-carnitine is a molecule in the body that’s involved in fatty acid metabolism. It is also available as a dietary supplement and has been shown in some studies to help promote weight loss and the maintenance of lean body mass. L-carnitine is involved in transporting fatty acids in body cells to produce energy, so supplementation may help optimize fatty acid oxidation.

By staying on top of your dog or cat’s weight and overall health, you can keep him in optimum body condition, help maintain his health, and ensure his companionship for years to come.