The obesity epidemic in dogs and cats is still with us, even though most of us now realize that overweight animals are at higher risk of health problems. Why is this the case, and what can you do if your own dog or cat is on the heavy side?
If your dog or cat is overweight, it’s cause for concern, although you’re far from alone. In 2018 (the most recent year for which data was collected), an estimated 60% of cats and 56% of dogs in the US were overweight or obese. Since the pet obesity epidemic has been trending upward for several years, we can assume those numbers are the same or even worse now. This article looks at why the obesity epidemic is still in full swing (see sidebar below), and provides helpful suggestions for getting plump pets down to a healthier weight.
How to tell if your dog or cat is overweight
Because so many animals are overweight now, many people can no longer tell the difference between a fat, chubby, and normal dog or cat. If you’re not sure about your own animal, look down at his body from above as he’s standing or walking. Does he have a tapered-in waist? If not — if he’s shaped more like an oval or rectangle — he’s probably too heavy. You should also be able to feel (but not see) his ribs, as well as the bones near the base of his tail. If he’s obese, you’ll see obvious amounts of excess fat on his abdomen, hips, and neck.
Compare your dog or cat to the body condition charts provided by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) at https://wsava.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Body-Condition-Score-Dog.pdf or https://wsava.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Cat-Body-Condition-Scoring-2017.pdf . The goal is a body condition score of 4 to 5 for dogs, and 5 for cats.
Help him lose weight — do’s and don’ts
Don’t free feed
Providing round-the-clock access to food is a mistake that goes hand-in-hand with feeding ultra-stable, ultra-processed dry foods, because they’re the only types of food you can safely leave out at room temperature 24/7 for days on end. Free feeding is the perfect way to create an overweight or obese dog or cat. A constantly available food source turns your carnivorous hunter into a grazer, which ultimately creates metabolic diseases, including diabetes and immune dysregulation.
Do this instead: Separate your animal’s daily rations into several small portions and place them in different locations around the house for him to find. Make use of food puzzle toys for dogs, and indoor hunting feeders for cats, which encourage natural behaviors and provide mental stimulation. Also consider putting food bowls at the tops and bottoms of stairs to encourage muscle-building exercise throughout the day. Alternatively, you can feed two portion-controlled meals a day, aiming to get all calories into an eight- to ten-hour window. This effective strategy means your animal is practicing intermittent fasting, which has been demonstrated to extend the lifespan of all mammals.
Don’t feed too much
Most people who feed ultra-processed, shelf-stable, commercial kibble follow the suggested feeding guidelines printed on the package, which often isn’t the best approach. These recommendations typically use overly broad weight ranges such as “under 20 pounds” when clearly, a 15-pound dog requires significantly more calories than a five-pound dog. Feeding instructions on these packages also use wide serving ranges, such as “feed ½ to 1½ cups”. These suggestions obviously can’t take into account, for example, an animal’s activity level, and they tend to be short on other important details, such as whether “feed ½ to 1½ cups” is a daily or per-meal guideline.
Do this instead: Decide (with the help of your veterinarian, if needed) what your dog or cat’s ideal weight should be. Then use the following formulas to calculate the precise number of calories he needs to get down to his or her ideal weight and maintain it.
As an example, consider a beagle mix that weighs 30 pounds, when his ideal weight is around 22 pounds.
Daily calories (canine) = (Body weight (kg) x 30) + 70
Convert his ideal weight of 22 pounds (not his current weight) from pounds to kilograms (1 kg = 2.2 lbs), and divide the result by 2.2. Since 22 divided by 2.2 is 10, this dog’s ideal weight in kilograms is 10. Now the formula looks like this:
Daily calories = (10 (kg) x 30) + 70
Do the math, and you get this result:
Daily calories = 370
This means an “average” 22-pound beagle needs about 370 calories a day (assuming he’s not doing agility or has extenuating medical circumstances). For dogs that need to lose more than 10% of their body weight, I recommend reducing calories in small increments. So in this case, first calculate how many calories the beagle needs to get to 28 pounds; once he achieves that goal, recalculate daily calories for 26 pounds, until he achieves his ideal weight. “Slow and steady” is the name of the weight loss game.
The formula for cats is modified slightly to account for the sedentary lifestyle of most kitties these days:
Daily calories (feline) = (Body weight (kg) x 30) + (70 x 0.8)
Note that these are resting energy requirements for “average” animals, which is why it’s important to work with a veterinarian if your dog or cat has extenuating circumstances.
Don’t feed starchy, carb-heavy, processed pet food
A very big contributor to the animal obesity epidemic is the carbs found in ultra-processed pet food. Many dog or cat parents overfeed, but very often the problem is the type of macronutrients (carbs, fats and proteins) – i.e. where the calories are coming from. A calorie from protein acts very differently in the body then a calorie from starch (sugar).
Many commercial dry pet foods are loaded with carbs (30% to 50% of total content in some cases), which can lead to blood sugar fluctuations, insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. A carb intake above 20% often activates internal enzyme factors that store the excess as body fat, unless your dog is very active.
Do this instead: Calculate the carbs you are feeding by looking at the guaranteed analysis on the side of the bag, then doing this simple equation:
Carbs in food = Fat + Protein + Fiber + Ash (estimate 6% if not listed) + Moisture – 100
Dogs and cats need food high in animal protein and moisture, with low to no grain or starch content. A high quality fresh food diet is the best choice for animals who need to lose weight. It’s important to adequately nourish their bodies with great quality protein as weight loss occurs, making sure their requirements for key amino acids, essential fatty acids, and other nutrients are met. My own recommendation is a homemade, nutritionally balanced, fresh food diet of lean meats and healthy fats, along with fibrous vegetables and low glycemic fruits as the only sources of carbohydrates. If you can’t make food for your dog or cat, many companies offer great quality, species-specific (low carb) foods.
Don’t feed too many treats
Overfeeding treats on top of daily food intake contributes to obesity, while overfeeding treats while underfeeding balanced meals will result in nutritional deficiencies. Treat size is also a big factor. Treats for all dogs and cats should be the size of a pea: bigger animals just get more pea-sized treats than smaller ones.
Do this instead: Limit treats to rewards for training and good behavior. For a dog, use treats to practice a “sit”, or as a “time to get in your crate” enticement. For cats, a small treat before bed can be a good bonding ritual. Keep treats at or less than 10% of your animal’s daily calorie intake, which means offering very small amounts, very infrequently. Consider replacing commercial cookies with small amounts of fresh human foods. such as tiny bits of cooked chicken breast, blueberries, other safe fruits (e.g., tiny pieces of melons and apples), chopped string cheese, frozen peas, or raw sunflower or pumpkin seeds.
Don’t ignore the need for exercise
You’ll never see fat canines or felines in the wild because they follow their natural instincts, which include the drive to be physically active, and the need to move a lot to catch food. Given the opportunity and incentive, our dogs and cats will enjoy walking, running, playing, chasing things, rolling in the grass and just being the natural athletes they were born to be. It’s up to us to provide these opportunities.
Do this instead: Consistent daily exercise, including at least 20 minutes (preferably 60) of aerobic activity can combat obesity by helping your animal burn fat and increase muscle tone. Animals that are very overweight or obese may not be able to endure extended periods of exercise at first. Ask your veterinarian or an animal rehab professional what exercises are safe for your animal to do now, and which you need to avoid or put off until he’s in better condition.
You dog or cat doesn’t have to be an obesity statistic. By making a few lifestyle changes, he can get back on track to a long and healthy life, and help bring those numbers down!