Is Your Pet too Pudgy?

Pet obesity has been making the headlines in every veterinary journal for the last few months. It is indeed a serious problem for our furry friends. Many serious health problems can result from obesity, such as arthritis, liver disease, heart failure, and renal disease.

Prevention is key here: don’t allow your pet to become overweight in the first place.  Pay attention to your puppy’s or kitten’s growth to make sure he does not fill out “too much.”  The average weight gain for a kitten is approximately one pound per month up to 8-10 pounds.  For puppies it depends on breed, but you should never see “rolls” of fat on a healthy puppy.

How can you tell if your pet’s too fat?  You should be able to feel the ribs easily.  Even thin cats may have a little “pooch” in the belly between the hind legs, but this should not be excessive.   From above, there should be a bit of a waist, rather than a bulge, between ribs and hips.

While nutritionists simplify obesity as a matter of “too many calories in and too few calories expended,” it is obviously not that simple.  Obesity is a symptom of a systemic imbalance, basically a disease state.  Dieting (starving) a pet down to his “ideal” weight does not address the cause of the problem.

The most common contributor to pet obesity is free-choice feeding.  Dogs and cats are carnivores and hunters.  It is not natural for them to graze day and night.  Never allowing the intestinal tract to rest is a contributor to many health problems down the road.
• In a multi-pet household, when one animal goes to the food bowl, curiosity or the competitive instinct may cause another to investigate and, while she’s there, take a few nibbles. Enough nibbles over time can create a big problem!
• Boredom also plays a role.Pets who are home alone all day may eat just for something pleasurable to do. Spending quality time with your pet—play or walks with dogs, and play therapy sessions for cats, will be a crucial part of a weight loss program.
• Former strays who have had to struggle to survive on the streets may have significant “food issues,” and will often become overweight if food is too available.

For these reasons, we recommend feeding in timed meals rather than leaving out food all the time.  Having food available 24/7 is far too tempting for too many animals.  It also does not allow you to monitor food intake, which can be important.  Now, you may say, “Oh, but I’m feeding a diet food.”  Well, most animals eat more of a diet food than of regular food given the opportunity, because it is less satisfying.  This causes weight gain for the pet, and frustration for you.

Another contributor to excess pet weight is treats.  Once I had a patient, a 26-pound cat, whose owner swore he only fed1/4 cup of dry food per day.  Oh, and 19 Pounce treats every day.  Now, come on folks, let’s be reasonable.  If you ate a highly restricted, low-calorie diet—supplemented with 19 Twinkies every day–what do you think the result would be?!  For a small pet, even a small treat adds big calories.  One “measly” ounce of cheese to a 20 pound dog is the same as 1-1/2 hamburgers for you; for a cat, it’s equal to 3-1/2 hamburgers.  If your pet is a confirmed treat junkie, don’t eliminate them, just limit them.  Break one treat into 5 little ones instead of giving 5 whole treats.  Your pet will still get just as much enjoyment–but far fewer fattening calories!

I don’t like to put pets on a “diet”.  Diets must often be severe in order to comply with current calorie theories, and this may cause even worse problems, such as life-threatening liver disease in cats.

Animals may consume excessive amounts of a food because they can’t digest it properly, there aren’t enough of certain nutrients, or some nutrients are not in a “bioavailable” form–that is, they can’t be assimilated properly. This is a concern with some of the most inexpensive and generic foods, as well as with some “diet” foods that contain excessive levels of fiber.  Meal-feeding allows the pet to choose, and is much safer.

Dry food is actually where the most dangerous calories are.  The feline in particular is uniquely adapted to get energy from protein and fat; the cat’s natural prey contain very little carbohydrate.  For most cats, carbohydrates are converted to fat, rather than burned for energy.  Clearly, this is the opposite of where we want to go!

There are two major strategies for helping a fat pet lose weight.

Feed in timed meals. For most dogs and cats, it’s best to feed them on a timed-meal schedule.  That is, don’t leave the food out all the time, but rather put the food out for 30-45 minutes, two or three times a day.  Dogs will usually inhale their food in seconds.  Some cats prefer to eat a bit, come back in 10 minutes and eat a bit more.  But…cats figure out this schedule quickly.  Not all cats will lose weight with this change alone, but usually you can keep them from continuing to gain. (Caution: some medical conditions require special feeding regimens; talk to your veterinarian before making any changes.)

Feed more wet food.  Dogs lose more fat and retain more lean body mass on a high protein, low carbohydrate diet, so a shift away from high-calorie dry food will benefit your dog.  In general, cats should receive at least 50 percent of their diet as wet food, either good-quality canned foods or homemade diets.  For significant, healthy weight loss, feed 100% wet food (including cans, pouches, homemade, and raw frozen) and get rid of the dry altogether.  Always make sure kitty is eating; some cats are so addicted to their dry food that they will go on a hunger strike without it.  Be sure you work closely with your veterinarian when changing diets to minimize the risk to your cat.

For a dog, think “Zone” diet.  Moderate proteins and fats, complex carbohydrates (vegetables) rather than starchy ones like corn, potatoes, and grains.  This requires reducing or even eliminating most dry foods, even the “grainless” varieties that substitute high-sugar carbs like potatoes and yams for grains.

A high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet like “Atkins” is truly ideal for the cat. Most canned cat and kitten foods meet these standards, but try to choose those with the least carbohydrate. You can get a fair idea of carbohydrate content by simply subtracting all the listed percentages on the label from 100%. About 8% carbohydrate (or less) is best.

Don’t forget exercise as a health-giving way for your pet to lose weight (and it won’t hurt you, either!) Walking or vigorous outdoor play with your dog obviously benefits both of you.  It’s a little harder with cats, but play therapy is good exercise, builds her confidence, and strengthens the bond between the two of you.

Throughout the weight management process, whatever the results, give your pet plenty of love and attention.  Lots of affection will help her equate love and comfort with you–and not her food bowl.

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