A Healthy Weight for Dogs and Cats

Many of us are concerned about our own weight and trying to keep it under control. It may be news that there is an organization seeking to do the same for our pets. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention has assembled data on the weight of cats and dogs, and has concluded that more than half of them are overweight or obsess.

Like their humans, an increasing number of pets are developing weight-related disorders, particularly type 2 diabetes and osteoarthritis. Weight management guidelines have been published by several veterinary organizations, and there is a growing consensus that a healthy diet lower in calories than has been the norm in recent years, together with attempts to encourage more activity than many domestic pets generally undertake, with recommendations from us veterinarians and with the active involvement of you owners, will help to turn some of these weight problems around.

Determining Obesity

Dogs and cats should be weighed regularly, and this is now an almost universal part of veterinary office practice. This is particularly important because veterinary scales are accurate for animal use in a way that most human scales in homes are not.

Another useful weight measure is feeling the ribs: while humans often think that it is a sign of sickness or emaciation to see someone’s ribs, it is normal in healthy cats and dogs to feel the ribs under a thin layer of skin. The presence of a pad of fat over the ribs may well mean that a pet is too heavy. Looking at a dog or cat from above can be helpful as well: there should be an hourglass silhouette, and an animal shaped like a balloon or a blimp is overweight.

An obese cat

Sawyer was 27 lbs when we first saw him. Here he is one year later at a svelt 18 lbs, and still losing

Another useful vantage point to check for obesity is from the side. An animal’s stomach should be taut and not sag downward, and a protruding stomach in a pet is like a paunch on a human. If any of these signs or regular weight measurements during veterinary visits indicate a pattern of weight gain, even a gradual one, a proper weight control regimen and strict feeding schedule should be implemented. Also, in some older pets, a thorough workup might be indicated to rule out certain diseases that cause weight gain, such as hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease.

As with humans, weight can be difficult for a pet to lose once it has been put on. A healthy weight loss program promotes fat loss and preserves or even enhances muscle mass; this usually involves lower calorie food that is high in protein to begin with.

Proper Feeding

Most cat and dog foods have certain feeding recommendations, but these are not always appropriate for older indoor animals or those who are less active: most recommendations are formulated for young adult dogs and cats who are physically active and have not been neutered or spayed, and may overestimate the calorie needs of spayed and neutered indoor cats and dogs by up to 30 per cent.

Veterinarians can determine more accurately the number of calories that a particular pet will require. A rough calculation for home use involves dividing the pet’s weight in pounds by 2.2 to get the equivalent in kilograms, multiplying by 30 and then adding 70 to obtain an approximate daily calorie intake. Or, you can use an easier measure to get a rough baseline and adjust from there. The shortcut method we use is to feed ¼ cup of high quality, all natural, grain free food for every 10 pounds of body weight twice daily. So a 10 pound cat gets ¼ cup twice daily, whereas a 40 lb dog gets a whole cup twice daily. But remember, that’s just a rough guideline and needs to be adjusted up or down for each individual animal.

Daily exercise, usually involving constant movement for about least 30 minutes a day, is also important.  This can be done by a daily walk outside, longer on weekends if possible, or by feeding  indoor animals at different locations and on elevated surfaces to promote walking,  jumping or climbing.  Remote-controlled toys and interactive toys that engage most animals’ inherent urge to play will increase calorie expenditure in a way that is fun for them, as will putting at least some of the food in puzzle devices that they must work at to access the food. These are available at all major pet stores.

Snacks and treats are important for training and are part of the loving interaction between pets and people. They are also an insidious source of weight gain: an extra 30 calories a day in snacks or treats can translate into a three or more pound weight gain over the course of a year. We recommend low-calorie treats with a single healthy ingredient, such as baby carrots, green beans, broccoli, apple or banana slices or blueberry and sweet potato bites. And these healthy treats are great to use as rewards for positive-reinforcement training.

It may be difficult to rein in the impulse to give treats to a happy, expectant animal or to leave something behind when going out, but a snack is best used as a reward, and the long-term reward for owners and slimmer animals is rejuvenation and increased energy. Except in some specific medical circumstances, special diets aimed at calorie reduction and weight loss are not necessary, only portion control and optimal nutrition.  In pets as in people, weight is an important determinant of chronic disease and quality of life as years go by, and pounds lost or not gained in the first place will pay off in fewer illnesses, lower medical costs and a longer and more enjoyable life.

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