It’s the start of a new year, a typical time for many to take steps towards a healthier lifestyle. It’s old news that there is an “obesity epidemic” in America, and most people are aware that there is a plethora of health complications associated with being overweight. It is also coming to public attention that there is a similar obesity epidemic in the American pet population. It is estimated by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) that 55.6% of pet dogs and 54% of cats are overweight or obese. Obesity is caused by a combination of factors, including genetics, but can be boiled down basically to taking in more calories than are used by the body. From a cultural standpoint, pet animals are becoming obese because of a modern, first-world lifestyle. Many owners express affection to their pets by feeding them, often overfeeding or feeding rich treats. There was a time when most cats and dogs roamed outdoors all day long, but now most are relatively sedentary. Many owners don’t spend the time to walk the dog, and many cats are indoor only with limited space for activity.
Just like humans, dogs and cats can have many health problems that are secondary to or exacerbated by being overweight. They can develop diabetes, have high blood pressure (which in turn can stress the heart and damage the kidneys), and have increased strain on joints leading to or worsening conditions like cruciate ligament tears in the knees and osteoarthritis. Obesity can even be linked to increased risk of certain forms of cancer. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), studies suggest that being overweight can decrease our pets’ life expectancy (up to 2.5 years). Maintaining an ideal weight for our pets is obviously important for maximizing their longevity and quality of life.
So… where do I start?
A reliable and practical place to start getting in shape is going to the doctor’s for a routine physical exam! Too many humans neglect to do this; many pets are also not checked up unless they are due for vaccines or have a perceived problem. Keep in mind that cats and dogs lifespans are shorter than a human’s, so in a sense an annual physical exam could equate to a check-up every 6 to 8 years – a lot can change in that amount of time! The vet can address any of your concerns regarding your pet’s weight as well. Get their opinion on whether there needs to be any changes in diet, exercise, or if any blood tests need to be run, as there can be underlying metabolic diseases that can affect a pet’s weight.
In evaluating the weight of dogs and cats, it’s not easy to go by numbers on a scale alone. The variety of shapes, body types, and ideal weights, even within specific breeds, can be staggering. The veterinarian on exam will evaluate your pet based on palpation as well as visual appearance, so a target weight can be estimated for your individual animal. For your own reference, you could always compare your pet to a Body Condition Scoring Chart, like the two below. (You can download a PDF version of both charts HERE.)
Very roughly speaking, regardless of the breed of your animal, they should still have a waist (where the body narrows down behind the ribcage, and the abdomen should tuck up) and you should be able to feel individual ribs without putting too much pressure on the chest. Many Americans are accustomed to seeing overweight dogs and cats by now, so our perceptions may be skewed by expectations. While you don’t want to see the spine, shoulder blades and hip bones sticking out, seeing some definition to the trunk of the pet is a good thing!
Selecting a quality pet food is also important to maintaining appropriate weight. While there are thousands of opinions as to what constitutes a good brand, what helps is to make sure the food has clinical nutrition trials to back it up and that it at least meets standards by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO ) for being complete and balanced. Many owners are interested in creating home cooked diets or supplementing commercial pet food with table food, but if this is to be done properly a veterinary nutritional specialist should be consulted and a lot of good research should be put into formulating something balanced and appropriate. Home-cooked pet food recipes found on the internet may result in nutritional deficiencies and significant disease, if owners are not careful.
It is also very important to control how MUCH a pet is fed daily. Many owners will only roughly estimate how much a pet is fed, using non-standard “cups” to measure out portions; some will just “keep the bowl full.” If the food is left out for pets to eat at their own pace, at least a controlled total quantity should be offered. Feeding guidelines on the pet food bag or cans may even be overestimating how much should be fed, so these recommendations should be taken in light of the animal’s current body condition, activity level, etc. Also take into account how many calories are added into the daily diet by treats.
Often, if there is difficulty losing extra weight and other underlying medical issues have been addressed, the vet may recommend a specific veterinary prescription diet to help animals have decreased caloric intake while feeling more satisfied than they would if they just decreased their regular diet quantity. Often these prescription diets are higher in fiber or protein to help the animals feel more full, and some also are formulated to increase metabolic rate to help burn calories. Often, fatty commercial dog treats can be replaced with pieces of vegetables, which are often in large part water and fiber. (Unforunately, cats are carnivorous; but high protein and low carbohydrate diets are important for their weight management!)
Exercise is obviously an important component to maintaining healthy weight. It is also critical for our pets’ overall well-being and can be important for avoiding or resolving behavioral issues like anxiety, supposed hyperactivity, and destructiveness. For very overweight animals, it will be important to slowly increase activity over time to avoid injury. Walks and jogs are obviously mainstays for dogs, but for cats a little more creativity may be required. Investing in toys, laser pointers, etc. may be in your future!
For many helpful tools (such as calorie calculators) and much more information, go to www.PetObesityPrevention.com. Good luck and good health!