Veterinarians estimate that 60 percent of the animals in their practices are obese or overweight. As with humans, excessive weight causes many of the same health problems in our pets: diabetes, heart and lung diseases, cancers, and orthopedic disorders (like arthritis and joint problems). In addition, obese pets are at increased risk during surgery because their internal organs are surrounded by fat which displaces them from their correct position and interferes with normal functioning. All of these factors shorten the life expectancy of our companion animals.
According to the VCA Animal Hospital website, obesity is defined as "weighing 30 percent more than the ideal weight for a given pet." The website clarifies the cause of obesity as "the accumulation of excess energy stored as fat." This occurs when pets receive more calories than they need or utilize.
How do you know if your pet is overweight? When well-meaning friends, relatives, your pet's breeder, or especially your vet comments that your pet looks "pudgy," take notice! You can also objectively check your cat or dog by using the following methods:
Can you feel your pet's ribs without pressing?
When viewing your standing pet from above, do you see a "waistline" between the back of the ribs and hips?
When viewing your standing pet from the side, does your pet's belly "tuck up" from the bottom of the ribcage to inside the thighs?
Your pet is likely to be overweight if he fails these tests. Another source for determining the ideal weights for purebred dogs and cats is to study the breed standards that can be found on the American Kennel Club's and Cat Fancier's Association's websites. Most of the breed standards provide the weight ranges for males and females but note that some purebred pet specimens may be oversized or undersized.
Owners should not attempt starting pets on "crash" or fad diets and strenuous exercise programs. Always begin with a thorough veterinary evaluation. The vet will need to determine if a pet's obesity is due to an underlying medical issue such as hypothyroidism. Also the vet will need to examine the pet for any pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, metabolic disorders and orthopedic problems. The evaluation may involve analysis of blood, urine and fecal samples, X-rays and possibly ultrasound. Test results will determine the appropriate program for weight reduction. This may include changing the pet's diet to a prescription or commercial brand reduced calorie pet foods, substituting low-calorie treats (like carrot sticks) for the "junk" high-calorie dog treats or people snacks. A metabolic prescription diet for dogs and cats (developed by the Hills Company) is available at most veterinary hospitals and has been achieving successful results. Frozen string beans may be added to a dog's food to aid in weight reduction but consult with your vet first.
The May 2002 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association reported the results of a 14 year groundbreaking study which involved 48 Labrador retrievers. This study revealed that "dogs fed to an ideal body weight" throughout their lives: lived almost two years longer; stayed healthier longer with delayed treatment for chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis; had healthier blood sugar levels, blood pressure and heart rates; and were observed to have fewer visible signs with aging such as graying muzzles and reduced activity at a later age.
Our methods feeding pets also may need to be altered. It can be misleading when reading the suggested amount to feed pets based on the instructions provided on pet food bags or cans as people may interpret that to mean the pet's current weight. Keep the pet's ideal weight as the goal when measuring out meals. Feeding dogs and cats two small meals daily will help them feel more satisfied rather than feeding them one large meal. Leaving food out all day for dogs and cats to "free feed" increases the odds for obesity. A local veterinarian pointed out that "free choice feeding" has resulted in a generation of cats prone to metabolic diseases in addition to the ones listed for dogs.
Increasing a pet's activity level is another component to a successful weight reduction program. Brisk on-leash 30-minute walks around the block twice daily (starting gradually), retrieving games on a safe surface or a romp in an enclosed area can provide a dog with exercise to lose weight, improve his overall well-being, and further bond with his owner. Cats can be provided with interactive and safe toys, cat furniture to climb and explore, and outdoor exploration (by wearing a harness with a leash attached) to perk up their metabolism and moods.
For a weight reduction program for your pet to be successful, all the human members of your household must be "on the same page." This means that no one is allowed to sneak forbidden treats (especially table foods) to pets which could sabotage the program! Maintain regular feeding and exercise schedules which have been approved by your vet. As the VCA website states: "The great news is that weight reductions is about 60 percent diet and 40 percent exercise."
Keeping our pets slender for life provides many bonuses. Owners save money by reducing pet food expenses and veterinary bills and our beloved pets may become healthier and share their lives with us longer.