Q:What do you think are the health-maintenance things most likely to be overlooked by pet owners — and why do they matter?
A: Some people only take their cars in for service when something stops working. The result can be an eye-popping bill for a big-ticket breakdown that could have been avoided through simple and much less costly preventive maintenance.
For pet owners, it’s easy to fall into a similar habit of benign neglect — only going to the veterinarian when there’s something obviously wrong and overlooking routine basics that can have major benefits to a pet’s long-term health.
I’d put weight control at the top of the list, since numerous surveys indicate that more than half of American dogs and cats are overweight. And not pleasantly plump — overweight enough to cause detrimental health effects including much higher risk of diabetes, earlier onset and progression of arthritis, anesthetic complications, certain types of cancer, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, liver disease, increased risk for infections, breathing difficulties, heart failure and a shorter life span.
As with humans, it’s preferable that pets not become overweight in the first place. That’s why we stress to all our clients with puppies and kittens the importance of good, balanced nutrition. Since all individual animals are different in terms of metabolism and activity level, the recommended meal portions on food packaging is not necessarily right for your pet. As a young pet grows, its veterinarian can keep track of weight and physical condition, and help you adjust your pet’s diet as needed.
But many adult cats and dogs continue to gain weight. The reason why so many end up supersized is clear: we feed them too much, and they get too little exercise. Annual vet visits may not be adequate for keeping their weight optimal. It’s up to pet owners to be aware of whether their pets are becoming overweight.
Here are some tips for helping our furry friends maintain a healthy weight:
Don’t skip those annual vet visits. Overweight pets should have a full physical exam to check for any underlying disease or illness that may contribute to obesity.
Weight loss depends on what we eat as well as how much. The same goes for our pets. Manufacturers’ labeling of foods as “lite,” low-calorie or formulated for “all life stages” can be confusing. Cats, in particular, have small stomachs and can do better eating smaller meals fed more frequently — four to six daily meals of 10 to 15 pieces of kibble per meal.
Your veterinarian can help sort through the jargon and choose an appropriate food and portion size, as well as suggesting healthy treats and snacks. For overweight animals, treats should be limited to no more than 10 percent of daily caloric intake. If you’re using food rewards in training, those should be tidbits; we suggest setting aside a portion of your pet’s meals to use as training treats. For multi-pet households being fed different foods, make certain each pet eats her own food.
Intending to be kind, many pet owners leave food out for their dogs and cats all day, and keep refilling the bowl when it’s empty. Pets with 24-hour-buffet service are more likely to overeat — and human caretakers can lose track of how much their animals are consuming. Take control of availability and portion management by feeding smaller separate meals each day, leaving food down for no longer than 20 minutes. Never reward begging or pestering for food.
Instead of just serving up food in a bowl, consider feeding your dog or cat at least some of his daily diet from a food-dispensing toy to combine active play and feeding.
Be your pet’s personal trainer, with a goal of at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity. Start couch potato pets off slowly and increase activity gradually. Indoors or out, play fetch games. Take dogs for long daily walks (multiple walks, if possible) to give them outdoor activity and a change of scenery. Add variety by walking on different surfaces like sand and snow and inclines such as hills, stairs, through dog tunnels or over tires. If you have a local park, create your own “obstacle course” by walking around trees, benches and logs.
The Canine Fitness Center in Crownsville offers low-impact aquatic exercise and an underwater treadmill, which is especially good for dogs suffering from arthritis. Check out their services and requirements at caninefitnesscenter.com.
Some cats can be taught to enjoy wearing a harness and leash for outdoor adventures with you; indoor cats can get much-needed exercise chasing toys or laser pointers, as well as running, jumping and climbing on cat-appropriate equipment. Try removing the supper dish altogether and feeding your cat by tossing food to her, making her walk or pounce to “hunt” for her meal.
In order to maintain an overweight pet’s good health, it’s important that weight reduction be gradual. The exact rate and amount depends on an individual pet’s starting point and ideal target weight. Follow-up appointments are critical to make sure that progress is slow but steady.
Next issue, we’ll consider some other important, oft-overlooked facets of dog and cat health care.