When Pleasantly Plump Goes Too Far

The Facts
Although we may not like to admit it, obesity is as big of an epidemic in animals as it is in people. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates that 45% of all U.S. pets are overweight or obese. More often than not, obesity is the result of an animal being overfed. It is easy to demonstrate love and affection to our pets through food. However, there are some metabolic disorders that can lead to weight gain in our pets, especially in dogs. Blood tests can be done to help rule this out as a cause for obesity/weight gain.

Obese animals are at a greater risk for a variety of diseases and often have a shorter lifespan. Heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, nonallergic skin conditions (especially in cats when they can no longer groom themselves effectively), having greater risks with anesthesia, and even some cancers are more prevalent in obese animals. In many cases of arthritis, simply getting the animal to lose weight can improve the clinical symptoms both through the decrease in stress on their joints and the increase in their activity.
Getting the Weight Off
Treating an obese or overweight animal is tailored to getting the weight off. In many cases, this means decreasing caloric intake while increasing physical activity. Our office has found that feeding high fiber foods to dogs, and high protein/low carb foods to cats work best, but in some situations, a prescription diet is required to help get the weight off. Our office also utilizes a Weight Reduction Worksheet to help us determine the number of calories your pet is getting, how much they actually need, and how much we need to reduce their caloric intake to achieve their ideal weight. The road to weight loss is often a lengthy process. Just as it takes time to put it on, it takes time to get it off.

Many of us are guilty of using treats as a reward for our pets. Treats are often used for training purposes because it is an effective way to get results. Most dogs will do whatever you want them to in order to get that cookie. However, this adds to their daily caloric intake. Unless calories are removed elsewhere, it is likely your pet will gain weight. Clicker training is a great replacement for treats as it uses their food motivation to get them to think of the click as their reward. You can also take out a certain amount of their food for the day and allow yourself to use that as a treat. For example, if your pet should have no more than 3 cups of food per day, set aside a measured amount of dry food per day to be used as your pet's treats. Your pet will be thrilled to receive treats from you, even if it is their regular food. This also allows you to fully control how much food you are giving your pet each day. If you still want to give them something special, that is not their regular food, consider low calorie treats that may include rice cakes, green beans (low sodium if canned), carrots, butter free popcorn, cheerios, or apples. Remember that the calories from the treats still need to be accounted for and a reduction in their amount of food will be necessary.

Exercise is also key in getting your pet to lose weight. You can increase the amount of time or distance you walk together gradually. Remember, pets need to ease into an exercise program just as much as we do. There are various types of exercise that your dog will likely love including brisk walks, playing fetch, chasing games, etc. Cats can be harder to exercise, but there are many options available for cats too such as: laser pointers, fetch, playing with ball or feather toys, etc. Cat condos are also great as they make your cat jump or climb. You can also keep their food, water, and litter-box in different locations of the house so that they have to seek these things out. If you trust your cat, you can allow supervised time outside or even build a cat enclosure so that they can play outside without the risk of them running off. These are just a few ideas to help get the weight loss started. Whatever activities you and your pet enjoy doing together will help them to be more active.
Your Pet's Ideal Weight
Many of us tend to see an animal as being too thin, when in fact they are actually at their ideal weight. The key to determine your pet's ideal weight is to actually look at their Body Condition Score (BCS) and not necessarily the weight on the scale. The BCS is a range from 1-9, with 1 being emaciated and 9 being grossly obese (most veterinarians use a BCS system to classify their patients). A BCS of 5 is ideal. As this is more technical, it is not always easy to do at home. You can monitor your pet’s BCS on your own by looking for a definitive waist behind your pet's ribs when viewing them from above and a “tuck” of their abdomen behind their ribs when viewed from the side. You should be able to feel their ribs relatively easily when you pet them. You can use this BCS system as a way to monitor your pet’s weight loss visually as well as seeing the weight decrease on the scale.

The majority of overweight pets can lose their excess weight if owners reduce their caloric intake and incorporate regular daily exercise. Patience, consistency, and a healthy dose of “tough love” are essential to a successful weight loss program.

The AVMA and Hill’s Pet Nutrition partnered last year to create the Obesity Awareness and Prevention Program. Visit www.PetFit.com for resources and tools to help you commit to providing your pet with a healthier lifestyle.
AVMA Collections: Obesity in dogs
Dr. Ernest E. Ward Jr., owner of Seaside Animal Clinic, Calahash, NC.