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A Weighty Issue: Keeping Your Pet Slender and Healthy!

By Dr. Jean Hofve

Pet obesity is a common problem for our furry friends. It’s estimated that almost half of U.S. dogs, and more than half of our cats, are too fat. Many people don’t take pet obesity seriously; or they think their pudgy pooch or tubby tabby is cuter that way. But our penchant for over-feeding is literally killing our pets. Overweight pets are likely to die much younger than slimmer pets, and they are at far higher risk for painful, serious health problems, such as arthritis, liver disease, heart failure, diabetes, skin disorders, urinary tract disease, and even cancer.

Prevention is key here: the best course of action is to not allow your pet to become overweight in the first place. Pay attention to your puppy or kitten’s growth to make sure he does not fill out “too much.” The average weight gain for a kitten is approximately one pound per month up to 8-10 pounds. For puppies, it depends on breed, but you should never see “rolls” of fat on a healthy puppy.

How can you tell if your pet is too fat? You should be able to feel the ribs easily. Even thin cats may have a little “pooch” in the belly between the hind legs, but this should not be excessive. From above, there should be a bit of a waist, rather than a bulge, between ribs and hips. The chart to the right illustrates how to assess your dog or cat.

While nutritionists often simplify overweight conditions as a matter of “too many calories in and too few calories burned,” it is obviously not that simple. Obesity is a symptom of a systemic imbalance, basically a disease state. Force-dieting (starving) a pet down to his “ideal” weight does not address the cause of the problem.

The first step is a check-up with your vet to assess your pet’s condition and rule out or treat any physical causes that may be contributing to excess weight, such as low thyroid in dogs.

Your vet can also evaluate what your pet’s “ideal” weight would be. For instance, the ideal weight for an average-sized cat might be between 8-10 lbs., but for a Maine coon, somewhere in the 12-15 pound range might be a more realistic goal.

Five Causes and Solutions for Pet Obesity

Cause #1: Unlimited Access to Food

The most common contributor to pet obesity is free-choice feeding. Dogs and cats are carnivores and hunters. It is not natural for them to graze 24 hours a day. Their digestive systems are built with a high-capacity stomach and short intestinal tract for eating and processing large meals.

It’s a common myth that pets, especially cats, will “self-regulate” how much they eat. While that may be true for a few pets, factors other than actual hunger often play a role in overeating.

  • In a multi-pet household, when one animal goes to the food bowl, curiosity or the competitive instinct may cause another to investigate and, while she’s there, take a few nibbles. Enough extra nibbles over time can create a big problem!
  • Boredom also plays a role. Pets that are home alone all day may eat just for something pleasurable to do.
  • Former strays who have had to struggle to survive on the streets may have significant “food issues,” and will often become overweight if food is too available.
  • Spaying and neutering causes an instantaneous decresae in metabolism; your pet’s caloric needs drop by 1/4 to 1/3 immediately after surgery. However, your pet is likely to eat the same amount as before—and will consequently gain weight.

Having food available 24/7 is far too tempting for too many animals. It also does not allow you to accurately monitor food intake, especially in multi-pet households. Knowing who’s eating what and how much is often an early and important clue to illness.

Solution #1: Feed in Timed Meals.

Feed in timed meals. For most dogs and cats, it’s best to feed them on a timed-meal schedule. That is, don’t leave the food out all the time, but rather put the food out for 30-45 minutes, two or three times a day. Many dogs will usually inhale their food in seconds, no matter how much is there. But some dogs, and many cats, prefer to eat a bit, come back in 10 minutes and eat a bit more. But… they will figure out this schedule quickly. Some pets will lose weight with this change alone; or at least you can keep them from continuing to gain. (Caution: some medical conditions require special feeding regimens; talk to your veterinarian before making any changes.)

Cause #2: Inappropriate Diet

A lot of my clients can’t understand why their pet is overweight, because they don’t feel that the amount they’re feeding is excessive, especially when they’re feeding a “light” or “diet” food. Unfortunately, given the opportunity, most animals will eat more of a diet food than of regular food, because it is less dense nutritionally, making it less satisfying. They may also be hungry for excessive amounts of food because they can’t digest it properly, there aren’t enough of certain nutrients, or some nutrients are not in a “bio-available” form and can’t be assimilated properly.

Another twist to the issue was recently revealed when a study found that “weight loss” pet foods varied widely in Calorie content as well as feeding directions. Even though AAFCO, the organization that sets nutritional standards for pet food, has specific rules and limits for foods making weight loss claims, the study found that a great many “diet” foods exceeded those limits. Overages ranged from 60 to 800 Calories over the published maximum. Dry foods were the worst offenders. The authors concluded, “In fact, many animals would likely gain weight if owners were to adhere to these feeding directions.”

Nutritionists for both humans and pets are finally starting to recognize that not all Calories are alike. Research on the glycemic index (a measure of how fast and how high blood sugar rises after eating) suggests that foods on the high end of the glycemic index, such as white potatoes, red potatoes, sweet peas, and corn, are more apt to put on the pounds than complex carbohydrates that are lower on the index.

Solution #2: Better Quality = Healthier and More Satisfying

High quality nutrition is the best way to help your furry pal stay healthy, as well as to lose those extra pounds. Typical commercial dry foods are high in starchy carbohydrates such as corn and white potatoes—which is a major factor in obesity in both dogs and cats. However, while dogs can derive good nutritional value from wholesome carbs, cats are obligate carnivores and don’t do as well with carb-rich foods. Unlike dogs and people, who use carbohydrates for energy, cats use protein and fat; excess carbs end up stored as body fat.

Keep in mind that there are really only three macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrate; and their total must be 100%. If you decrease one, one or both of the others must increase.

For Cats: It’s best to feed a high-protein, low-carb, high-moisture food made from real meat as the basis of their diet; in most cases, this means wet food such as canned, raw, freeze-dried/rehydrated, or homemade. The “Atkins” (or Catkins!) diet is truly ideal for the cat. Most canned cat and kitten foods meet these standards, but try to choose those with the least carbohydrate. You can get a fair idea of carbohydrate content by simply subtracting all the listed percentages on the label from 100%. About 8% carbohydrate (or less) is best.

Always make sure your cat is eating. Some cats are so addicted to their dry food that they will go on a hunger strike without it. Work closely with your veterinarian when changing diets to minimize the risk to your cat.

For Dogs: For a dog, think “Zone” diet—moderate proteins and fats, complex carbohydrates (whole grains and vegetables) rather than starchy carbs like corn, potatoes, and processed grains. High-protein, low-carb diets have also been shown to help dogs lose weight and maintain lean muscle mass. Please see our article, "What You Need to Know About Your Pet’s Food," for additional information on appropriate diets.

What about fiber? Most weight-control pet foods contain extra fiber, which is thought to make it more “filling.” Fiber is an indigestible form of carbohydrate, mostly in the form of cellulose, which is found in plant cell walls. Fiber “bulks up” the food without adding Calories. For pets who feel deprived—or humans who feel guilty—when food portions decrease, a higher fiber, weight control food may be beneficial. But higher fiber also means more stool, so don’t be surprised to see this change in your pal’s elimination habits.

For all pets, but especially for those who may be having trouble digesting their food, adding digestive enzymes to each meal can help break down the food, and make the nutrients more available for absorption—resulting in less hunger, and giving you more bang for your pet food buck.

Remember that diet changes are best made gradually to avoid food rejection or tummy upset.

Cause #3: Inappropriate Portions

Pet food labels are extremely unreliable when it comes to feeding directions. The recommended portions on those labels are a very rough guideline, and are often excessive, especially if your pet is already overweight. Unfortunately, Calorie information is not required on pet food labels, making it difficult to assess and compare foods.

Solution #3: Feed by the Numbers

Overweight animals should be fed for their ideal weight—not to maintain the weight they’ve already packed on! If your dog weighs 50 pounds, but should weigh 40, feed only the amount required for a 40-pound dog. Your vet can help you assess what your pet’s ideal weight is.

Once you know how much your pet should weigh, you can calculate approximately how many calories you should feed per day to achieve that weight. (Calorie needs vary with age, breed, activity level, weather, health, and other factors.) This online calculator works for both dogs and cats: http://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/dog-feeding-tips/dog-food-calculator/.

While Calorie info is not usually on labels, it may be listed on the company’s website; and any reputable company will provide it if you call or email. Do not assume that calories in one food or flavor are the same as another, even when the same company makes them. Ask specifically about each food made by that company that you want to use.

Gradual weight loss (about 1% per month) is a safe rate of reduction. Rapid weight loss stresses the liver and can cause serious health problems.

Cause #4: Too Many Treats

Another big contributor to excess pet weight is treats. Once I had a patient, a 26-pound cat, whose owner swore he only fed 1/4 cup of “light” dry food per day. Oh, and 19 Pounce treats every day—now that’s crazy! If you ate a highly restricted, low-calorie diet—but also ate 19 Twinkies every day–what do you think the result would be?

For a small pet, even a small treat adds big calories. Just an ounce of cheese to a 20-pound dog is the same as 1-1/2 hefty hamburgers for you. Letting your dog “pre-wash” the dinner dishes, or allowing the cat to lick the milk out of the cereal bowl, may be adding a whole lot of Calories—and pounds. And the peanut butter you put in the Kong toy to keep your dog occupied while you’re at work…still more Calories. Even that rawhide bone or pig ear is high in fat.

Solution # 4: Awareness and Moderation

An average, neutered indoor cat only needs about 200 Calories per day; a similar sized dog, about 275 Calories. Commercially made pet treats for small pets may contain anywhere from 10 to over 300 Calories—so the entire day’s allowance (and more) could  be consumed in minutes.

A great way to limit Calories without reducing the fun is to break one treat into several smaller pieces, instead of giving several whole treats. Your pet will still get just as much enjoyment—but far fewer Calories! You can also replace Calorie-laden starchy treats with high-quality all- (or mostly) meat treats, such as freeze-dried chicken or dehydrated liver. But be sure to reduce the amount you feed at mealtime to account for the treats you have fed that day.

Cause #5: Inadequate Exercise

Left to their own devices, our dogs and cats would be hunters—active, alert, Calorie-burning machines! But today’s typical pets spend most of their time napping, relaxing, and sleeping (my cats insist that these are all different activities!). You may get up early to go to the gym, but once you’re out the door, your pet probably goes back to bed. The sedentary lifestyle is as bad for our pets as it is for us.

Solution #5: Get Moving!

Exercise is a crucial part of any weight loss program. Exercise not only burns calories, but it improves mental and emotional health, strengthens the cardiovascular and immune systems, and increases longevity.

For Cats: Exercise is a little tricky with cats, but interactive play with a fishing pole-type toy, laser, or other favorite toys is wonderful fun; and it also builds confidence, and strengthens the bond between the two of you. Adding vertical space—a tall cat tree, shelf, or window perch—will encourage your cat to climb and jump, which will burn more Calories.

For Dogs: Walking, hiking, or vigorous outdoor play with your dog will benefit both of you. For less active breeds or older pets, even a simple walk around the block will help. If your dog is well socialized, a trip to the local off-leash dog park can provide even more fun and exercise.


For more tips and tools on weight loss in pets, check out the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

Throughout the weight management process, whatever the results, give your pet plenty of love and attention. Lots of affection will help her equate love and comfort with you – and not the food bowl.

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The articles and information in the Holistic Healthcare Library are presented for informational purposes only and are not intended as an endorsement of any product. The information is not intended to be a substitute for visits to your local veterinarian. Instead, the content offers the reader information and opinions written by our staff, guest authors, and/or veterinarians concerning animal health issues and animal care products.

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