Top 5 Reasons Pet Obesity is a Problem (and How to Fix It!)

Written by: Dr. Jean Hofve, Holistic Veterinarian, DVM

Why is Pet Obesity a Problem?

Pet obesity is a common problem for our furry friends. It's estimated that almost half of U.S. dogs, and 35% 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.

Five Reasons (and Solutions) for Pet Obesity

Reason #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 others to investigate and, while they're there, take a few nibbles. Enough extra nibbles over time can create a big problem!
  • Just like with people, boredom also plays a role. Pets that are home alone all day may eat just for something pleasurable to do.
  • Former strays who struggled on the streets may have significant food issues, and will often become overweight if food is always 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 can be an important clue to illness.

Solution #1: 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 their new schedule quickly.

Some pets will lose weight with this change alone, or at least can keep them from continuing to gain weight. (Please note: some medical conditions require special feeding regimens. Talk to your holistic veterinarian before making any changes.)

Reason #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, it's lacking 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 & More Satisfying

High quality nutrition is the best way to help your furry friend stay healthy, as well as to lose those extra pounds. Typical commercial dry foods are high in starchy carbohydrates, like 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.

Natural Cat Diets

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, rehydrated freeze-dried, or homemade. The "Atkins" (also called the 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. Toppers, like raw bites and bone broths, can really help your cat transition to a healthier diet. If even that is not convincing, work closely with your holistic veterinarian when changing diets to minimize the risk to your cat.

Natural Dog Diets

For a dog, think "The Zone Diet", with moderate proteins and fats and 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.

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.

Reason #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.

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.) Dog Food Advisor's online calculator works for both dogs and cats.

Important note: do not assume that calories in one food or flavor are the same as another, even when the same company makes them. Double check calories and feeding instructions on each flavor you feed. This is especially important if you're doing rotational feeding for food sensitivities, or flexitarian feeding for sustainability reason.

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.

Reason #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 commercial treats every day! If you ate a highly restricted, low-calorie diet, but also ate 19 processed snacks 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 1.5 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 in turn, pounds. And the peanut butter you put in the Kong toy or the raw marrow bone you use to keep your dog occupied while you're at work can basically constitute a meal.

Solution # 4: Awareness & Moderation

An average, neutered indoor cat only needs about 200 Calories per day, and 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 meat or veggie treats, such as freeze-dried, single ingredient meat or limited ingredient jerky.

If you're giving a larger dog a natural chew or treat stuffed toy, remember to subtract from their meals. It's also important to remember that peanut butter or a bully stick does not have the added vitamins and minerals your dog needs, so these should not be considered meal replacements. If you find you're limiting feeding drastically, save these high calorie snacks as a once every other day, or once a week treat.

No matter what you're treating your pet with, always be sure to reduce the amount you feed at mealtime to account for the treats you have fed that day.

Reason #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.

Exercise 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. It also builds confidence, and strengthens the bond between the two of you. Adding vertical space, scratchers, and interactive cat furniture, will encourage your cat to climb and jump, which will burn more calories.

Exercise 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. Even getting in some laps up and down the aisles of your local pet store can be exercise for some dogs.


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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