Weight Management for Dogs and Cats

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

Weight Management for Dogs and Cats

Obesity in dogs and cats is one of the most common problems seen by veterinarians today. Overweight companion animals are at a higher risk for a number of health problems including diabetes, joint stiffness and arthritis, non-allergenic skin disorders, lower urinary tract issues, fatty liver disease (hepatic lipidosis) and shortened life span. For these reasons, if you are letting your pet become overweight with excessive food or treats, you may be killing your companion with "kindness."

How to tell if your dog or cat is overweight:

  1. Feel their ribs. You should be able to feel each individual rib with a slight layer of fat over them. If you have to work at feeling those ribs or can’t feel them at all, it’s time for a weight-loss plan. If you can see the ribs, your companion may be too thin.
  2. Feel the area over the base of your dog or cat’s tail. A slight layer of fat over the bones is good. If the bones are prominent, the animal is too thin. If the bones are hard to find, the animal is overweight.
  3. Feel other bony areas such as the spine, shoulders and hips. Again, a slight layer of fat is what you are looking for. If the bones are visible, the animal may be too thin. If there is extra padding, then your companion is overweight.
  4. Look at your companion from above. You should see a waist behind the rib cage of a cat or dog in the healthy weight range. In the photo below our friends Honda and Jack have modeled this view. Jack, on the left, is in ideal condition and shows a nice waist. Honda, his buddy on the right, is overweight - his waist is missing.
  5. Finally, look at your companion from the side. The waist should again be visible as a "tuck" behind the rib cage area. If the animal’s waist is the same as his chest, he or she is definitely overweight. This side view will vary from breed to breed, with greyhounds and similarly built dogs looking thin compared to others, as they have rather deep chests and smaller waists. 

If your veterinarian has ruled out any health conditions that are causing your friend’s extra weight gain, then a weight management program is in order. As with humans, crash diets are not healthy. Aim for a gradual weight loss of .5 - 2% of body weight per week. If you can, weigh your pet weekly. 

Weight loss and control involve:

  1. Feeding the proper diet (lower carbohydrates)
  2. Providing proper portions based on pet's age, size, and activity level
  3. Feeding  meals rather than "free feeding"
  4. Controlling quantity and quality of treats

What to Feed

Weight loss programs for animals are the same as those for people – eat less and exercise more. Specially formulated weight loss diets are not generally necessary. High quality nutrition is the best way to help your friend lose her extra pounds. Most commercial dry foods are high in carbohydrates, which can contribute to weight gain, especially in cats. Cats do not produce as much of the enzyme, amylase, that digests carbohydrates as people and dogs do, so grains and other carbohydrates are more difficult for cats to break down and digest properly. Cats need meat as the main portion of their diet. Please see our article, "What You Need to Know About Your Pet’s Food," for additional information on appropriate diets. Many overweight animals slim down nicely when transitioned to a raw food diet, but even a high quality kibble is fine as long as you feed the appropriate quantity. The newer grain-free diets may be appropriate, but keep in mind that you will need to feed less of this type of food. If you know you will not be able to reduce the amount of food you are giving your companion without feeling overwhelming guilt, then try a food formulated for weight control.  Adding digestive enzymes to each meal can help break down the food and make the nutrients more available for absorption.

How Much to Feed

Pet food labels are not the best way to determine the proper amount to feed your companion. The recommended portions on pet food labels are a very rough guideline and are based on the manufacturer’s estimate of what an "average" cat or dog may be.  ach animal is an individual and will have different activity levels and metabolism than others – even those in the same household. In our house we have a 75 pound lab mix and a 56 pound border collie mix, and despite the 20 lb. difference in size, they still eat exactly the same portion at every meal. The border collie mix is much more active and spends most of the day outside, whereas the lab mix likes the sofa. They also need less food in the winter than in the summer when they are more active.

Cats and small dogs need very small portions – sometimes less than an ounce per meal. It may look like hardly any food to you, but it will be plenty to meet your companion’s needs. If you are monitoring their weight regularly, you will notice if they is losing too much too fast, and you can adjust the amount you feed slightly.

**Meal Schedule

**Leaving food available all the time (known as free feeding) contributes to obesity and also a number of other health problems. It is a myth that dogs and cats will regulate their own weight if food is left out. Some may, others will not, but they will all suffer from an over-stimulated digestive system and stressed immune system over time. Cats and dogs are hunters – they eat and then rest. They do not snack. If your companion is used to eating at will, cut back to three or four small meals a day, and then down to two. Two meals a day is fine for adult animals. Puppies and kittens should be fed at least three times a day during their greatest growth period in the first 4 to 6 months. 


**Exercise provides much more than just an increase in calorie usage. It contributes to the quality of your relationship with your companion as well as improving his mental health, cardiovascular and immune system health and increasing his longevity. For dogs this can be as simple as a 15 or 20 minute walk twice a day. A trip to the local off-leash dog park can provide even more fun and exercise. 

Cats are a bit trickier to exercise, especially overweight cats, as they tend to feel less energetic and playful.  Try a widevariety of toys – both interactive toys that you can use to stimulate your cat, and some toys that might encourage her to play when you are away. Catnip can help stimulate your kitty to play a bit. If she tires or gets bored easily, then start with shorter play sessions in the beginning and try to gradually increase the play periods. An outdoor space for your cat can contribute to both their physical activity and mental health. Provide climbing branches or structures for strength building if possible. If you live in an apartment – get the biggest piece ofcat furniture you can fit in the space available. 


**It is difficult for most guardians to eliminate treats entirely – especially those guardians who are well trained (or rather who have trained their animals well). You may have thought it was cute the first time Fido ran to the treat cupboard and looked at you with hopeful eyes, but now it is a very hard habit to break. The same goes for your feline friend when she meows relentlessly until you give her a tidbit. If you have rewarded your friend for begging, he will continue to beg and learn to beg harder. Since treats provide enjoyment for both of you, just change the quantity and quality to meet the weight loss program. Break the treats into smaller pieces – no larger than the size of a pea. A taste is all that is needed to give your friend a reward or special treat.  And use high-quality all or mostly meat treats such as thefreeze-dried or dehydrated meat treats. Reduce the amount you feed at each meal to account for the amount of treats you have fed that day.

**The Reward – Happier, Healthier Companions

**Once you have helped your companion reach a healthier weight, you can slightly increase the food portion to maintain that weight. Continue to watch her closely – feeling for ribs and looking for a waist, and weighing her if possible on a regular basis. Remember to adjust the amount you feed to his activity level – don’t keep feeding a cup per meal in the winter if he is inside and less active. 

In the long run your pet will be happier and more active when kept at an appropriate weight. She will be healthier and will likely live longer as well. Weight control is well worth the time and effort for the long-term health of your companion.