Fluffy and Fido are FAT!

Dr. Julie Hunt

According to the Association for Prevention of Pet Obesity (APOP), just over 50% of both cats and dogs in the US are overweight or obese. Obesity is defined as weighing greater than 30% above normal body condition. Surprisingly, only 22% of dog owners and 15% of cat owners realize their own pet is overweight despite being aware of the risks of obesity. One of our biggest goals as veterinarians is to convince owners that obesity is a health issue in pets.

What are the causes of obesity in our pets? The obvious causes are overfeeding and lack of exercise, both of which are exclusively under the owner’s control. Thyroid conditions can cause weight gain and are easily treatable. Spaying and neutering our pets can contribute to weight gain by slowing metabolism, but by simply being aware and watching food intake after neutering, weight gain is preventable. Overall, the biggest causes of pet obesity are completely under the owner’s control. Pet owners are enabling the obesity epidemic!

The health consequences in overweight pets are numerous and not unlike the health consequences of overweight humans. A pet’s lifespan can be decreased significantly by being fat. Purina did a groundbreaking lifespan study following 48 Labrador Retrievers over 14 years, and found that dogs purposely fed to be lean lived 15% longer than their dog counterparts fed to be overweight. In addition, arthritis and other orthopedic conditions, Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many breathing problems are far more prevalent in fat pets.

So what are some tips for pet owners to help keep Fido and Fluffy at a healthy weight? First the owner needs to know whether the pet is overweight. Ask your veterinarian! Veterinarians are happy to assess your pet’s body condition score (BCS), or you can try to assess for yourself using the Body Condition Scoring charts for dogs and cats from Purina. When a pet is at a healthy weight, ribs are easily felt but not visible, abdomen is tucked not sagging, and you should be able to see a “waist” when viewing from above.

Once you know your pet is overweight, the simple strategy is to feed it less and exercise it more. Sound familiar? While it sounds easy, we all know it takes a concerted effort to accomplish weight loss. Start by reducing the amount fed with guidance from your vet regarding how many kilocalories per day your pet needs to lose weight. The back of the dog or cat food package is a guide, but be aware that it often overestimates the amount to feed, especially if your pet is already overweight. Switch to a less calorie dense food. Many diets marketed as light, healthy weight, or reduced calorie do have less calories per cup than maintenance foods, but for weight loss in a truly obese pet, veterinary prescription weight loss diets provide safe and successful weight loss. Discontinue or reduce treats in both cats and dogs. Think of treats as candy bars. Most are full of calories and will ruin an otherwise good weight loss regimen. Vegetables like baby carrots, green beans, and broccoli are good substitutes for treats in dogs. Never feed pets onions. Don’t forget that rawhide and pig’s ears have calories, too! For cats, save out some of their food ration and use that as treats during the day. Or just don’t give treats! Keep Fido away from Fluffy’s food by raising the cat food up on a counter or washing machine or putting a cat door entrance into a closet or room so only the cat can reach the food. There are automatically timed feeders that open up on a schedule so when you are away from home, only a limited amount of food can be accessed at a time. In most cases, free choice feeding (leaving out an unlimited amount of food, or filling the bowl whenever it is empty) is a recipe for obesity, particularly in dogs but also in many indoor cats.

Exercise your pets. For dogs, a 20-30 min dog walk per day is essential. For the indoor cat, try to have a 15 minute play period twice daily. Try using laser pointers to encourage chase or use other toys. Other tricks for cats include hiding food around the house (upstairs makes them use the stairs) or in puzzle balls which force them search out their food more like they would in the wild. Or try playing “kitty soccer” by tossing the kibble around the room and making Fluffy play chase. Puzzle balls and Kong toys are also useful in dogs to slow down their rate of eating and get them to exercise more, plus they prevent boredom and are fun!

Owners love their pets, but love can’t always be in the form of food. Go for a walk with your dog or play with your cat and they will love you for it. If you want Fluffy and Fido to have the best chance at good health and a long life, keep your pets lean!