Pet Obesity.. A Growing Epidemic

What were your New Year’s resolutions this year?  Save money? Be more organized? Lose weight? Now that last one is popular, particularly following the excesses of the holiday season!  To put a different spin on it, are you overlooking another member of the household who would benefit from some weight loss as well?  A recent study indicated that approximately 40% of domestic dogs and cats in America are overweight.  As a nation, we treasure and love our four-legged companions, but is there such a thing as ‘too much love?’

But my chubby doggy is soooooo cute!! Why is it a problem?

Pets are prone to similar disease conditions as people.  Pet obesity is a growing epidemic and as a result, we are seeing many more pets being affected by weight-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, as well as the secondary effects of obesity, such as an exacerbation of arthritis due to increased pressure on joints.  So although you may think your well-rounded furry friend is ‘cute,’ they may be a ticking time bomb for any of these problems.
One of the most devastating effects of obesity is Type II diabetes.  As with people, obesity can lead to increased insulin resistance and an inability of the body’s cells to recognize circulating insulin and subsequently metabolize glucose and other sugars.  A complication of diabetes is ketoacidosis, which is a life-threatening condition.  The best outcome for a diabetic animal is achievement of control of blood sugar levels, and this involves twice daily injections of insulin and strict diet control at the very least.  A disease that is certainly worth avoiding!!
Excess weight places unnecessary stress on the body’s organs, such as the heart, liver and kidneys.  It also places excessive loads on the skeletal system, and this is of the most concern in the joints.  Statistics show that approximately 25% of pets suffer from osteoarthritis, a degenerative condition of the joint which causes inflammation, pain, restricted mobility and reduced quality of life.  In essence, an overweight pet with osteoarthritis is like placing a heavy object on a table with a wobbly leg!

He won’t go to bed without his Peanut Butter on toast!

So what are the best ways to get a pet to lose weight without ending up in a mental institution as a result of their constant howling/meowing/whining??  One of the biggest factors in getting pets to do anything, especially lose weight, is to make sure the people are disciplined……yes, that means you!! But not just you- this needs to be a family decision and it is important that each member of the household is on board and prepared to participate.
The answer to pet weight loss is fairly simple- energy used needs to exceed energy intake.  So in a nutshell, less food of a better nutritional quality and more exercise.  However, before you start your pet on a weight loss program, it is important for him or her to be examined by a veterinarian to ensure there are no other medical conditions responsible for it being overweight, such as hypothyroidism (dogs).
As a general guide, dogs and cats should be lean (but not thin), with a visible waistline and ribs that you can feel through a thin layer of fat.  If the ribs are protruding and easily seen, this may mean that your pet is too thin, and should be checked by a veterinary professional.
The first step in many cases is to cut out all table scraps and other ‘junk food.’  Dogs need dog food.  Cats need cat food.  Any extras such as treats should be an occasional reward for good behavior, and not given so often that they are taken for granted by your pie-loving pooch.  So on a daily basis, pets should be fed a balanced, appropriate pet food twice daily, with the occasional treat when earned.  When you would like to add a little variety, for example a meaty raw bone for a dog or some fish for a cat, this should be provided instead of and not in addition to the normal meal.  When kids (and some adults- myself included!) are presented with a choice between a burger with the works or a grilled chicken salad, there are no prizes for guessing which will be snapped up first!  And pets are no different…..they will happily eat the high calorie human food that is offered to them when they refuse to eat the nutritious pet food.  Yes, all this will take an iron will on your part in order to resist those lethal puppy-dog-eyes, but remember, by giving in we are ‘killing them with kindness!’  Your hound can safely boycott a few meals while throwing pathetic glances at you without any detrimental effects.  This does not apply to cats- unlike dogs, if cats skip a few meals, they can end up with a condition called hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver), which can be pretty serious.
The next step is to feed your pet for the dog (or cat) that you want it to be, not for what it currently is.  Find out from your veterinarian what the ideal weight for your pet is, as well as his or her current weight.  Follow the feeding guide on the bag of pet food to feed your pet according to it’s ideal weight.  This often means you reduce the amount fed to 2/3 or ¾ of what your are currently feeding, which is a great start.  If your pet seems very hungry after a week or so, you can add things like plain all-bran, green vegetables (broccoli, lettuce, etc.) or even ice cubes to bulk up the food without adding calories. Try this for a couple of weeks, then re-weigh your pet.  If there has been no weight loss, you may need to reduce the amount further or increase exercise.
The last piece of the puzzle is of course, exercise!  Dogs should be walked daily, for at least 30 min to an hour on a lead.  This not only helps burn calories, it also provides them with entertainment and an opportunity to socialize.  Some dogs enjoy playing fetch, and this should be used as an advantage to increase activity levels.  Older dogs with arthritis should be taken for shorter walks more frequently, and should also have a veterinary assessment to determine if they require anti-inflammatory medication or other treatment.  Swimming may also benefit these canine senior citizens.
Most self-respecting cats will refuse to be walked on a leash, however some are trained to do so from kitten-hood.  Cats should be exercised in the house or yard by using cat toys or small treats.
All pets on a weight loss program should be weighed every two weeks to ensure that the program is successful.  Other options include low calorie diets, which can be either supermarket or veterinary brands of pet food.
So that’s pet weight control in a nutshell. Definitely harder than it sounds but worth the effort when you have a lean, healthy pet at the end of the journey!

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