If your pet is like most American pets (and most American humans, for that matter), he or she is probably carrying around some extra poundage. About 53 percent of dogs and 58 percent of cats are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (yes, sadly, there is such an organization). Part of the problem is that many owners don’t see their pets as fat—perhaps because many of them are overweight themselves.
It’s not just a matter of aesthetics. As in people, being overweight poses many health risks for pets. Extra weight puts extra stress on joints and increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer. It affects respiratory, kidney, liver, digestive, and immune function and reduces quality of life and life span.
Overweight pets have less stamina and greater difficulty tolerating hot weather. And they are more susceptible to skin diseases because bacteria and fungi can nestle in extra skin folds. A fat cat or dog is also at higher risk for complications from anesthesia if that is needed (such as during a teeth cleaning).
How did our pets get so fat?
The same way their owners have: By eating too much and exercising too little. Many pets will overeat if given the chance—perhaps a residual behavior that was an evolutionary advantage for their wild ancestors, who had to hunt and then feast to stave off periods of famine. Some pets may also be “emotional eaters,” just as some people eat in response to stress, anxiety, depression, frustration, or boredom.
Many owners assume their pets will self-regulate their food intake if food is left out for them, but as a 2012 study in Behavioral Ecology found, some dogs eat more than twice the calories needed when given excess food.
How can you tell if your dog or cat is overweight?
You should be able to feel his or her ribs (and even the spaces between the ribs) through a thin layer of fat. And as viewed from above, your pet should have an hourglass figure. When looking from the side, the tummy should be tucked up at the flank area, not level with the rest of the body or sagging—though this can be hard to see if your pet is very furry. (For a visual, go to tinyurl.com/pet-body-chart.) Your vet can also confirm whether or not your pet is overweight or obese.
How to keep your pet svelte
- Ask your vet how many calories your pet should consume (you can’t always go by the feeding guidelines on pet food, since those are based on animals fed under laboratory conditions). Then figure out how many cups or cans of food to give, based on the calorie information listed on the package (if not provided, check online or call the manufacturer). Measure portions precisely—don’t guesstimate. If you switch foods, be aware that calories can vary a lot between brands and types of food.
- It’s okay to use treats as a reward for good behavior, but make sure you count them toward your pet’s daily calories. Calories from nibbling here and there—including from table scraps—add up quickly. Just an extra 20 calories a day can lead to a weight gain of about two pounds a year, which is a lot for a small pet in particular.
- Make your cat “hunt” for food. Puzzle feeders are food-dispensing devices that come in different designs, from simple to complex. As your cat manipulates it—by rolling a tube or ball, for example—the food is released. Not only does this physically and mentally stimulate your cat, it also slows eating (which is also good if your cat is prone to vomiting from eating too fast). You can find puzzle feeders at pet stores and online, or you can make your own.
- Make sure your pet gets enough exercise (ideally 20 to 30 minutes a day)— which may help keep you active too. Play fetch, run, or swim with your dog; take brisk walks together. Let him or her romp in a dog run. If your dog has been sedentary, start off gradually and watch out for heat exhaustion. Getting older cats to play is more of a challenge, but many still like to chase feathers, toys on strings, “cat dancers,” and laser lights (avoid pointing in their eyes); some even fetch. Catnip toys may also get them moving.
- If your pet seems hungry all the time, there could be a medical reason (such as a thyroid problem or early diabetes). If that has been ruled out by your vet, the behavior could be a sign of some kind of psychological distress. Restricting food intake without providing an alternative coping mechanism may worsen the problem. Instead, try to identify and remedy the cause of the stress. Enriching your pet’s environment with opportunities to engage in species-specific behavior (such as with puzzle feeders, cat climbing trees, and bird videos) and more social interaction (with humans and other animals) may help; so might more exercise. Your vet may also have some insights and solutions.
- For dogs with extra-indulgent “parents,” there are “doggie fat camps,” where they can swim, work out on treadmills, eat healthy snacks, and get a personalized weight loss program. Some “doggie boot camps” let owners and dogs work out together.
- Hungry for more resources? You can find more tips on how to help your pet stay fit at the Hill's pet-food company's Pet Weight Management page or Purina's Project: Pet Slimdown site.
Published December 18, 2014