How You Can Help Overweight Pets

The number of overweight pets is skyrocketing. It’s not cute and it’s not an issue to be ignored anymore.

In this feature, Dr. Dave Summers breaks down why pets are overweight, why you should be concerned and how you can fix the problem. If losing weight was easy, we would all do it, and the same applies to our pets.

Like humans, dog and cats used to spend a lot of energy finding and catching their food. Now that food is constantly available with very little effort it is easy for the body’s energy equation to shift to more energy consumed than energy used. In strict nutritional terms all you have to do to lose weight is consume less energy (food) than the energy you expend (exercise). Then why is this so difficult? Consuming less sounds simple, but the desire to eat is complex and involves many of the bodies’ hormones as well as many ingrained habits. We all know increasing exercise is a very effective way to help lose weight, but it is also easier said than done. The one difference between pets and humans is humans have almost complete control over what and how much our pets eat.

Why lose weight?
Thin is healthier. Leaner dogs and cats live longer then overweight dogs and cats and have less of the following health problems.

  • Diabetes
  • Lameness
  • Skin Disease
  • Grooming Difficulties (mainly cats)
  • Digestive Disorders
  • Difficulty Breathing
  • Heart Disease
  • Pancreatitis Heat Intolerance
  • Decreased Liver Function
  • Decreased immune function

Basically, your pet’s quality of life is better if he or she is at a healthy weight.

Is your pet at risk?
Most of us can recognize when animals are really overweight, but it is important to try and make changes before the signs are too obvious and the problem becomes really big (no pun intended!). Remember, 5 extra pounds on a dog or cat can be equivalent to 50 extra pounds on you or me!

Check the ribs. In short-haired dogs and cats you should see some outline of the ribs. In long-haired pets you should be able to feel the ribs under their coat. Or bring your pet to one of our knowledgeable staff at Pet Valu.

Check the waist. Like humans, the waist is the first thing to disappear when a pet gains too much weight. Both dogs and cats should have a narrowing between the ribs and the hind legs when seen from above, and a noticeable tuck when seen from the side.

Does your pet jiggle when they walk or run? The layer of fat under the skin allows the skin to move more when they are moving, or when you are petting them. Cats often deposit more fat in the upper chest, so look and feel between their front legs.

How much is your pet eating?
A good place to start in helping your pet lose weight is to know how much you are feeding them. Measure their daily food consumption in cups, cans, or by weight. It is very important that you include all the treats you are giving your pet in the measurement. This includes biscuits, chews, bread, and stuff off of the table. If the amount of treats fed varies from day to day estimate them on a weekly basis and divide by seven. Measuring food consumption by weight is best because it is easier to include all the treats given. It is helpful if you can convert the amount of food given into calories, but if most of the food given to your pet is a prepared food, this is not necessary.

Especially with small dogs and cats, it’s best to measure in grams or ounces because they consume only fractions of cups. The difference between ½ and 5/8 of a cup is 20% more food. If you ate 20% more food you would blow up too! If using cups, at least measure all the food for the day into another container and feed meals from it, to limit the chances of mis-measuring multiple times.

How to Feed Your Pet
Switching foods to achieve weight loss is not always necessary. There are cases where changing foods is not practical, especially if the pet is on a special diet for a reason, or particularly in the case of cats, your pet may not let you change their food. Feeding a weight loss food usually makes it easier for you to manage your pet’s weight loss. Make sure treats are less than 10% fat. If you don’t know the fat level in a treat, then you probably shouldn’t be feeding it – especially not while your pet is overweight. With most pets, the interaction with you is usually more important than the size of the treat. Ideally treats are small enough and offered in limited quantities that they make an insignificant contribution to the total daily calorie intake. Dogs that are given large treats or biscuits need to have an equal weight removed from their usual daily food.

More important than measuring calories consumed by your pet is to measure his or her weight. The importance of being able to track the weight can’t be emphasized enough.

Here is how I recommend you feed your pet to get sustainable weight loss:

First Steps

  1. Decide if you are going to change to a weight loss food or stay on the current food. Switch to low fat, small-sized treats. Our staff can help you with this.
  2. Weigh your pet.
  3. Increase their daily activity.
  4. Add up how much food your pet is eating, by weight, cups, or cans.
  5. Feed for 2 weeks, then weigh your pet again.

The goal is for your pet to lose 2% of body weight (but not more than 5%) in a 2 week period. For example, a 16 lb pet should lose 1/3 lb in 2 weeks. If your pet is not losing weight fast enough, reduce the amount fed by approximately 10% and maintain feeding that amount for a 2 week period. For example, if you have been feeding 100 grams a day, reduce it to 90 grams. Continue to reduce your pet’s food intake by a further 10% every 2 weeks, until your pet is losing 2% body weight in a 2 week period. Most pets will require a 20-30% reduction in food intake to achieve this rate of weight loss; some will need up to 50%, but advise if reducing consumption by over 50%.

At the start of their weight loss program, weigh your pet every 2 weeks. Once you have established they are losing weight at the proper rate you can weigh once a month. It helps to keep a weight loss chart to monitor progress. Be patient, if the pet is 25% to 30% overweight it may take 6-10 months to achieve full results.

Once the weight is lost, the last thing you want is for your pet to regain it. When your pet’s target body condition has been achieved, increase the amount of food fed by 10% every 2 weeks until desired weight is maintained. DON’T LOOK AT THE FEEDING CHART to judge how much to feed – look at your pet’s body condition and weight. Exercise should continue after the weight is lost.

Helping to Decrease Appetite
Simply taking food away often has negative side effects. Your pet may show their displeasure in a number of ways, such as begging, chewing, or missing the litter box. Helping to curb appetite by working with the body’s hormonal system can help reduce unwanted negative side effects.

  • The consumption of food helps control appetite, which is why feeding two meals a day is better than one. Feed the evening meal before 6:00 pm.
  • High protein has been shown to help curb appetite in humans. There is some evidence that higher protein levels also help decrease appetite in dogs. However, with cats it is still unknown if higher protein has similar effects.
  • Blended carbohydrate sources and blended fiber sources help reduce the glucose peak after eating. This helps reduce a peak in insulin production, which in turn helps to curb appetite. Fiber also acts to help fill the gut, which also curbs appetite.
  • If your dog or cat eats their dry food too quickly, slow them down with a larger bowl. They will pick up fewer pieces at a time. This will help give the body’s hormonal system more time to work on curbing appetite. In other words, providing time for their stomach to tell their brain they’re feel full.

Increasing Energy Expenditure
More physical activity is the best way to increase energy expenditure. It is important to choose activities which are appropriate for your pet. Dogs may have the desire to run and fetch, but their physical condition may only be suitable for walking to begin with. Start slow and increase their activity as they become more fit. After exercise the body’s metabolism will stay elevated for a period of time, which is why having two 15 minute walks or play time is better then one 30 minute event. Cats can be exercise resistant; you will need to be a little more imaginative. There are an array of toys which use the cat’s natural hunting instinct. Change them up so your cat doesn’t become bored. Let your cat set the pace; you can’t force a cat to play. Ask our store staff about toys that will suit your cat.

Weight loss foods used to be characterized by only high levels of fiber and low levels of fat. To help decrease weight, you are now starting to see additional ingredients in some food products to help curb appetite and burn more energy.

  • Carnitine is a vitamin-like compound that helps to burn more stored body fat.
  • Green Tea Extract contains a powerful antioxidant that helps increase metabolism.
  • Chromium Picolinate has been demonstrated to promote the activity of insulin.
  • Coenzyme Q10 is also known as ubiquinone, and is essential for energy production at the cellular level.
  • Conjugated Linolenic Acid (CLA) helps divert energy from the formation of fat to the formation of muscle.

It’s important to look at weight loss as a long-term project. If a pet loses weight too fast, the body will metabolize protein (muscle) instead of using stored fat for energy. When the dieting stops, the body will quickly replace the lost muscle, and the lost weight quickly rebounds. High protein foods help prevent muscle loss during weight loss. It is the amino acid Leucine within protein that has the greatest effect on maintaining muscle mass. A good source of leucine is whey protein, which is you may find both a source of whey protein and/or leucine in a weight loss food. For cats, it’s particularly important to keep weight loss slow. See “Hepatic Lipidosis” for information

Another reason to avoid fast weight loss is that it will lead to the pet’s metabolism slowing down, which means less food is required. This makes it even more difficult to lose weight. Slow, steady weight loss is the best way to ensure permanent results.

Remember you and your pet do not need to stress about a weight loss program, we have many foods, treats, toys, and suggestions to make it easier for everyone.

Hepatic Lipidosis in Cats
Obese cats are at an increased risk of developing Hepatic Lipidosis (fatty liver disease) if they stop eating completely for more than two days. In Hepatic Lipidosis, the fat broken down by the body goes to the liver. If too much fat arrives all at once it creates a traffic jam. The liver starts to accumulate fat, and if it accumulates too much it impairs liver function, a serious, life threatening problem. Unlike most animals, cats can’t be allowed to simply not eat, especially if they are overweight. This is one reason you may not be able to change a cat to a weight loss food, because if they reject the food you have to go back to a food they will eat.

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