Pet obesity amongst our companions is not a new concern, but it is a continually growing one. According to a 2018 survey from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), 59.5% of cats and 55.8% of dogs classified as overweight or obese. This means over half the dogs & cats in the US are classified as exceeding a healthy weight. The first step to helping your pet reach and maintain a healthy weight is identifying what a healthy weight looks like.
Body Condition Score
As part of your pet’s annual exam, your veterinarian assesses their body condition. This evaluates their fat distribution & muscle mass on their specific body frame. After incorporating the rest of your pet’s physical exam, age, life stage, & any other medical conditions, they assign a body condition score (BCS) that reflects their current weight status. This score helps determine if your pet is at a healthy weight and if not, how their diet should change in order to reach one. Remember that healthy weight loss should be gradual in order to be sustainable. There are some medical conditions that can make it harder to lose weight. Ask your veterinarian for diet guidance, daily calorie goals, and lifestyle changes to achieve this goal.
What’s the harm in a few extra pounds?
First, perspective is everything. Adding 1-2 pounds onto a small breed dog that should average 10 pounds is an extra 10-20% of their body weight! This would be the equivalent of an extra 15 pounds on your average 150 pound person.
Second, excess weight can cause a large variety of health problems. These can include metabolic & endocrine variances (e.g. diabetes, hyperadrenocorticism, pancreatitis), cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, recurrent skin/urinary tract infections from trapped moisture in skin folds, heat stroke, chronic inflammation, and osteoarthritis from increased pressure on joints among others.
Third, and perhaps the most noticeable to owners, excess weight can decrease joint mobility and activity. This can impact or even completely hinder their ability to go out and experience fun activities like running, climbing for cats, hiking, doggy playtime, and exploring new places. Dogs & cats can develop boredom, anxious, or destructive behaviors as a result of the limited physical enrichment their bodies can manage. Excess weight not only reduces their comfort from physical & mental wellbeing, it also shortens their overall life span and exacerbates systemic medical illnesses.
Treat & Alternatives
While treats are an excellent tool for behavior modification and learning, they are also a commonly underestimated contributor to your pet’s daily caloric intake. We all enjoy giving our pets a little special treat, but these often contain a large number of calories and provide minimal nutrition. High caloric foods such as peanut butter, cheese, store-bought treats, and even dental chews can add a significant number of calories on top of your pet’s regular food intake. Ideally, less than 10% of your pet’s dietary calories would be consumed as treats.
Lower calorie alternatives are ice cubes, green beans, broccoli, watermelon, strawberries, carrots, many other veggies, and low calorie store-bought treats. Avoid onion, garlic, grapes, raisins, and any addition of the artificial sweetener xylitol as these are all toxic.
Special treats don’t always need to be food either. New and exciting toys, puzzle games, visual stimulation, exploring new places, car rides, and many other activities can be a unique way to spoil or reward your pet. Fun adventures and quality time spent building your relationship will provide much more enjoyment than a momentary food item for most pets.
Exercise is an excellent supplement to monitoring calorie intake, but it also helps supply your pet with the physical & mental stimulation that provides excitement and variety into their day. A general recommendation is at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day for dogs and three sessions of 5 minute intense play for cats. There are many forms of exercise such as walking, running, fetch, tug, agility, swimming, hide and seek, and chase.
Find your dog’s favorite activity or tailor things towards their breed predispositions. Look towards your dog’s natural inclinations for inspiration as well. Incorporate sniffing search games for the dog who is always on a trail, use a flirt pole for breeds with high prey drive, fuse obedience training into chase games for the dog who needs extra mental stimulation as well.
Don’t forget that cats need exercise too! Hiding small stashes of food around the house in toys will mimic your cat’s normal stalking & foraging behavior and visual stimulation will keep them mentally occupied as well. As they age, cats are less likely to start playing by themselves, so pick up a feather duster, laser pointer, or crinkly ball and activate your cat’s inner hunting instincts. These activities will not only benefit your pet, but they help strengthen your relationship together.
Aim to feed your pet the optimal daily calories for their age, weight, activity level, breed, and health conditions. Quality nutrients will help support their overall health and physical exercise will keep them active for longer. Work closely with your veterinarian to help coordinate a diet plan to maintain your pet at a healthy weight. Patience is key. Even small adjustments at home can have long-term impacts on your pet’s health and happiness.
Written by: Brittany
1 Image taken from AAHA pdf. No changes made.
4 Image taken from Wikimedia Commons. No changes made. Used under license Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
5 Image taken from Wikimedia Commons. No changes made. Used under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).