By Lauren Baker, DVM
MSPCA-Angell West, Waltham
Is Fluffy’s waist looking a little “fluffy” lately? Is part of Bailey’s charm her pudgy rolls? While obese pets are very common, and often very cute, obesity is a serious problem for America’s pets. Obesity can rob your pet of both lifespan and quality of life, and add unnecessarily to your veterinary bills. Unlike most health conditions, prevention and resolution of this health condition is completely under your control.
According to the Association for the Prevention of Pet Obesity, over half of all American dogs and cats were obese in 2015, and the statistics have been pretty similar for the previous 5 years. With so many overweight cats and dogs in the US, our idea of what a “normal” pet looks like may be shifting. Many people may consider overweight pets to have a “normal” appearance, as that is what they are used to seeing.
One of the first steps to fighting obesity is recognizing it. When viewed from the side, dogs and cats should have a tucked appearance to the waist after the rib cage. If there is no “tuck” in the waist, when viewed from the side, your pet is over the ideal body weight. For long-haired dogs and cats, it may be helpful to view the pet from above – you should also see an inward tuck to the waist after the rib cage. The next step is to feel the ribs. In short-haired dogs and cats, the ribs should be easily felt when the rib cage is touched, but should not be visible through the fur. If you cannot find your pet’s ribs or need to dig to find the ribs, your pet is overweight. Perhaps the easiest way to tell if your pet is overweight is to ask your veterinarian for their honest opinion about your pet’s weight. Your veterinarian will be assessing your pet on a body condition scale of either 1-5 or 1-9 (in both cases, 1 is extreme emaciation and the higher numbers are extreme obesity). They will be evaluated for a waist tuck and feeling the ribs, as well as other markers. The chart below shows the AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) criteria for assessing body condition.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure as the saying goes. It is much easier to prevent obesity than to lose weight! For puppies and kittens, don’t worry about calorie restriction and just follow your veterinarian’s feeding guide. Once your cat or dog is over 1 year of age and has been spayed or neutered, you will want to be mindful of how much your pet is eating and what their weight and shape are like. Spaying and neutering decrease the basal metabolic rate for most pets and most pets will need less food once they have been spayed or neutered. Not only will watching calorie intake help keep your pet trim, it can help save you money on pet food expenses.
To keep your pet’s calorie intake on track, start by asking your veterinarian roughly how many calories your pet should be eating per day. Your veterinarian may calculate a calorie range, as different pets of the same weight may need different amounts of calories based on their metabolic rate, age, neuter status, activity level and whether your pet is trying to lose weight or maintain weight. Once you have a calorie target from your veterinarian, figure out how many calories are in a cup of pet food, and calculate how many cups (or fractions of cups) your pet needs per day. A common mistake in feeding pets (especially cats) is leaving out unlimited dry food (“free feeding”). Most pets will overeat and become obese, though free feeding is necessary for some pets who are underweight and picky eaters. If your pet seems hungry on his/her allotted amount of kibble for the day, you can feed a combination of canned food and dry food, or just canned food. Just be sure to calculate how many calories total you are feeding. There is a misconception that canned food is “fattening” because many pets find it tasty, but this is not necessarily true. Many times canned food is actually less calorie dense on a per weight basis because there is a lot of water in canned food. Many veterinarians prefer canned food for cats to improve hydration and help support the urinary system. Other veterinarians prefer dry food to help reduce tartar accumulation in the teeth.
Another important factor to consider is how many treats your pet gets per day. Most people vastly underestimate (both in their own minds and in speaking to others) exactly how many treats their pet gets. Often people will not even remember the bits of cheese or chicken here or there. However, even infrequent treats can really add up in terms of calories. For example, 1 ounce of cheese (equivalent to the size of a pair of dice) is about 115 calories. For a 50 lb dog, this is the caloric equivalent of an average person eating a Burger King-brand bacon cheeseburger as a snack. For a 20 lb dog, this is the equivalent of eating 2.5 bacon cheeseburgers as a snack. The easiest way to keep track of your pet’s calorie intake from treats is to keep a treat journal. Every family member should record the number of treats your pets gets per day and then calculate the total calories your pet is getting from treats. If your pet eats 100 calories per day in treats, you should subtract 100 calories from the amount of regular food your pet gets. Another option, especially for food motivated dogs, or dogs in training where it is necessary to use food rewards in the training, is to hold back part of your pet’s daily kibble and use the individual kibble pieces as treats. While it is sometimes more “fun” for the humans to feed tastier treats, most dogs won’t know the difference and will be perfectly happy getting kibble pieces as treats! You can also use low-calorie fruits and vegetables (apple slices, bell pepper, cucumber) as healthy treats. Do remember when using “people food” as treats that some foods are toxic (raisins, grapes, onions, garlic, chocolate) and some foods are unhealthy or can cause severe GI symptoms (very fatty or greasy foods).
Exercise is an important component in maintaining a healthy weight. For cats, you can try putting portions of their meals on different levels of the house to encourage them to climb stairs. Feather toys and other kinds of toys can also help your cat be more active. For dogs, an important start is twice daily walking. If your pet does not have any medical contraindications, several miles twice daily is ideal. If desired, you can work up to jogging with your pet (though do be careful in the heat, and with dogs that have respiratory abnormalities or problems). To avoid injuries, regular, steady exercise is better than being a couch potato all week and then intensely exercising on the weekend.
As a final note, it is very important to involve your veterinarian in weight loss efforts, especially with cats. It is important with cats that you do not let your cat lose weight too rapidly. For most obese cats, you do not want the cat to lose more than 1-2 pounds total per month. Your veterinarian will help determine what is a safe amount for your particular cat to lose in a month. Cats can develop hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver) if they lose weight too quickly. Dogs are able to safely lose weight more quickly than cats, but again, it is important to involve your veterinarian in any weight loss effort so they can help your pet lose weight safely and effectively.