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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Diet Fast or Diet Slow: Which Choice Is Better for Pets?

Opinions on dieting strategies are generally quite strong, with proponents on each side. Interestingly, scientific studies in humans and animals suggest that both strategies are equivalent and appropriate solutions to weight loss. However the weight regain in both strategies suggest that a long term solution is probably the best plan.

The Studies

Individual humans or animals put on moderate or severe calorie restricted diets lose predictable weight. Moderate dieters lose less weight than severe dieters. Both have weight regain after dieting but as a percentage their overall loss is still proportional and severe dieters maintain a much lower post diet weight than moderate dieters. In other words, the research suggests that one plan is not successfully superior to the other. Successful maintenance for both groups is dependent on strict adherence to a post diet eating or feeding regime. Consistent exercise seems a key element to weight maintenance in human studies, but the role of exercise in weight maintenance is less studied in pets.

How to Use the Information

Any weight loss program, if administered correctly, can be successful, with the degree of calorie restriction dictating the weight loss. This is important for animals that need immediate weight loss for medical or surgical reasons. Research confirms that the instant anti-inflammatory effects of diets are positive for the health of all dieters, slow or fast. Weight loss at any rate is positive for the dieter.

The Problem

The major problem for humans and animals is the assumption that after achieving target weight loss that calorie content of the diet can return to pre-diet levels. Metabolic efficiencies during dieting guarantee that fewer calories are needed post-dieting no matter how fast the weight loss. Dieters in any program can no longer eat the way they did pre-dieting, especially fast dieters. But remember, the word diet starts with the word DIE and that is the problem with short term weight loss no matter what the form. It taxes the body during the diet and programs failure after the diet. No wonder human weight loss programs have life-long customers. Serial dieters are destined to end life overweight

The Solution

As we have discussed in previous blogs, a long term commitment to a healthy lifestyle that includes a moderate diet with no high calorie treats with daily exercise is preferable to any dieting program. Unfortunately, this is not achievable for most pet owners given their work schedules, time commitment to child activities, or their own sedentary, unhealthy lifestyles.

Michelle Obama and New York Mayor Bloomberg may have controversial ideas for promoting the health of Americans, but the message is not wrong. We make poor food choices and we have become lazy, inactive and full of excuses, so our health and the health of our pets are suffering. Studies confirm that pet weight is closely correlated with owner attitudes about weight, treat content, and the lack of knowledge about fundamental nutritional concepts.

Despite a devotion to helping owners with their overweight pets, I can honestly say that dieting is not the answer. Nutritional and lifestyle awareness are the answer. Unfortunately this takes time, effort and understanding that few are willing to undertake. There are no magical diets or fixes. Health is a marathon, not a sprint. Put harshly (and I include myself), we all need to put down the feed bag and step away from the table, embrace activity, and take our pet friends for a brisk walk or schedule a spirited bout of tether-feather or laser-light chase on a daily basis.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: mariait / via Shutterstock

Comments  5

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  • Cats
    06/21/2012 11:14am

    I believe it's important to work with your veterinarian on any diet plan.

    I'd be hesitant to try a "severe diet" with a cat due to a fear of Hepatic Lipidosis.

    Dr. Tudor, have you had any experience with a quick weight loss program for a cat that wasn't had negative side-effects?

  • Slow weight loss
    06/21/2012 07:29pm

    When you first started this series, Dr. Tudor, I was bemoaning the fact that it seemed my dog was not losing weight despite my best efforts.

    It turns out, though, that my dog actually has been losing weight, but v-e-r-y slowly. So slowly, that it took months to really see a difference, both on his body and on the scale.

    It seems he has been losing weight at about 1/2 lb. per month. Now, after 7 months, he has lost about 4 pounds, with just 2 -3 more pounds to go. I am feeling better!

    Thanks for reminding us all with this latest post that weight loss is for the long term, both in the losing and in keeping it off.

  • The Solution
    06/21/2012 09:00pm

    The reason I always enjoy reading your blog is because you use a lot of common sense, and don't pay attention to the fads that are abundant out there. Any well trained dietitian will agree with you that lifestyle is the main answer here, and that means not only portion control but the exercise you were recommending.

    Another suggestion I have to add is that if smaller more frequent feedings are done throughout the period that a cat or dog is designed to eat, the practice will reduce stomach size, so that when the pets are in uncontrolled circumstances the need to 'binge' just isn't there to the same extent, if at all for cats - dogs are another matter. Any overweight cats that have come to us have two double timed feeders to cover a twelve hour period, that are filled with about 18 low calorie crunchies that open every two hours, and they also get a couple of canned food treats morning and evening to add nutrient variety to the diet. This seems to correct the eating behavior that caused the weight problem, if the good low calorie food is continued.

    For the foster dog we took in that was overweight, DH did the walking, and I measured out the calories of the food. The dog too got canned food treats twice a day, and had his dry food served out in smaller portions four times a day. We managed to drop him from a very overweight 68 pounds to a healthy 40 pounds, although we eventually lost him to a heart attack, possibly contributed to by the weight he carried when we took him in.

    My understanding, Dr Tudor, is that you don't have actual training in nutrition in your list of credentials, but it appears you have managed to pick up the equivalent on your own - your patients are very lucky.

  • TheOldBroad
    06/22/2012 04:28am

    Actually, I was also hesitant with cats initially. But I monitor their blood work monthly and they are all put on L-Carnitine, which has been been proven to prevent the hepatic lipidosis that has plagued us in the past when dieting cats. I have been able to reduce their calorie consumption without problems. Like you aptly point out, dieting must be under veterinary supervision.
    Dr. T

  • 06/22/2012 05:00pm

    Our experience with weight loss and cats is that we don't go below 60% of their RER at any point, and we don't have metabolic issues (SACN/SACNQC suggest no lower than RER x 0.5 to avoid hepatic complications).

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