Pet Obesity: Health Implications, Recognition, and Weight Management
Do you have a corpulent canine or flabby feline? Can you determine if your pet is overweight or obese? What can be done to safely promote weight loss and improved health? These are all questions pet owners face in the "Battle of the Bulge: Companion Animal Edition."
Obesity is the number one nutritional disease affecting our pets. As Americans have packed on the pounds, so have the canine and feline companions with whom we share our homes and, occasionally, our meals. Obesity is also the number one disease I diagnose in dogs and cats in my clinical practice (with periodontal disease being the second).
Having grown up as an overweight child, and then making a concerted effort to improve my health and fitness in my teenage years and into adulthood, I am passionate about promoting anti-obesity awareness for pets.
Pet owners must recognize the negative holistic health implications of obesity. As an optimally functioning body relies on the highly operating sum of its parts, nearly all organ systems suffer under the stress of carrying excess weight. Life threatening and potentially irreversible health diseases affect the following systems:
- Metabolic: The functional synergy between the kidneys, liver, pancreas, thyroid and adrenal glands is disrupted by obesity.
- Cardiovascular and Pulmonary: The heart, blood vessels and lungs are forced to inefficiently function at an elevated capacity when providing oxygen rich blood to excessive body tissue.
- Immune: Obesity and lack of activity cause stagnation in the lymphatic system, which reduces fluid drainage and the ability for white blood cells to manage infection.
- Musculoskeletal and Nervous: Arthritis (joint inflammation), degenerative joint disease (DJD, the sequela of chronic arthritis), and improper nerve conduction all occur from supporting excess weight.
- Dermatologic: Portly pets are less capable of grooming themselves and more prone to skin fold dermatitis (inflammation) and infection (bacteria and yeast).
- Gastrointestinal: Inactivity delays peristalsis (involuntary contraction of the intestines), leading to indigestion and constipation.
What are the clinical signs that your pet may be overweight or obese? I use each patient’s body weight as a landmark, but focus on their Body Condition Score (BCS). The BCS scale ranges from one to nine, with one and nine being the respective extremes of thin and thick. The ideal BCS is five. Pets having a BCS over five, yet less than seven, are considered overweight. A BCS greater than seven classifies a pet as obese.
Your pet is overweight or obese if any (or all) of the following physical indicators are present:
- Excess fat covering the ribs: A thick layer of fat inhibits easy palpation of the ribs.
- Lack of waistline: When looking down on your pet from above, there is a lack of visible narrowing just behind the last (13th) rib.
- Pendulous abdominal fat: Fatty tissue dangles from the underside of your pet’s abdomen, which may even swing while walking or running.
Now that you have determined that your pet needs to lose weight, what can you do?
Schedule an examination with your pet’s veterinarian
As certain disease conditions (arthritis, hypothyroidism, other) can contribute to your pet’s overweight status, your veterinarian should perform an examination and diagnostics (laboratory testing, X-rays, etc.) to look for underlying causes. Your vet can also determine if your pet is healthy enough to begin an exercise program.
Employ calorie restriction and portion control
Pet owners often provide food in excess of the daily caloric requirement for weight maintenance or loss. In a 2002 study, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine reported that dogs fed a calorie restricted diet lived nearly two years longer than dogs consuming additional calories. The fourteen-year-long study also proved that these dogs were less likely to develop painful osteoarthritis.
Feed your pet at the lower end of the manufacturer’s suggested range per body weight and always use a metric measuring cup to determine the proper portion.
Reduce dry food and increase whole foods
Your pet’s food provides the building blocks of body tissue and is a vital component of maintaining normally functioning body systems. Fresh, moist proteins, carbohydrates, and fat sources are more energetically useful to your pet than the ingredients found in dehydrated and denatured dry foods.
Dilute your pet’s calories by adding fiber, moisture, and antioxidant rich vegetables. Reduce your pet’s commercial food by 25-33 percent and replace the volume with steamed and pureed (or finely chopped) vegetables. Ideally, choose locally grown and organic food sources such as carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, and mushrooms.
Increase feeding frequency
Provide a meal for your pet at least every 12 hours. More frequent feeding reduces bingeing and promotes improved digestion, slower eating, less aerophagia (swallowing of air), and more consistent metabolism.
Commit to Daily Exercise
Schedule time for exercise on a daily basis and set sustainable weight loss goals for your pet.
Consistent activity benefits both you and your pet(s). The PPET (People and Pets Exercising Together) Study showed that owners who regularly exercised with their dogs were better able to stick with their workout plan than dog-less participants.
When starting out, choose simple workouts like briskly walking around your neighborhood, then increase the intensity and duration as Fido’s fitness progresses.
Cats can exercise in the comfort of your own home by chasing a laser pointer or feather toy. Additionally, feeding from an elevated surface or placing food inside a feline-friendly toy provides both behavioral and physical stimulation.
There is no singular correct food, feeding system, or exercise program that can be employed over your pet’s lifetime. As your pet ages or is afflicted by illness, its dietary and physical activity needs will change. Please use common sense and the guidance of a veterinarian (one who recommends whole food nutrients) in creating a feeding and fitness program for your pet.
Dr. Patrick Mahaney