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Battling the Bulge
By Jessica Remitz
Though you may think nothing of your pet’s extra pound(s), more than half of the dogs and cats in the United States are overweight — an issue that has only gotten worse over the years. Obesity in animals can cause a variety of health-related problems and may even shorten the lifespan of your beloved pet. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to become informed on the issue and find a healthy way to get your pet’s weight back on track.
Pet Obesity by the Numbers
The number of pets tipping the scale at above-average weights has increased year after year, with 53 percent of adult dogs and 55 percent of cats classified as overweight or obese by their veterinarians, according to a 2011 survey conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). Of the 88.4 million pets deemed too heavy by their vets, study results found that owners of these pets may have trouble recognizing the issue, with 22 percent of dog owners and 15 percent of cat owners characterizing their pets as having a normal weight when they were actually obese, according to APOP.
How do Pets Become Overweight?
Pets become overweight for a variety of reasons, including too much caloric intake, too little exercise, too frequent feedings, and consuming table scraps or foods made for people, said Katie Grzyb, a DVM at the Veterinary Emergency and Referral Group in Brooklyn, NY.
Treats have also become a major part of the issue. In an online poll conducted by APOP, 93 percent of dog and cat owners gave their pets treats, with 26 percent reporting that they gave their pet multiple treats per day. Any one, or combination, of these things over time can lead to a dangerous problem.
Nature vs. Nurture
Most pets are always happy to eat, and have a difficult time controlling themselves when their owners always offer them food and treats.
“Many pet owners feel that feeding their pets treats or several meals a day helps them bond and shows their pet that they are loved,” Dr. Grzyb said. “In actuality, feeding too much or [giving them] the wrong kinds of food can be harmful and cause long term problems.”
Leaving food down all the time for your pet, giving them treats, or worse, giving them food designed for humans, can perpetuate obesity and lead to health problems, she said. Though your pet’s ideal weight will depend on its breed, lifestyle, and underlying health conditions, there are tools such as the Healthy Weight Protocol and APOP's Ideal Weight Ranges that can help you assess your pet. Ultimately, your veterinarian is your best resource.
The Impacts on Your Pet
Obesity can affect the quality of your pet’s life in many ways. A variety of adverse health conditions, including hip dysplasia, osteroarthritis, pancreatitis, diabetes, and a shortened life expectancy, are associated with overweight pets. According to Dr. Grzyb, there are several studies that associate hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease with canine obesity as well.
The best way to think about your pet’s weight gain is to calculate it as a percentage, she said. If a 10 pound cat gains two pounds it equates to 20 percent of its body weight. A 120-pound person gaining that same percent of body weight would gain 24 pounds — a significant increase.
Getting Back on Track
If your pet is suffering from obesity or you believe it’s overweight, the most important thing to do is discuss an appropriate weight loss program with a veterinarian.
“Your veterinarian can determine your pet’s exact energy requirements and can tailor a feeding protocol to your lifestyle and theirs,” Dr. Grzyb said. “In most cases, a successful weight loss protocol involves reduction in caloric intake along with an increase in physical activity.”
Your vet may suggest prescription weight loss foods that have lower fat and calories, or feeding your pets a normal sized meal in small increments to slow down their eating and allow them to feel satiated. Avoid refilling your pet’s bowls even if they eat quickly and be sure to properly measure out your pet’s meals. Overfeeding your dog or cat by even a few extra pieces of kibble or scoops of wet food will make a difference over time.
Changing Your Rewards Program
Food-based rewards are generally a huge part of training for dogs. While giving bite-sized treats can be effective when training a puppy, providing positive reinforcements through rewards other than food are paramount.
“We all like to show our pets how much we love them, [but] instead of doing this with treats and table scraps, take your dog to the park or play with your cat for awhile,” Dr. Grzyb said. “The time and attention they receive from you is what they really crave.”
Talk to your vet before you start a rigorous exercise program with your pet, as medical conditions must be taken into account prior to starting an exercise plan, Grzyb said. Active play, food dispensing toys, and an increase in walking can all be part of a fitness program for your pet. Adding vertical space to your cat’s environment to encourage climbing and jumping can be helpful, as can planning doggy play dates in a nearby park.
It may seem like an overwhelming task, but by making small changes in your pet’s diet and exercise routine, you’ll see an improvement in its overall health and happiness. And as an added bonus, you’ll likely see the same results in yourself.