Obesity has become an extremely important health problem in the Western world, not just for humans but for dogs and cats as well. Obesity in pets causes a lot of the same problems it does in people. An overweight pet is prone to a host of health problems.
1) How can I tell if my pet is obese or overweight?
Healthy pets may have some padding on them, but a little is plenty. Rub your hands over the ribs of your dog or cat. The skin should move easily back and forth, and you should be able to feel the ribs. Your pet should have a definable “waist” at the bottom of the rib cage, a small tuck-in at the stomach. Take a look from the side: If your pet looks pregnant, he or she is fat. From above, a bump out from the middle into an apple shape is equally bad news.
2) Why is obesity is bad?
Here are some of problems that obese animals must contend with:
Arthritis - The overweight animal has extra unneeded stress on joints, including the discs of the vertebrae. This extra stress leads to the progression of joint degeneration and creates more pain. The problem is compounded as joint pain leads to poor mobility, which in turn leads to greater obesity. Weight management alone decreases and can even eliminate the need for arthritis medications.
Respiratory Compromise - The obese pet may have a good inch or two of fat forming a constricting jacket around the chest. This makes breathing more difficult. In some animals, areas of the lung cannot fully inflate, resulting in coughing. The pet also overheats more easily. Some cases of tracheal collapse can be managed with only weight loss.
Diabetes Mellitus - Extra body fat leads to insulin resistance in cats just as it does in humans. In fact, obese cats have been found to have a 50% decrease in insulin sensitivity. Weight management is especially important in decreasing a cat’s risk for the development of diabetes mellitus.
Hepatic Lipidosis in cats - When an overweight cat goes off food or partially off food because of illness or psychological stress, body fat is mobilized to provide calories. Unfortunately, the cat’s liver was not designed to process a large amount of body fat. The liver becomes infiltrated with fat and then fails. A stress that might have been relatively minor, such as a cold, can become a life-threatening disaster.
Reduced Life Span - A study of age-matched Labrador retrievers found that dogs kept on the slender side of normal lived a median of 2.5 years longer than their overweight counterparts.
Increased Surgical/Anesthetic Risk - Obesity poses an extra anesthetic risk because drug dosing becomes less accurate. Furthermore, anesthesia is inherently suppressive to respiration and adding a constrictive jacket of fat only serves to make proper air exchange more challenging.
3) How did my Pet get so fat when he/she doesn’t really eat that much?
As with humans, there is tremendous individuality with how different pets store the food they have eaten. Here are some factors involved in obesity in pets:
A cup of food depends on the cup - When food packages refer to a certain number of cups being appropriate for a certain body weight, they are referring to an actual measuring cup. This may seem obvious but many mugs, coffee cups, and other scooping cups may not be equal to a cup measure. If you do not have a cup measure, you can get one from a pet store.The package guidelines are just guidelines. Many packages of food include on their label some sort of feeding schedule that indicates how much food should be fed to a pet of a certain weight. The problem is that each pet is an individual and these guidelines are meant as a starting point only. If your pet is too fat on the recommended feeding schedule, then you should reduce the amount of food or change to a diet that is higher in fiber so that a satisfying volume of food can still be eaten without adding calories.
Genetics - Some animals simply have the genes that predispose them to obesity. Dog breeds with genetic tendencies towards obesity include the: Golden Retriever, Cocker Spaniel, Dachshund, Beagle, Shetland Sheepdog, Boxer, Cairn Terrier, Basset Hound, Cairn Terrier, and Labrador Retriever. Less active cats such as Persians are more prone to gaining weight.
Children at home - It is almost impossible to keep children from providing extra treats to their dog. This may include snacks spilled during play or purposely feeding the pet unwanted food under the dining table. Similarly, pets that are allowed to roam (usually cats) often find food left out by neighbors, either to purposely or as unsecured trash. It is almost impossible to control the diet of an outdoor cat.
Slow metabolism - Some pets do not burn calories efficiently; they simply have a slow metabolism. This might be genetic as mentioned or it might be the result of a disease such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease. Testing for health problems such as these is helpful to get the best treatment for resolution of the obesity.
Underestimation of the power of treats - Many people express their affection for the pet by providing regular treats, and the pet happily obliges by begging or even performing cute behaviors. For some people, feeding treats to the pet constitutes a major part of the human-animal bond and they do not wish to give it up or reduce it. Pet treats are often high in calories, though, and four or five treats readily converts into an extra meal’s worth of added fat. Free feeding of dry food encourages the pet to snack as well; meal feeding represents better calorie control.
Neutering - Sterilizing a pet is good for public health, good for a better house pet, no unwanted litters, reduced risk of many diseases, etc. The change in the hormonal picture, though, creates a tendency to form more fat cells – especially in female cats, and typically slows metabolism.
4) What can I do about my pet’s weight?
As an initial step in obesity management, be sure to visit your veterinarian to rule out health issues that might specifically cause obesity. After you get the go-ahead from your veterinarian, getting your pet to lose weight works the same way as it does with people: less food, more activity, with an eye to a very gradual but steady reduction in pounds. Your vet can also suggest a food plan that might help. Particularly with cats, a low carbohydrate diet may help achieve lean body condition. Many low calorie diets are actually higher in carbohydrate content, which results in frustration and lack of success. In general, canned food is lower in carbohydrates than dry food.This means feeding a prescription diet made for weight loss (typically “lite” or “less active” diets are meant to prevent weight gain, not actually cause weight loss), feeding a measured amount, and coming in for regular weigh-ins at the vet’s office.
There must be control over what the obese pet eats. That’s easy enough if there is only one pet and roaming is not allowed, but trickier if there is more than one pet in the home. Use your ingenuity to feed the pets separately.
Feed in meals. Leaving food out encourages snacking. Feeding in meals makes it easier to feed multiple pets different foods or different amounts of food.
Commit to regular weigh ins. Know what the goal weight is and how long it should take to reach this goal/or how to tell if the pet is on target. It is important not to try to go too fast. The ideal rate of weight loss in 1-2 % of body weight per week (i.e a 15 lb cat should lose no more than 0.3 lb per week).
Figure out a way to get your pet to be more active, such as with a daily walk or game of fetch. For cats, buy a “fishing pole” toy and play with your pet every night. For dogs, placing treats is toys (such as Buster cubes) can help.
Get out of the habit of expressing love for your pets by constantly handing them treats, whether from your own dish or from a box of treats. When you need to give a treat, such as to reward good behavior while training, use the smallest size possible by breaking off a tiny bit instead of feeding a whole treat. You can also substitute pieces of rice cakes or carrot sticks for the occasional dog treat.
At this time there is no medication that can be used for cats in obesity management. In dogs, however, Slentrol is available. Slentrol is an appetite suppressant that manipulates the absorption of fat into the body in such a way as to fool the brain into feeling full. Diet change is not necessary for this program to work but it is important in the long run – when the goal weight has been reached – to have modified the pet’s lifestyle to a healthier nutritional plane and exercise level. You can ask your veterinarian if Slentrol would be a good choice for your pet.
Above all, don’t ignore the problem. Keeping your pet’s weight down is not only good for your pet’s health and quality of life, but it’s also one of the most effective strategies for saving money on veterinary care.