Weight Management for the Overweight and Obese Pet

Weight Management for the Overweight and Obese Pet

By Dr. Patrick Mahaney


You may not be aware, but pet obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S.  In 2014, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) conducted it’s annual National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Survey by partnering with veterinarians and establishing that 52.7 percent of dogs and 57.9 percent of cats are overweight or obese. That’s nearly nearly 100,000,000 cats and dogs, which is an unacceptable statistic.

The problem is so bad that there’s even a Pet Obesity Awareness Day (October 7, 2015), but so many owners don’t recognize the problem in their pets nor take sufficient action to prevent weight gain in the first place.

Is being overweight or obese bad for pets?

Yes, being overweight or obese is bad for pets.  Numerous health problems, some of which are irreversible and all of which compromise quality of life, affect plus-sized pets.

Obesity-related ailments negatively impact many body systems, including:

  • Heart and blood vessels- high blood pressure, reduced blood circulation, etc.
  • Skin- skin fold dermatitis (skin inflammation), infection (bacteria, yeast), etc.
  • Immune System- cancer, immune mediated (“autoimmune”) disease, etc.
  • Muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons- arthritis, degenerative joint disease, tendon and ligament injuries, traumatic disc rupture, etc.
  • Glandular system- hypothyroidism, diabetes, pancreatitis, kidney and liver disease, etc.

How do pets become overweight or obese?
Ultimately, the primary reason pets are overweight or obese is simple; pets are consuming too many calories.  Secondarily, pets burn off too few calories through day-to-day movements and exercise sessions.  The underlying reasons why our pets are eating too much and exercising too little are more complicated.

Owners find comfort in providing pleasure to their pets through food, so calories are often given in excess of what a pet needs and the weight starts to pile on.

Obesity is the number one nutritional disease afflicting pets and owners are actually creating nutritional imbalances by feeding excessive amounts of commercially-available foods and treats, which are those pet owners most commonly provide to their companion canines and felines.

Feeding guidelines given on the bag or can’s label provide too much room for interpretation and pets commonly are overfed without the owner recognizing they are doing providing excess calories.  Additionally, single or multiple treats made from processed, grain-based biscuits and meat simulations having poor nutrient quality creates contribute further to the caloric overconsumption.

Generally, my canine and feline patients that eat diets having fresh, moist, whole food ingredients like meat, vegetables, fruit, and grains that appear like nature creates have slimmer bodies and are less-prone to being overweight or obese.

How can I determine if my pet is overweight or obese?

Determining if your pet is overweight or obese doesn’t require challenging scientific calculations.  Doing so simply takes an observant owner and appropriate input by the overseeing veterinarian.

In my veterinary practice, I evaluate each patient’s body weight on a scale and determine a Body Condition Score (BCS) based on the Body Condition Scoring Chart offered by the Nutritional Support Services at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

The BCS scale ranges from one to five, where one is the extreme of thinness and five being the extreme of fatness. The ideal BCS is three. Pets having a BCS of four are considered Stout. Those grading as five are Obese.

Here’s the full range of the BCS scale:

1 = Emaciated. Ribs, lumbar vertebrae, pelvic bones and all body prominences evident from a distance. No discernible body fat. Obvious absence of muscle mass.

2 = Thin. Ribs easily palpated and may be visible with no palpable fat. Tops of lumbar vertebrae visible. Pelvic bones less prominent. Obvious waist and abdominal tuck.

3 = Moderate. Ribs palpable without excess fat covering. Abdomen tucked up when viewed from side. This is the ideal body index score.

4 = Stout. General fleshy appearance. Ribs palpable with difficulty. Noticeable fat deposits over lumbar spine and tail base. Abdominal tuck may be absent.

5 = Obese. Large fat deposits over chest, spine and tail base. Waist and abdominal tuck absent. Fat deposits on neck and limbs. Abdomen distended.

Put your eyes and hands on your pet to determine his BCS. If the scored as being Stout or Obese, then a plan to promote healthy weight loss is needed.

How can I help my pet achieve a healthy weight and BCS?

You can help your pet achieve a healthy weight and BCS through the following 5-step plan:

  1. Schedule an examination with your veterinarian

Some health conditions, like arthritis, hypothyroidism, and others, can contribute to your pet’s overweight status and can be diagnosed through your veterinarian’s physical examination and diagnostic testing (blood/urine testing, X-rays, etc.). Your veterinarian can also determine if your pet is sufficiently healthy to start an exercising and advise on the most appropriate types of activities.

  1. Implement portion control and calorie restriction

Always feed your pet at the lower end of the manufacturer’s suggested range per body weight (per day) and use a metric measuring cup to determine the exact portion.  Once your pet’s ideal weight is established, your veterinarian can calculate the number of calories to be consumed per day to achieve the goal.  Ask your veterinarian to do so at your pet’s next appointment.

Eating fewer calories can help your pet live longer and be healthier.  A 2002 study performed at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine discovered that dogs given a calorie-restricted diet lived nearly two years longer than those eating additional calories. The dogs evaluated in this fourteen-year study were also less likely  to suffer from painful osteoarthritis.

  1. Eliminate processed pet foods and incorporate whole foods

All food, whether for pets or for people, provides some of the building blocks needed for body tissue development and maintenance.  Fresh, moist, and human-grade proteins, carbohydrates, and fats are more bioavailable (able to be utilized by the body) than feed-grade ingredients found in most kibble and canned pet foods that have been radically altered from nature’s format.

Transition your pet off of kibble or moist pet diets onto one of many commercially available options (The Honest Kitchen, other) or ask your veterinarian to facilitate a consultation with a university veterinary nutrition service to create a recipe for a complete and balanced home-prepared diet.  Discontinue pet treats containing feed-grade ingredients (some of which even contain known toxins and carcinogens) and provide pet-appropriate fresh vegetables and fruit as snacks.

  1. Feed more frequent meals

Serve your pet an accurately-measured meal at least every 12 hours. More frequent feeding promotes slower eating, less aerophagia (swallowing of air), improved digestion, and more-consistent metabolic rate.

If you can’t be home to feed your pet, use a timed feeder to serve a proper portion of food at the same time each day.  Treats can also be given via a food-dispensing toy, which provides your canine or feline companion behavioral and physical stimulation while restricting portions.

  1. Make daily exercise a priority

Everyone has the same number of hours in each day, yet how that time is used is our personal choice.  Even if it’s only for 15 minutes, engage in some form of exercise with your pet on a daily basis.

When starting out, do simple workouts like walking your dog briskly around the neighborhood or getting your cat to move using a laser or feather toy. Increase the duration and intensity of the activity as your pet’s fitness progresses.

Owners also benefit from engaging in exercise with pets. The PPET (People Pets Exercising Together) Study proved that owners who regularly exercised with their dog were better able to stick with their own workout plan than participants without the companionship of a canine.

Your companion canine or feline can lead a higher quality of life with your daily dedication to preventing obesity and promoting healthy weight management.

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