Written by: Dr. Chip Coombs
When it comes to how we express our love for our pets, next to hugs and pats, our desire to spoil them with food would be the next best thing. Perhaps not all, but most pets are highly food motivated. Offering them extra portions of their regular food, extra treats or even indulging them with portions of our own meal seems like the ultimate way to earn their love and attention – and it works. However, in many ways, we are literally killing them with our kindness and good intentions.
Most studies report that over 40% of dogs and 55% cats are overweight and to be considered obese a pet has to tip the scales at 20% more than their ideal weight. Your veterinarian notes your pet’s weight in the medical file along with what is a referred to as a Body Condition Score (BCS). The latter is a simple numbering system that immediately determines if a pet needs to lose some weight based upon its ideal lean weight. If the numbering range went from 0-5 and your pet was a 3 out of 5, that would be ideal for their body structure, whereas 4 out of 5 would be overweight and a score of 5 would be obese.
Being told that your pet is “fat” doesn’t usually resonate very well with most owners and they might take offence. Hence, your veterinarian might use terms like “full furred” or “Molson’s muscle” to soften the blow. They don’t want to offend you and some may even be reticent to discuss the topic at all. As owners, because we see our pets every day, it is more difficult to see the gradual weight gain. Veterinarians see our pets far less often and so they will be more objective. So, if the topic does come up, then you know that the issue is important and as an owner, it is very worthwhile for your pet’s long-term health to follow any advice.
The potential health problems are numerous and mirror the same concerns with people. With cats, in particular, the risk of developing diabetes or life-threatening liver disease rises significantly with being overweight. With the excess pounds, there is an additional risk either with anesthetics or surgery. There is additional wear and tear of joints and with older pets that are becoming arthritic due to age, having to carry the extra body mass can make getting around very difficult. In younger pets, there is increased risk of tearing joint ligaments and stressing muscles and tendons. The ability for your pet to simply play with you or even go for a walk can be greatly compromised, which leads to further weight gain and worsens the cycle. The list of health issues is very long.
In some cases, there may be a medical reason why your pet is overweight. An underperforming thyroid gland would be one example: so-called hypothyroidism. However, in most cases we owners are the primary cause, as we love to spoil our furry friends. Most owners are unsure of just how much food to feed their pet. The bag of kibble can be a guideline, but the label is very general and in many cases recommends more food than is necessary. The labels are based on feeding trials in dogs that are kennelled and they tend to be somewhat more stressed than a pet in a home. Consequently, in many cases, you can feed less than what the label recommends. Clearly, if your pet is gaining weight on the amount you are presently feeding, then feeding 10-20 % less would be in order. The number of calories per cup of food varies from one manufacturer to another. In cases where your veterinarian recommends a weight loss diet, then the number of calories will definitely be less and needs to be followed. As with ourselves, it is often the “extras” that put on the weight – whether it be in the form of treats (which are very high in calories) or offering human food.
Exercise is important. However, when it comes to weight loss, what goes in your pet’s mouth is far more important. Exercise is ideal for keeping the cardiovascular system in tip-top shape and keeping the muscles and joints finely tuned, but how many calories your pet consumes will ultimately be the solution to any successful weight loss program. If your veterinarian recommends that your pet needs to lose some weight, it is very important to take heed. If your pet is obese, then it becomes a medical necessity to prevent premature death. Asking your veterinarian to outline a specific program for your pet with follow-up weigh-ins is ideal. With cats, this is especially important, for if they were to lose weight too quickly it can trigger the very liver failure that the weight loss program is designed to prevent.
The time to start watching the waistline is when they are very little. Kittens and puppies that are allowed to become overweight will have those fat cells all their lives, creating a challenge from an early age. As adult pets, much as it pains us, “tough love” needs to be part of the daily routine and it isn’t that harsh for your pet. For example, if your pet is on a weight loss program, using kibble, that would normally be part of their measured meal portion as treats during the day, works very well. They still get their reward and no additional calories have been added. Our pets are very important family members and keeping them slim and trim will help ensure that they are with us that much longer.