by Dr. Ernie Ward
According to the latest veterinary surveys, over half our nation’s dogs and cats are overweight or have obesity. This equals almost 90 million pets are at risk for developing crippling arthritis, debilitating diabetes, catastrophic kidney and heart disease, high blood pressure and many forms of cancer. Here are few simple ways to help your pet reach its healthy weight:
1) Calculate Calories
If you don’t know how many calories your pet needs each day, you don’t know how much to feed. And don’t think you can trust the bag; feeding guides are formulated for adult, un-spayed or un-neutered active dogs and cats. That means if you have an older, spayed or neutered lightly active dog or cat, you’ll probably be feeding 20% to 30% too much if you follow the food’s instructions. Instead, ask your veterinarian to calculate the proper number of calories your pet needs each day.
2) Measure Meals
A pet owner’s single greatest tool in the fight against weight gain is a food scale or measuring cup. Too many pet owners simply fill the bowl or guesstimate how much they’re feeding. Even worse, some pets, especially cats, are fed an “all-day buffet” that results from the “just keep the bowl full” feeding method.
The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention has done studies to show that feeding as few as ten extra tiny kibbles of food per day can add up to a pound of weight gain per year in indoor cats and small dogs. After your veterinarian calculates how many calories your pet needs each day, determine how much food you should feed each meal – and measure it.
The best way to precisely measure your pet's food is by weighing it. An inexpensive kitchen scale can allow you to accurately provide the proper amount of nutrition - and calories - for your dog or cat. Once you weigh your pet's food a few times, you'll discover it takes no more time than using measuring cups - and is much more accurate!
Canned food is another option for carefully measuring calories. Because you know the exact number of calories in each can, you're at less risk of accidental overfeeding. I also prefer many canned (or home-prepared) meals because the protein and fat content are typically higher than dry, extruded kibble.
Bonus tip: I LOVE food puzzles for all dogs and cats. Food puzzles can slow down the rate of feeding, discouraging owners from immediately refilling the bowl and making the feeding activity more behaviorally stimulating for pets.
3) Tactical Treating
First off, I’m not anti-treats. I am anti-junk treats. If you’re going to give your pets extra goodies, make them count. Too many pet treats are “calorie grenades” laden with sugar and fat blowing up our pet’s waistlines and destroying their health. Choose low-calorie, no-sugar food rewards that provide a health benefit (“functional treats”). I prefer crunchy vegetables such as baby carrots, or sliced cucumbers and zucchini for dogs.
Whatever treats you give, be sure to count those additional calories. Many pet owners feed the proper amount of pet food but sabotage their efforts by adding one or two snacks throughout the day. As few as 30 extra calories per day means your pet could gain over three pounds in a year!
Better yet, dogs don’t do division. Break treats into small pieces and offer them whenever your pet earns it.
Be cautious of “guilt-treating” – the practice of giving your pet a treat because you “feel guilty” leaving them home alone. Instead, use treats only as a reward for good behavior. Pets (and people) need to learn to earn extra goodies.
4) Vital Veggies
As an alternative to highly-processed store-bought treats, try offering baby carrots, green beans, celery, broccoli, cucumbers, zucchini, sliced apples, blueberries, or bananas. These naturally nutritious tasty tidbits are a healthy option for many dogs. For cats, try a flake of salmon or tuna.
5) Hustle for Health
When it comes to living a long, pain- and disease-free life, research proves our most powerful partner is daily aerobic activity. Speaking of partners, anyone with a dog has a built-in, no-excuse exercise buddy!
For dogs, as little as 20 to 30-minutes of brisk walking is all it takes to boost immune function, improve cardiovascular health and reduce many behavioral problems. Do yourself and your dog a favor and commit to daily walks, rain or shine. The health benefits of walking extend to both ends of the leash.
For cats, try playing with a laser pointer, remote-controlled toy, box, or ball of paper for 5 to 15 minutes each day.
6) Smart Supplements
A couple of supplements may help keep your pet (and you) fit and trim. Almost every dog, cat and person can benefit from taking a daily omega-3 fatty acid supplement. These powerful algal or fish oils pack a potent antioxidant punch that has been proven to help prevent and treat numerous diseases. In addition, they may help ease achy joints and perhaps encourage weight loss.
L-carnitine has been shown to aid weight loss and promote lean muscle mass. I’ve been prescribing (and taking) l-carnitine for over twenty years and am impressed with the results. Ask your veterinarian if either (or both) of these supplements make sense for your pet’s condition.
7) Cut Down the Carbs
Most of the pet dogs and cats I treat for don’t need a high-carbohydrate diet. Yet that’s exactly what many of us feed our pets. Many pet diets contain 60% or more carbohydrates when you analyze the food label. As a general rule, I recommend starting with a higher protein / lower carb / higher fiber formulation for weight loss in most of my patients.
It’s the responsibility of each of us to help our pets maintain a healthy weight. Just as you’d never walk your dog without a collar and leash or allow them to eat only pizza and ice cream, it’s up to pet owners to feed healthy, nutritious foods and treats and exercise daily. By applying these seven simple suggestions, you’ll be on your way to your pet’s best – and healthiest – year yet!