Better Pet Fitness in Four Steps

Dr. Ernie Ward

More pets are suffering from obesity. The latest data from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) reveals over half the nation’s dogs and cats are overweight or obese. With increasing weights come increased weight-related disorders, especially osteoarthritis and type 2 diabetes. It’s up to pet owners and veterinarians to reverse this trend and save our dogs and cats from suffering needlessly. While this task may be daunting and challenging to some, we can succeed. Here are a few tips on how you can help your pet in the quest to go from fat to fit in four steps.

1)     Recognition

The first step in combating pet obesity is recognition. This begins by comparing your pet’s current weight to its weight during your last veterinary visit. Most vets will be happy to weigh your dog or cat at no charge on special animal-accurate scales. If you don’t have access to your vet, try the “rib check.” You should be able to easily feel your pet’s ribs under a thin layer of skin. If you’re pushing through a pad of plump, chances are your pet is too heavy. Next, look at your dog or cat standing from the side. Does their belly sag and dip toward the floor? Pets at a healthy weight will actually have a tummy that is taut, tight, and trends upward instead of dragging down. Finally, when you look down at your pet you should see a subtle hourglass silhouette, not a blooming blimp outline. In general, if you think your pet is carrying a few extra pounds, it probably is. 

Because weight gain is gradual and insidious, most pet owners fail to appreciate a few extra pounds over a year or two. “But, doc, it’s only two pounds since last year.” Pet owners need to understand that weight gained slowly is just as deadly as weight gained rapidly. By recognizing weight gain early, your chances of preventing weight-related diseases and severe obesity are greatly improved.

Recognizing underlying health conditions is another important aspect when evaluating overweight pets. If your pet is gaining weight, I recommend complete blood tests, urinalysis and blood pressure evaluation. Diseases such as hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease can lead to excess weight gain in some pets. Other times your veterinarian may discover an emerging problem such as early kidney disease, elevated blood sugar or high blood pressure. I recommend working with your vet to create a “weight loss workup” program that includes regular physical exams, diagnostic tests, nutritional counseling and follow-up visits. If it takes a village to raise a child it certainly takes a team to shed a pound.    

2)     Recommendation

Pet owners need specific recommendations to help their pets lose weight. You need better advice than “feed a low-calorie diet” and “exercise more.” Weight loss should be addressed as any other medical condition: history, diagnostic tests, treatment, and follow-up care.

The best approach to weight loss is one that promotes fat loss while preserving lean muscle mass. When pets properly lose fat and gain muscle, clients often report an increase in activity levels, enthusiasm and playfulness. Weight loss starts by adjusting daily calories. I typically favor a therapeutic higher-protein, low-calorie food as a starting weight loss diet.

After selecting a diet, you need to know how many calories to feed your pet each day. Don’t trust the bag; pet food 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 indoor lap potato 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. Another good starting point is to use this formula: Divide your pet’s weight by 2.2. Multiply this figure times 30. Add 70 and you’ve got a general idea of how many calories you should be feeding a typical inactive, indoor spayed or neutered dog or cat. ** [(pet’s weight in lbs/2.2) x 30] +70 ** Of course, each pet’s metabolism is different so be sure to consult your veterinarian before starting a diet. Weight loss isn’t about starvation or deprivation; it’s about safe and sustainable lifestyle changes. We’re not simply chasing a number on a scale; we’re improving overall quality of life.

Additionally, you need to develop a daily exercise and activity regimen with your veterinarian. It can be as simple as “walk Scooter for 15 minutes at a brisk pace twice daily and try for a 45 minute easy walk on the weekends” or “alternate feeding your cat on elevated surfaces and in different locations around your apartment.” The key is to get your pet (and you) moving each day for a minimum of 30 minutes. I’m also a fan of using food puzzles for both cats and dogs to make feeding fun. Consider remote-controlled toys and self-directed interactive toys that use technology to engage your pet’s play drive. Whatever your weight loss approach, keep in mind the goal is to improve health and prolong life, not just skinny pets.

3)     Rejuvenation

Obesity steals the joy of living. Weight loss done correctly changes lives. Pet parents often forget how rewarding life with a dog or cat can be due to the slow sapping of vigor and mobility excess weight causes. Nothing pleases me more than hearing pet owners exclaim, “He’s acting like a puppy!” or “My cat now jumps on the bed and wants to play!” I know that not only is the human happy but the pet is rejuvenated. In over twenty years of practice I’ve found nothing more gratifying than restoring health through weight loss. Helping a pet lose weight not always easy and certainly may create challenges along the way; however, the gains are simply too good to resist.

Part of rejuvenation is enjoying the occasional treat. Choose low-calorie goodies that provide a health benefit. I favor single ingredient treats such as sweet potato and blueberry bites, baby carrots, green beans, celery, broccoli, cucumbers, sliced apples and bananas.

Whatever treats you give, be sure to count those additional calories.  Many pet owners feed the proper amount of 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 gains over three pounds in a year.

Here’s another tip: Dogs don’t do division. Break treats into pee-wee pieces and divvy them out 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 as a reward for good behavior. Pets (and people) need to learn to earn extra goodies.

4)     Remembrance

Weight loss isn’t a single battle; it’s a lifelong war. Follow-up care with your vet is essential for sustained success. I recommend tracking your pet’s weight every one to three months. The goal is to change your lifestyle so that an active, healthy lifestyle becomes normal.

We also need to remember that most pet owners aren’t aware their pet is too heavy; they believe their pet is just “big.” It’s our duty to speak for our pets that cannot speak for themselves. I believe if my patients could speak, they’d ask for better, more nutritious and wholesome foods. I also think they’d ask for more walks and play time – LOTS more. We must remember our responsibilities as pet owners: to help our dogs and cats live the best life possible. All it takes is a little time and effort to change your pet from fat to fit in four easy steps.