Being overweight is not restricted to humans. Our family pets, dog and cats alike, are also generally becoming fatter too. When you make your resolution to take better care of yourself, consider including your dog or cat; chances are, if you’ve had a bit of weight creep in, your pet has too.
Your pet relies on you to provide the right amount of nutrition and exercise. He does not have the luxury of reading nutrition labels, buying exercise equipment or of making the decision to lead a healthier life. Whether your call yourself an owner, pet parent or guardian, your pet relies on you to take the lead in keeping him healthy.
Why is your pet’s weight important? Just like with humans, carrying extra weight carries increased risk for numerous diseases and health concerns. Extra weight can cause early joint and skeletal deterioration, injury to muscles that try to do the work of the skeleton, respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Dogs with extra weight tend to be less active, further compounding the problem. Overweight dogs can be at a higher risk of heat stroke and heat exhaustion in hot weather, as they have more body mass to try to cool off by panting. Once a dog has suffered from heat stroke or heat exhaustion, they are more likely to have additional problems with heat in the future.
Your veterinarian should be able to tell you what your pet’s ideal weight should be. But if you forgot to cover this at your pet’s last exam and just need a quick way to gauge if your pet is overweight, don’t despair. Here’s how to get a sense of whether your pet is fat or fit until you can see a veterinarian.
Get your pet in a standing position and then look directly down at them over the rear half of the body. You should be able to see a slight “waistline” from the area just after the ribs to the beginning of the hindquarters. In particularly long-coated, furry dogs and cats this can be more difficult to see. Try feeling, with a light, gentle pressure, along the area. Can you feel an indentation? Then work your way up over the ribcage. With that same level of gentle pressure, can you feel the ribcage? Chances are that if you can feel the ribcage and see a waistline, your pet is likely not overweight.
However, if you can’t feel the ribcage and there is no waistline, your pet is quite likely overweight. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, an estimated 30 to 40 percent of pets in the United States are overweight and approximately 25 percent are clinically obese.
So what do you do if your pet is overweight? Realize that calories work to pack on the pounds in pets the same way they do in humans. Don’t starve your pet to get his weight down; in fact, before making significant changes in your pet’s food, talk to your veterinarian. Your veterinarian should be able to make recommendations regarding food, treats and exercise.
Generally, however, most dry pet food contains less calories than wet (canned / pouch) pet food. If you currently feed wet food, consider transitioning to a dry food. Also avoid leaving the food down throughout the day. Leaving the food out all day is a practice called “free-feeding” and has also been associated with weight gain. Instead, plan on providing meal times for your pet. Whatever food gets eaten in a reasonable time period (say 15 minutes for dogs, 30 minutes for cats) is what they eat at the meal. Any leftover/uneaten food is removed until the next scheduled mealtime. If you have a dog that is susceptible to bloat, allow a few extra minutes and consider using a bowl designed to reduce the risk of bloat.
If you have multiple pets, make sure each pet eats only the food that is allocated to them. For dogs who are crate-trained, this is pretty simple; just provide each meal in the crate (shutting the crate door if necessary). For a multiple cat household, this can be more difficult, as most cat owners do not “crate train” their cats. You may need to feed cats in different rooms with a closed door in order to be certain each cat is only getting what they are supposed to get.
Treats can be great, but don’t overindulge your pet. Many treats are high in fat, which means they are high in calories. Many treat manufacturers now indicate a range or maximum of how many of their treats can be eaten in a day. For smaller pets, use the lower number in a range or a number about half of the maximum; for medium-sized pets, use a middle number in the range or a number about 25% below the maximum; and reserve the maximum for large pets. Look for low-calorie treats. Also look for treats that can be easily broken into multiple small pieces; this way, you manage portion size control on the treats themselves.
Table scraps are often a culprit in weight gain. Avoid giving table scraps at all, since most human table food is has more salt than a pet would normally eat and table scraps are often high in fat.
Exercise is important too. Look for ways to keep your pet happy and entertained, while being active. For cats, you may need to purchase some cat toys and you may need to entice them to jump after yarn or intriguing items tied to a string. For dogs, most dogs will enjoy walks. For physically-challenged dogs, consider water therapy on a water treadmill or indoor swimming if you are lucky enough to live near a facility offering those services.
As with yourself, start your pet’s exercise program slowly. Watch for signs of pain or discomfort and alert your veterinarian to such issues as soon as they become apparent.