Weight Management

Maintaining a healthy weight can have major positive effects on your pet’s overall health.  Modern society has made it quite easy to meet (and exceed) your dog or cat’s calorie needs.  In a world with readily available kibble, treats, and table scraps along with decreased exercise, pet obesity is on the rise.  Animals that are overweight have an increased occurrence of joint disease (arthritis), diabetes, other chronic diseases, and tend to not live as long as animals at a healthy weight.  Obese animals also tend not do as well in stressful situations and are at higher risk under anesthesia for surgeries.

Determining Ideal Weight:  It is not always easy to know what a good weight is for your pet.  There can be much variation in size even within a breed.  Certain breeds are so likely to be overweight that people have become used to this image and may think their dog is too thin when he is actually ideal.  Discuss your dog or cat’s weight with your veterinarian.  They will be able to help you determine what is appropriate and help formulate a plan if your pet’s weight needs to change.  While it is easy to measure and talk about weight, ideally we are managing your animal’s body condition rather than weight.  We measure body condition by looking at animal’s overall shape and feeling for fat deposits.  Feeling can be particularly important in long-haired animals.  A dog or cat in ideal condition should have a visible waist from above; their abdomen should tuck up from the side, and you should be able to feel their ribs fairly easily but not see them protruding.  We have charts around the clinic describing the body condition scoring system and one’s that can be sent home with you.  Get in the practice of feeling your pets, as this will allow you to make sure they’re staying in shape and also to catch any new growths or injuries early.

What to Feed:  Now that you have talked to your veterinarian and determined that your animal needs to lose weight, what should you feed him/her?  Do you need to switch their food?  The answer: it depends.  If your animal is on a nutritionally balanced food that is appropriate for their size and life stage (puppy/kitten, adult, or senior), it may just be a matter of cutting back.  If your dog or cat needs to lose a lot of weight and/or is upset about eating less, it may be best to look at a lower calorie food, so the same amount of food provides them with fewer calories.

While cat treats tend to be similar in size and calorie content, dog treats vary greatly from small training treats (a few calories a piece) to large biscuits (over 100 calories each).  If you give your dog several treats a day, that could be a substantial amount of calories depending on the treat size.  It is nearly impossible to stop giving your dog treats altogether; they are a great training tool and part of our social bonding with our dogs.  Instead try to decrease the number, size, and calories of the treats given.  Low calorie options include ice cubes, carrot sticks, green beans, or low calorie commercial dog treats.  Even breaking treats into smaller pieces and only giving a portion of the treat can be effective.  It may be easier to cut down significantly on the amount of treats for cats; cats often will not miss their treats as much, as eating is not a social experience for cats.

It can be quite tempting to give your dog (or cat) table scraps, particularly if they’re looking at you with their best sad face.  Try to remember, by choosing not to feed your dog from the table, you are providing him with better health, fresher breath, and teaching him not to beg.  What may seem like just a little piece to you is the calorie equivalent of a big piece for your medium sized dog and a huge piece for your cat.  Some human foods can be toxic to animals as well including onions and garlic which are often found in different sauces.  You may be giving something toxic to your pet without realizing it, if you get in the habit of letting them eat your left-overs.  Certain human foods are okay for pets in small amounts like the previously mentioned low calorie treat options; these should be given away from the table and not in association with you eating so as to discourage begging behavior.

How much to feed:  Now that you have figured out what to feed, how much should you feed?  The first step is measuring how much food your animal is eating.  If you normally just fill up the bowl, start measuring out how much actually goes into that bowl.  Most bags of dog or cat food have recommendations for feeding based on weight.  These can be a good starting point, but often are too high.  The animals in the studies to determine these are quite active and tend to have higher requirements than your average pet.  Your veterinarian can offer you suggestions on how much your pet should eat.  Dividing this amount into 2-3 small meals will improve your pet’s metabolism and keep them from getting as hungry throughout the day.

Feed treats in moderation and remember that this adds to the daily calorie total.  If you are doing some training exercises and your dog gets more treats that usual, feed him a little less of his regular food to make up for the increase.  Make sure everyone in the family is aware of the amount being fed and goals of the diet.  Dieting animals often will try to beg their way towards an extra meal from an unsuspecting family member.  Our own clinic cats have attempted this on several occasions!

Exercise:  Any successful weight loss plan will include exercise in addition to diet.  Fortunately for you and your pets, exercise for your dog or cat can be quite fun.  Exercise plans will be unique to each animal just like their diet.  Young energetic dogs may enjoy jogging with you or playing fetch, while older dogs may do better with leash walks.  Whenever starting a new exercise, make sure to go gradually and allow your dog to rest if he/she needs to.  Always provide plenty of fresh water and avoid exercising your dog outside in extreme temperatures.  This can be a great bonding experience for you and your dog and can help burn off excess energy that might be used towards getting in trouble.

Motivating a cat to exercise can sometimes be a challenge.  Time outside can be beneficial for cats if you live in an area where this is safe and your cat has been properly vaccinated.  For indoor kitties, there are a variety of cat toys that mimic natural hunting behaviors.  Try different toys to peak your cat’s interest and remember that as your cat loses weight he/she will become more active and interested in playing.  For those stubborn cats not interested in playing, make feeding an activity with toys that dispense food as a cat plays and/or placing their food up high to encourage them to jump.  If you have multiple cats with only one in need of weight loss, you may need to put the thinner cat’s food in a location with less access for your heavier cat.

As you spend time playing with your dog or cat and they begin losing weight and becoming more active, you may discover a whole new way of life with your pet that is more fulfilling and healthy for both of you.  Don’t get discouraged, our veterinary team is here to work with you towards the goal of a long happy, healthy life for your beloved pet.