Obesity in Dogs and Cats

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Obesity in dogs and cats is one of the most common problems seen by veterinarians today. Overweight companion animals are at a higher risk for a number of health problems including diabetes, joint stiffness and arthritis, non-allergenic skin disorders, lower urinary tract issues, fatty liver disease (hepatic lipidosis) and shortened life span. In other words; you may be killing your companion with "kindness."

How to tell if your dog or cat is overweight:

1) Feel their ribs. You should be able to feel each individual rib with a slight layer of fat over them. If you have to work at feeling those ribs or can’t feel them at all, it's time for a weight-loss plan. If you can see the ribs, your companion may too thin.

2) Feel the area over the base of your dog or cat's tail. A slight layer of fat over the bones is good. If the bones are prominent, the animal is too thin.
If the bones are hard to find, the animal is overweight.

3) Feel other bony areas such as the spine, shoulders and hips. Again, a slight layer of fat is what we are looking for.
If they are visible, the animal may be too thin. If there is extra padding, then your companion is overweight.

4) Look at your companion from above. You should see a waist behind the rib cage of a cat or dog in appropriate condition.

5) Finally, look at your companion from the side. The waist should again be visible–a "tuck" behind the rib cage area. If the animal's waist is the same as his chest, he is definitely overweight.
This side view will vary from breed to breed with greyhounds and similarly built dogs looking thin compared to others as they have rather deep chests and smaller waists.

If your veterinarian has ruled out any health conditions that are causing your friend's extra weight gain, then a weight management program is in order.
Crash diets are not healthy, however. Aim for a gradual weight loss of .5 - 2% of body weight per week. If you can, weigh your pet weekly. Weight loss and control consist of:

    - Proper diet (lower carbohydrates)

    - Proper portions

    - Meals rather than "free choice"

    - Exercise

    - Quantity and quality of treats

What to Feed

Weight loss programs for animals are the same as those for people–eat less and exercise more. Specially formulated weight loss diets are not generally necessary. High quality nutrition is the best way to help your friend lose her extra pounds.

Most kibbles are high in carbohydrates, which can contribute to weight gain, especially in cats. Cats do not product as much of the enzyme, amylase, that digests carbohydrates as people and dogs do, so grains and other carbohydrates are more difficult for cats to break down and digest properly. Cats need meat as the main portion of their diet.

(See here in Pet's food recipes What You Need to Know About Your Pet's Food for additional information on appropriate diets and home-made food recipes). Many overweight animals slim down nicely when transitioned to a raw food diet, but even a high quality kibble is fine as long as you feed the appropriate quantity.

The newer grain-free diets may be appropriate, but keep in mind that you will need to feed less of this type of food. If you know you will not be able to reduce the amount of food you are giving your companion without feeling overwhelming guilt, then try a food formulated for weight control.

Adding digestive enzymes to each meal can help break down the food and make the nutrients more available for absorption.

How Much to Feed

Pet food labels are not the best way to determine the proper amount to feed your companion. The recommended portions on pet food labels are a very rough guideline and are based on the manufacturer’s estimate of what an "average" cat or dog may be. Each animal is an individual and will have different activity levels and metabolism than others–even in the same household. In our house we have a 75 pound lab mix and a 56 pound border collie mix–with a 20 pound difference in size they still eat exactly the same portion at every meal. The border collie mix is much more active and spends most of the day outside whereas the lab mix likes the sofa. They also need less food in the winter than in the summer when they are more active.

Cats and small dogs need very small portions–sometimes less than an ounce per meal. It may look like hardly any food to you, but it will be plenty to meet your companion's needs. If you are monitoring his weight regularly you will notice if he is losing too much too fast and can adjust the amount you feed slightly.

Meal Schedule

Leaving food available "free-choice" contributes to obesity and also a number of other health problems. It is a myth that dogs and cats will regulate their own weight if food is left out. Some may, others will not, but they will all suffer from an over-stimulated digestive system and stressed immune system over time. Cats and dogs are hunters–they eat and then rest. They do not snack. If your companion is used to eating at will, cut back to 3 or 4 small meals a day, and then down to 2. Two meals a day is fine for adult animals. (Puppies and kittens should be fed at least 3 times a day during their greatest growth period in the first 4 to 6 months).

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