Fat Cats & Portly Pooches

by Teresa Garden, DVM

The holidays have come and gone. Left in their wake are a few extra pounds we carry as a reminder of our merriment. Our pets may not be as vulnerable to seasonal weight gain, but obesity is now an extremely prevalent and important disease afflicting our furry friends. Dogs and cats are considered to be overweight if their weight is 10% greater than optimal. Obesity is defined as being more than 20% over optimal weight. Unfortunately, this disease is now at an epidemic level: 25-50% of dogs and cats are obese; 50% of middle-aged pets are obese.

Obesity is a form a malnutrition that significantly impairs health. Our pets will have an increased risk to the following conditions and diseases if they are obese: shortened life span, exercise intolerance, cystitis, diabetes, cancer, tracheal collapse (dogs), laryngeal paralysis (dogs), hepatic lipidosis (cats), hypothyroidism (dogs), Cushing’s disease, hyperlipidemia, heat intolerance, arthritis, disc disease, cruciate ligament tear or rupture, constipation (cats), heart disease (dogs), dermatitis, hypertension (dogs), and anesthetic/surgical complications. Obesity is a multifactorial problem with many influences: age, gender, reproductive status, genetics, exercise, type of diet, caloric intake, frequency of meals, lifestyle. Once pets are spayed or neutered they require 30% less calories to maintain lean body weight. Indoor dogs and cats tend to be sedentary and need less calories. As our pets age their metabolism decreases so they require less calories. A huge problem is most feeding guides on dogfood or catfood labels are based on the caloric needs of intact, 1 year old pets getting a high degree of exercise. This definition of “daily calories needed” or “cups to feed” does not fit 99% of our pets! So just blindly following these feeding guides are a sure pathway to having a fat pet! Feeding typical commercial foods high in grains and carbohydrates will also increase the incidence of obesity. Dogs and cats were meant to eat foods higher in protein and fat and lower in carbs to maintain a healthy body weight. Genetics play a role in increasing risk to obesity in the following breeds of dogs: Beagles, Basset Hounds, Labs, Cairn Terriers, Cocker Spaniels, Dachshunds, and Golden Retrievers.

Diagnosing obesity is easy. Treating it is hard. Looking at the pet and doing a good physical exam will provide the diagnosis. All pets should have a waist and tucked up abdomen. You should be able to feel each of the ribs. If the pet is obese, then measuring the girth around the middle of the abdomen, as well as weighing the pet, will give you and your veterinarian a starting point in a weight loss program. Before and after photos are a great motivating tool as well. Have your vet run blood tests to make sure your pet is healthy before starting any diet. Blood tests will determine if your pet has an underlying condition associated with obesity such as hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease, or diabetes. It is important to work carefully with your veterinarian to decide what food and how much to feed in order to safely and effectively help your pet lose weight. Each pet is an individual with particular needs and challenges.

The following are general guidelines that can be employed to help most of our obese patients. The first step in a weight loss program is to stop ad lib feeding and start meal feeding. Dogs should be fed 2 meals daily. Cats may need 2-4 small meals daily. With meal feeding, you will know the amounts being fed and consumed. Treats and snacks should compose less than 5% of calories per day. The goal of a weight loss program is to lose 1-2 % of body weight per week or 4-8% per month. Your veterinarian can help determine what your pet’s ideal weight should be. In general, a weight loss diet should be high in protein, low in calories and carbohydrates, and be nutrient dense to help pets lose fat, maintain muscle mass, and meet the body’s demands. Prescription diets are safer and more effective in doing this rather than over-the-counter “lite” or “low-cal” foods. Royal Canin’s Calorie Control High Protein prescription diet has helped many of our obese patients lose weight. For some of our patients a homemade diet may help. There are weight loss diets in Dr. Richard Pitcairn’s book, Natural Health for Dogs & Cats, that are safe, balanced, tasty and effective. Some of our patients will benefit from eating raw diets or natural grain-free foods since they, too, are high in protein and low in carbohydrates. Canned foods will almost always be lower in carbohydrates than their dry food counter-parts.

Increasing exercise is an equally important part of a successful weight loss program. For dogs we advise increasing walks in frequency and duration as their health status improves. Try to play fetch more often or perhaps consider visits to dog parks or doggie day-care facilities to increase their opportunity for exercise. Kitty condos , food puzzles, food balls, laser lights, feather poles, and other cat toys should be employed to increase activity of obese kitties. For multiple-cat households, feed thinner cats in places obese cats cannot access such as high locations or behind closed doors. Multiple-cat households may find “Kitty Cafes” to be suitable for feeding thinner cats while barring access to obese cats.

Pets on a diet should be monitored monthly for weight loss. It may take 12-18 months for ideal body weight to be met. The ration may be decreased by 10-15% if weight loss is not occurring at the proper rate. Once their target body weight has been reached the food intake should be adjusted to maintain that weight. Patience and commitment on the part of the pet owner is very important for success. Lifestyle changes such as portion control and plenty of exercise will need to be permanent for healthy changes to be maintained. Dedication to a weight loss program will not only reward your pet with a new physique, but a longer and increased quality of life as well.

Dr. Teresa Garden is chief veterinarian /owner of Animal Health & Healing, a full-service holistic and conventional veterinary practice in the Maplewood/Richmond Heights area. 314-781-1738. AnimalHealthandHealing.com.

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