Dog and Cat Obesity

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Articles by Animal Hospital of Salinas


Obesity: A Big, Fat, Hairy Deal New Pet?


Obesity in DogsObesity in Cats


We should recheck your pet’s weight
every 2-4 weeks until adequate weight loss is accomplished.
If you hit a point where no more weight loss is being attained, but your pet is still overweight please make an appointment to discuss this with a veterinarian.

Obesity is the number one most common nutritional disorder of dogs and cats in the United States. Between 24%-34% of adult dogs and 25%-40% of cats seen by veterinarians are overweight or obese. Many pet owners do not recognize that their pets are overweight. One study found that only 30-40% of owners of dogs, that the veterinarian diagnosed with obesity, thought their pet was overweight. 

Just as in people, obesity can be linked to an increased likelihood of certain medical problems. In dogs these include joint problems, heat intolerance, complications from cardiovascular disease, and compromised immune function. Overweight cats are more likely to become diabetic, get certain liver disorders, and have joint problems. In a variety of studies of many animals, including dogs, calorie restriction and the resulting lean body weight has been proven to extend life span. In one study performed by Purina, the life span of the Labrador Retrievers in the study was an average of 2 years longer if kept at an ideal body weight for their whole lives.

So, what are the causes of obesity in dogs and cats?

  1. Positive Energy Balance: The most common cause, just like with people, is too many calories and not enough exercise. This is very important and we will come back to ways of managing these factors, but there are other things to consider as well.
  2. Genetics: Certain dog breeds (this information has not been established for cat breeds) such as Labs, Shelties, Pugs, Golden Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Miniature Schnauzers, and Dachshunds are more likely to suffer from obesity. This indicates that there is a genetic predisposition to obesity in these breeds.
  3. Medical Conditions: There are certain medical conditions that can cause obesity; most commonly these are hormonal problems such as Hypothyroidism and Cushing’s. (Please ask if you want more information on these conditions.)
  4. Change in life circumstance: There is a natural decrease in growth rate, and therefore, energy needs around 6-12 months of age. Also, as animals age, their total energy needs decrease; a 7 year old dog’s energy needs may decrease by about 20% compared with when that dog was 1 or 2. This means that if he/she was nice and lean eating 4 cups a day at 2 years old, he/she may only have to eat a little over 3 cups to maintain that same weight as a 7 year old. Lastly, spayed and neutered pets have lower energy requirements than intact pets. If these pets continue to be fed at the same amount of calories that they were before they were neutered or aged they will become overweight.
  5. Diet Palatability: It seems like one of the major selling points for pet diets is how much pets like to eat them. In feeding extremely palatable diets pets are encouraged to consume more food. Eating too much of even the healthiest diet will result in weight gain.
  6. Social facilitation: Eating in a group, whether it be a group of dogs, cats, humans or a mixture of these causes an increased intake of food.

First things first: Is your pet currently overweight or are you just trying to maintain a good weight? You may need your veterinarian’s help to determine this. One way of keeping track of pet weight is by Body Condition Score (BCS). An ideal weight on a 9 point BCS is 4-5. Using this scoring method if an animal’s BCS is a 6-6.5 it is about 20-25% overweight. If your pet is a good weight, keep feeding an adult maintenance diet and maintain your regular exercise schedule. Be on the lookout for changes in body weight and adjust diet and exercise accordingly.

What can be done to reduce obesity in dogs and cats? There are certain factors listed above that can’t be changed: genetics, and aging. For the rest there are things that can be done:

  1. Know what your pet is eating. Keep a log, at least for one typical day, of everything that goes in his/her mouth. This includes, meals (measure the amount given), treats, table scraps, and medication. Everybody who gives things to the pet has to contribute. This will help you get an idea of the amount of calories that your pet takes in and it may be that some areas that you could cut back will become evident. Bring this to your veterinarian; it will help him/her formulate a diet plan for your pet.
    • If your pet is mildly overweight you may be able to just reduce the amount of the regular food that is fed. You need to have measured the amount you were feeding before so that you can measure out a smaller amount.
    • If your pet is more significantly overweight a diet formulated for weight loss is the better way to go because it has a increased amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals to compensate for the calorie restriction so the pet does not become deficient in any nutrients. Examples of these include: Purina OM, Purina DM, Science Diet m/d, Science Diet r/d and Eukanuba Restricted Calorie to name a few. One way to figure out how much to feed is to look on the side or back of the bag for what the manufacturer recommends. Sometimes this is a bit of an overestimation, so always start with the low end of the range. Often it helps to feed for what the pet should weigh. Your veterinarian can suggest a diet and help you determine the amount to feed.
    • Treats (table scraps and biscuits) should only be a maximum of 10% of your pet’s caloric intake. One study of adult female dogs found that up to 50% of the calories were supplied as table scraps for some dogs, especially toy breeds. Options here are: 1) if you like to give treats off the table, instead of giving people food put the pet’s dinner bowl up on the table and give the pet dinner while you eat yours. 2) Buy low calorie dog treats or even better instead of dog treats use vegetables such as broccoli or carrots, unsalted, unbuttered popcorn, unsalted pretzels, or plain rice cakes. All of these are usually lower in calories than commercial dog treats.
  2. Feed small meals more often. This may help prevent the pet from begging even though it is being fed less. Make sure to measure carefully. It is important that the overall intake be less than what the pet was previously getting.
  3. Exercise is important. For dogs, more leash walks, trips to the dog park/dog beach, and more games in the backyard increase the amount of calories burned. Cats are a little trickier. Some cats might enjoy leash walks. For the others, splitting their meals into multiple bowls and placing them in several different locations in the house so the cats have to ‘hunt’ for their food. Make them use the stairs as much as possible. Have a scheduled play time with a laser pointer or feather toy for 15 minutes a day. There are battery powered toys available, some of which you don’t even need to be home to use, such as the ‘Panic Mouse.’ At very least, carry them as far away from their favorite sleeping spot and make them walk back.
  4. Instead of feeding meals in bowls, try food dispensing toys. This way the pet gets both exercise and a meal simultaneously. They have such products for both dogs and cats. They tend to be made for dry food only.

You don’t want your pet to lose more than 2% of his/her body weight each week, so it may take many months before your pet attains a healthy weight.  Just as with people slower weight loss results in a higher likelihood that the weight will be kept off.  Weighing your pet every two weeks may be handy to see the results of the diet and to adjust things as necessary. Once your pet has achieved its ideal weight you may switch the diet to an adult maintenance diet. Keep an eye out for increases in weight so you can stop it before it gets out of hand. With patience and perseverance your pet may be able to live a leaner, healthier life.

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