I would be completely failing in this health series if I didn’t start with what is probably the #1 health threat to our pets. We are feeding our pets into sickness! The results and stress that obesity puts on their bodies mirrors the effects obesity has on humans. Just a few things it can cause are diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, some cancers, and the stress that extra weight puts on bones and joints (just devastating on those larger breed dogs).
I know we love our pets – but that also causes many excuses. How many times over the past 20 years have I heard “She is just big-boned”, “I can’t resist that face”, “I feed him according to directions”. Of course Garfield didn’t help us with his “I’m not fat…I’m fluffy”!
Problem is – most pet owners don’t understand what “overweight” or “obesity” is in their pets. At the base level an overweight pet is 20% or more over healthy body weight. But what does that look like? Weight ranges vary widely among even the same breed. The best way to tell is by assessing your pet’s Body Condition. Your veterinarian would be a great resource for evaluation but here is a great visual from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention www.petobesityprevention.com
As an additional point – we can’t overlook that some diseases such as hypothyroidism and Cushings Disease can cause obesity. Get a rule out on those by your veterinarian before revamping your pet’s health with diet and exercise.
So – how do we reverse this “normalization” of pet obesity? We get a huge psychological reward when we give our pets those extra treats to make them happy (or us) don’t we? We could stretch out on the leather chaise and delve into our underlying need for acceptance and love with the shrink…but we have to focus on what we CAN do right now.
- No one would challenge that spay/neuter is the best for our 4-legged kids – for both behavior and health reasons. BUT – after a spay/neuter your pet has a 20-30% decrease in the number of calories (energy) they need to maintain a healthy weight
- Pet food bags WAY overestimate the needs of your pet (not that there is no chart for spay/neuter reduction needs). How many of you use the pet food bag as a guideline?
- Our busy lives have generally left us with little time to ensure appropriate activity levels for our pets
- And TREATS! Holy cow – how many varieties do we need? Of course with true manufacturer genius they are way oversized and are loaded with chemicals, dyes, and unnecessary calories.
This one is 2-part…diet and exercise. What – am I going to ride the same horse we hear about on human obesity? Yep. It is one word – choice. The thing is – we can make our own choices to be healthy or not by what we put in our mouths and how much we move. Our pets don’t have that choice. They are dependent on us to make the best decisions for them. We choose their food. We choose how much. We choose treats. We choose their activity level.
So – first we will tackle diet (Do It Every Time). My first thought is that there are way too many choices. Commercial, prescription, boutique, raw, freeze-dried – just go into the local pet store and you will see what drives a large portion of the 50+ billion dollar pet industry. Most of them are packaged like my childhood Twinkies with their smiling characters and bright colors. Of course our pets aren’t the ones that fall for their marketing gimmicks, are they?
I won’t go over the pros and cons of the different forms and varieties of pet food and treats – I’m exhausted just thinking about that. Not to mention the subject of recalls. That is definitely another blog. Discuss food choice with your veterinarian. Research for yourself what you are providing for your pets. Research. Research. Research.
Make sure you are on the correct food for your pet’s age and state of health Growing puppies and kittens have a higher energy requirement as to active pets. There is a reason for puppy vs adult vs senior. There are some therapeutic diets from your veterinarian if you pet has health issues. These diets have carefully balanced nutrient levels to address your pets specific needs.
Smaller meals more frequently I am stunned when a pet owner says they feed their dog once a day. Seriously – that is like holding off eating each day until dinner. Besides being tempted to gnaw my arm off it would wreak havoc on my metabolism. Why do you think your pet’s fat storage and metabolism would differ so greatly from ours? Calculate the (reasonable) amount of food your pet needs in a day and split it up into smaller meals. Got a long work schedule? Evenly split into three meals. Breakfast dinner and snack about an hour before bedtime. Got a DOG WALKER (shameless plug #1). Perfect! Split it into a lunch also.
Actually measure what you are giving Is your “cup” actually a “cup” by dry goods measure? I always have to clarify feeding instructions with a pet owner. Is that a cup by measurement standards…or is it a “cup” by the standards of the latest plastic cup you got from a promotion? That cup could be way more than you think. And does your cup overfloweth? That could add another 20-25% to your pet’s intake over the course of the day.
Add some extra low-cal filler If your pet acts like they are starving all the time (and don’t just assume that because you have pre-conditioned them to dance at the pantry for a treat means that they are starving) then you can talk to your veterinarian about adding a measured amount of green beans to fill them up. Pay attention to the amount of salt in your green beans. Low salt or no salt is the best.
“But Bailey is used to getting a treat when he comes inside….” And that would be how conditioning works, people! Replace the pattern of treating you have established with affection or a piece of their kibble (regular food) and they will learn another pattern. If you decide to use a different item for a treat then break it into tiny nibbles.
Make mealtime a game This can be loads of fun for both you and your pet an stimulate their brain. There are many varieties of puzzles out there to stimulate their brain function while they get their meal. With cats you can split their meal up and hide it in different areas for them to find. Get them active by climbing on their cat condo for a nibble or leaping to their favorite napping spot for another nibble. You can hide your dog’s food in several areas of the house or in little “jackpots” in the yard for them to sniff out and nibble…this is also great for dogs that tend to inhale their food too quickly.
So on to the second of the 1 – 2 – punch. Exercise. Our pets have become as sedentary as most of the human population. We work a hard day and come home to let our pet out to pee in the yard before we eat dinner and plop in front of the TV.
Fences…including UNDERGROUND DOG FENCES (shameless plug #2…yes we do that too) have become our dog’s babysitter. Unless you have two very active dogs that play until they wear themselves out they aren’t getting the exercise they need out in that yard. Dogs that fence line run? Yep..they sure are getting exercise…but what you are seeing is fixation or boredom behavior. They are telling you that they need more from you and their environment to be well-balanced. Make it a point to spend a minimum of 30 min outside with your dog in your fenced area. Play ball. Throw a Frisbee. Have your kids get them excited and running around (good for your kids too!). If it is extreme summer weather limit the hard running…dogs can fall to heat exhaustion quickly..especially those dark or long-coated dogs.
Go for a walk…good for both of you! This is great to increase their activity level and keep their muscles and joints in prime condition. With overweight dogs you need to start slowly. Pay attention to their response and adjust if they seem to be struggling. Gradually increase the length of time and distance as their bodies adjust. Walks are additionally great for a change of environment to stimulate them. Don’t make the walk just an opportunity for your dog to walk 5 steps and stop to sniff something. If you allow them to veer off you are letting them walk you…you are the one walking them. For it to be an exercise activity they need to keep moving. Let them get their pee on before you get started and have a plan of distance or time that you want them to keep a steady walk before YOU give them permission to sniff. Have a dog that is just ridiculous on a walk or reactive? We totally recommend a private dog trainer. Many times it is just pinpointing the trigger for the reactivity and developing a plan for elimination. We have an excellent local dog trainer in St. Louis if you are having those exact issues. No fun to take you dog for a walk if you risk shoulder dislocation each time.
If you are limited on time to exercise your dog or are unable to then it is a great idea to hire a DOG WALKER (shameless plug #3). A Professional Dog Walker can provide an optimal amount of daily exercise for your pet. Make sure there is a plan between you and your dog walker to make sure that the activity goals are met each day.
Cats have many fun options for exercise. Sometimes it is just an empty box and you have them hopping in and out or a paper wad that they bat along the floor for exercise. Make a point every day to stimulate them to get them moving. There are some great toys out there like the cat dancers, motorized toys, and my favorite lasers. Of course my Callie will chase any reflection up the walls but not all cats are that easily entertained.