Overweight pets - how to know and what to do about it
Obesity and overweight pets is a big problem these days just as it is in humans. Lots of owners ask, “How do I know if my pet is overweight?”, and, “How can I get my pet to lose weight?” In fact the answer to both these questions could be easier than you thought. Some people might even wonder if it matters. In fact it absolutely does matter and most vets view it as an illness like any other. Being overweight shortens your pet’s life so if you want to make the most of as many years as possible with them, staying on top of their weight is a great way to start.
As with most things in life, prevention is better than cure. Whether you have a pet from a young age or adopt an older animal it’s really useful to think about their weight from day one. When your puppy or kitten is growing, tracking their weight can tell you if everything is OK and regular weight checks for adult dogs and cats let you pick up early on whether they are gaining weight. Although being overweight or obese can be caused by an underlying disease such as a thyroid problem or Cushing's disease, the vast majority of pets are obese because they eat too much and exercise too little. Monthly weight checks throughout life are a good guideline.
It’s not just weight that’s important but your pet’s body condition score (BCS) and body fat index (BFI). These are scales that can be used to estimate the proportions of muscle and fat in your pets. There are scales for dog BCS and BFI and cat BCS and BFI too. Your vet can show you how to assess your own pet. Getting used to what is normal is very important. Too many people these days think that slim pets are underweight and fat pets are normal. This is a cultural shift we need to undo.
What if my pet is overweight?
With the best will in the world sometimes pets get a bit chubby and gradual changes can be difficult to spot. You may find yourself in the situation where someone has noticed the kilos piling on. Obesity leads to joint problems, diabetes, poor skin condition and many other issues in pets so it does need to be tackled and it’s something that lots of owners dread. The great news is that you are in complete control of what your pet eats and does, so you are in the driving seat! Here are some top tips to help you shift those extra kilos.
- Calories in. Just as with humans the biggest cause of weight gain is more calories going in than are being burned. To a pet the smallest treats or excess rations could be the equivalent of you eating a burger extra every day. Don’t just reduce your pet’s ration without talking to a vet. This can lead to underfeeding of protein, vitamins and minerals. It’s much better to switch to a diet designed to help weight loss. They help your pet feel fuller and are balanced for healthy weight loss. Some weight-loss foods change the metabolism of obese and overweight animals back from fat-storing to fat-burning, helping to avoid weight gain in the future.
- Split their ration. Splitting your pet’s daily allowance helps them not to feel hungry for long periods and avoids begging and stealing. Dogs can benefit from four small meals a day and cats can have up to 8 if you can manage it. Cats evolved to eat lots of small meals. Timer feeders are fantastic for helping do this if you are at work.
- Move their food. This may sound silly but for lazy cats even putting several bowls around the house with the ration split between them means they have to at least move a bit to get food. Puzzle feeders are also great for slowing down greedy cats and dogs.
- Calories out. The more you can increase your pet’s exercise within reason the better. This may be difficult if they’re older but talk to your vet about how to help their mobility if it’s an issue. Play and exercise are great for weight loss but also the stimulation is good for your pet and makes your bond and friendship even stronger.
As a vet I’ve seen the massive difference in quality of life that weight loss can make to an animal. As a human I’ve also had to lose weight and seen first hand how much better I felt afterwards. Above all, don’t feel guilty. The benefits your animal will have from losing weight or staying slim will far outweigh the fleeting gratification of a treat.
Dr Emma Milne qualified as a vet in 1996. She worked in small animal practice for 12 years and as a clinical nutrition advisor for seven years. She is well known for her animal welfare work and has written ten books on pet animals.
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