Since we haven’t met before, let me take a second to introduce myself. My name is Kelly and I work as a veterinary assistant at MetroPet Animal Hospital in Minneapolis. Nice to meet you! There. Now we know one another. And now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to take a moment to talk to you about a problem I can almost guarantee you affects your pet: Obesity. I know, right? Maybe you’re thinking that your little snuggle muffin isn’t fat – just chubby, tubby, a little bit rotund! Hey, I know how it goes. I’ve definitely given in to my pet’s pleading eyes and heart-breaking whimpers where treats are concerned. I’ve given a little extra portion with meals because I just want to spoil my fur babies a bit. I love them, and I want to show them I love them! Unfortunately, all these extra treats and adding “just another small handful of food” to our pets’ food bowls is doing them a huge disservice. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, an estimated 60% of cats and 56% of dogs in the US are overweight or obese. “Okay, so, that’s probably bad, right?” Yep. It’s bad; maybe worse than you think. Like people, pets experience increased health risks from being overweight. The most common obesity-related health conditions for your furry companion include arthritis, liver disease, kidney disease, diabetes, urinary tract disease, certain types of cancer, and heart failure. And, incidentally, the cost of treating these issues is not cheap. It’s a much better idea to take a proactive approach to managing your pet’s weight and overall health.
A question I hear a lot at the clinic is, “What should my pet weigh?” Well, there really is no good answer to that question because in veterinary medicine we grade animals using a Body Condition Score (BCS) as opposed to measuring their Body Mass Index (BMI). The scales for a BCS will usually range from 1 – 5 or 1 – 9, with a healthy weight being somewhere in the middle of the two extremes on either end. To determine BCS we look at an animal’s silhouette from above and from the side, as well as feeling along their body. In an animal who’s at a healthy weight, you will be able to see something of an hourglass figure when looking at them from above, and from the side you should be able to see their abdomen slope slightly upward so that it appears “tucked up” behind their ribcage. You will also be able to feel each rib just under a thin layer of fat. An animal’s ribs should never be too prominent though – if they appear to be jutting out then the animal is underweight and may need veterinary attention to avoid gaining weight too quickly, as rapid weight gain could cause organ failure. Conversely, if you can just barely feel the ribs or you only see a slight dip in at the waist when looking at an animal from above it’s likely they are overweight. Check out the chart above for a visual reference.
By now I imagine you have a pretty good idea of what your pet’s BCS might be. If they’re underweight or very thin, you’ll need to make an appointment with your veterinarian – there may be a reason not related to food that is causing them to be so thin and that’s something that should only be determined by a licensed veterinarian. Avoid Dr. Google! If they’re at a healthy weight, good. Great! Mazel tov!!! Keep it up. If, however, your pet is like most pets in the US, then the first paragraph of this article should be motivating you to help your pet attain a healthy weight. A great way to help your pet obtain their healthiest body condition is to have a talk with your veterinarian. They can make appropriate dietary and lifestyle recommendations and help you to keep your pet at optimal health. But there are some simple changes you can make at home too!
FEED MEASURED PORTIONS AT DESIGNATED TIMES
A lot of people, my former self included, keep their pet’s bowl full at all times or feed their pet using a gravity feeder. For a very select few animals this actually works just fine, but for the majority of pets it plays a major role in making and keeping them overweight. Instead of filling your pet’s bowl to the brim once a day, try divvying their feedings up into two or more times a day. You’ll also need to figure out what your pet’s approximate caloric needs are so you know how much to feed them at each meal. The best way to figure this out is to talk to your veterinarian, as he or she can help you to determine a calorie range while taking into account things like age, activity level, etc. Below are some rough guidelines provided by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention:
- 10 lbs: 180 to 200 calories – for most cats this is no more than 1/2 cup per day!
- 10 lbs: 200 to 275 calories
- 20 lbs: 325 to 400 calories
- 50 lbs: 700 to 900 calories
- 70 lbs: 900 to 1050 calories
- 90 lbs: 1100 to 1350 calories
Once you figure out how many calories your pet needs each day you can measure out how much of their food to serve them in each meal. For example, my two boys need approximately 220 calories a day to maintain their weight. I’ve taken into account that they get a decent amount of activity each day, but they’re also a little older and neutered (which affects their metabolism). Because I feed them three times a day, I make sure they get approximately 75 calories in each meal. The calories in a cup or can of food are almost always listed on the bag or can label, and if they’re not you can always write or email the company to inquire. Bear in mind that the feeding guidelines listed on the bag or can are almost always wrong, so you should use your vet’s recommendation or your own calculations when determining their portions. And be sure you’re using a measuring cup to portion their food for each meal. If your pet eats dry kibble they may benefit from having their meals placed in a food ball or a puzzle maze, which are designed to help pets slow down when eating.
Oh, and don’t forget that treats count towards that total daily caloric intake. A mini-sized Milk-Bone has seven calories, whereas a small Milk-Bone has 20 calories, but a large one has 125! If you’re looking for low-calorie treat options, try using baby carrots or green beans, or even break up their current favorite snacks into smaller bits to dole out over longer intervals of time. You can also use bits of your pet’s food as a treat too if they’re on a prescription diet or they just don’t do treats. It also imperative that you avoid giving table scraps to your pet when trying to help them lose weight.
MAKE TIME FOR PHYSICAL ACTIVITY EVERY DAY
Getting daily physical activity is a must for every pet! Not only does it help keep your pet at a healthy weight, it also provides much-needed mental stimulation. Dogs AND cats both need you to set aside some time every day to play with them. Going for walks, playing in the yard, setting up indoor mazes or puzzle toys for your animals are all great ways to keep them physically and mentally active, which contributes to their longevity and overall wellbeing. It doesn’t hurt to experiment around to find the activity that’s best for you and your pet. If you’re a dog parent, look for local agility classes or flyball groups. Take your dog hiking or check out a new park. Investigate a new walk route or a nearby lake. If you’re a cat parent then you know that cats can be a little more difficult to engage in activities beyond eating and sleeping. Some cats make their own fun, and this is always helpful. But most cats enjoy whacking common household items around, especially on a smooth surface. One of my cats loves playing fetch. I do recommend that you avoid playing with hair ties or rubber bands however, as these can easily be swallowed accidentally and cause a life-threatening emergency. But other things around the house make perfect toys! I once made a toy for my cats just by putting bottle caps inside an empty tissue box and they loved it. Some cats like wand toys, others like catnip toys. Some cats enjoy toy mice, whereas others prefer small crinkly balls. There are literally thousands of different types of toys for cats, and finding the ones your cat enjoys best can be a really laugh-inducing experience. It’s also a good idea to rotate your pet’s available toys so they don’t get bored with them. I keep a stash of toys on a shelf for my cats, and I dole out new toys in place of ones they’ve had out for a while once they start playing with them less and less. I rotate the old toys back in once the new ones get boring to them, and they react like it’s a whole new toy!
I have to say, helping my cats to get down to a healthy weight was like getting young cats all over again. They’re both approaching kitty seniority, but they’re more playful, energetic, and engaging than they were just a year ago. I promise you, helping your overweight or obese pet to lose weight is so very, very worth it! If you’re interested in learning more about companion animal obesity, I recommend checking out the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention’s website at petobesityprevention.org or talking to your veterinarian.