Over half of U.S. cats and dogs are overweight. One-fifth of those are 30 percent or more above normal weight, meaning they are obese.
The main contributors to fat pets are owners who routinely overfeed and under-exercise their dog or cat. These same owners are also unaware of the debilitating and expensive-to-treat health problems brought on by overweight in pets, including:
- Kidney failure
- High blood pressure
- Significantly shortened life span
According to Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. (VPI), in 2010 their clients paid out $25 million in vet bills for obesity-related conditions like asthma, disc disease and ligament ruptures. Another pet health insurer, Petplan USA, considers five of the most common insurance claims they receive as problems stemming specifically from obesity.
“… new efforts are afoot to stem what many vets believe is the single most preventable health crisis facing the country's 171 million-plus dog and cat pets. They include software for doctors to track a pet's "Body Condition Score," a blood test that could quickly determine animals' body-fat percentage, Weight Watchers-type pet diet plans and doggie treadmills.”
Historically, veterinarians have been very hesitant to discuss a pet’s weight problem with owners who are often also overweight, and who will feel guilty when told they are overfeeding their dog or cat.
The Body Condition Score software, which will be mandated at all Banfield’s across the country, will give vets a much-needed opening to talk to owners of heavy pets about the need to get their companion’s weight under control.
Given so many people in the U.S., including children, are overweight or obese, it’s not a big surprise to learn the problem of pet obesity continues to grow. Obesity rates in the U.S. are among the highest in the world. Over 60 percent of adults and a quarter of all children in America are overweight or obese.
Poor lifestyle habits and unhealthy foods marketed as ‘low fat’ or for weight control are to blame for the majority of overweight people and pets.
It’s an especially tragic situation for companion animals because their owners are making choices for them. Our pets are entirely dependent on us for what they eat, how much they eat, and whether they get enough exercise.
Canines and felines in the wild, as well as rabbits, birds, horses and all creatures living outdoors, are not overweight. It is not in the nature of animals to become obese on their own. It takes the misguided ‘help’ of humans to turn naturally fit animals into overweight, debilitated pets.
Is Your Pet Fat?
A lot of pet owners seem confused on this point. As pets grow bigger, it’s becoming more of a challenge for owners to distinguish between a healthy weight and overweight.
If you take your too-heavy pooch to the dog park, for example, and the majority of dogs there are overweight as well, your pet won’t stand out as the chubby kid in the group.
As the WSJ.com article points out:
“… people's idea of what constitutes a fat pet often differs from clinical reality. A study by Pfizer Inc.'s Animal Health business showed that 47% of veterinarians felt their canine patients were obese, while only 17% of dog owners agreed. For instance, a 90-pound female Labrador retriever is roughly equivalent to a 186-pound woman who is 5-foot, 4-inches tall—a human body-mass index that's considered obese, Dr. Ward [of APOP] says. Similarly, he says, a fluffy, domestic short-haired cat weighing 15 pounds is comparable to a 254-pound man who is 5-foot-9. (Recommended weight range is eight to 10 pounds.)”
If you can’t feel your dog’s or cat’s ribs easily, there’s a good chance she’s overweight. When you look at her in profile, you should see a tuck in her abdomen. If her stomach is sagging, she’s overweight. Some cats are so overfed their bellies actually drag the floor.
Stand over your pet and look down at her. She should have a waistline, not a wide, shapeless back. Check here to determine your pet’s body condition score.
For a list of ideal weight ranges for several breeds of dogs and cats, take a look at the guidelines established by APOP.
If you want to find the exact weight of your cat or small-to-medium size dog, you can step on the scale at home to get your own weight, then step back on holding your pet. The difference between the two weights is your pet’s weight.
If your dog is too heavy to lift, you can take him to your vet’s office or almost any vet clinic and walk him onto their large-size veterinary scale.
Pet Food Labels Lack Calorie Information
A significant problem facing all pet owners who feed commercial pet foods is the lack of calorie information and feeding instructions on pet food labels.
According to WSJ.com:
Manufacturers aren't required to list caloric content on labels unless the product bills itself as low calorie, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which says there's now a proposal circulating to change that. Meantime, feeding directions are listed for the "most demanding" life stage for which the product is intended, such as reproduction. Subsequently, "feeding directions can overfeed by 25%," says Dr. [Denise] Elliott of Banfield.
Fortunately, there is legislation in the form of an amendment to the AAFCO Model Regulations in the works which would mandate that certain information be printed on pet food packaging and labels, including:
- Calorie content information
- Feeding directions in language that is clear and easy for pet owners to understand and follow, using common measures like cups or portions of cans vs. ‘kilocalories per gram’
The amendment, if it passes, would be approved no earlier than 2012. Passage of the amendment would be followed by a one to two year grace period for manufacturers to fully comply.
Meantime, you can visit the pet food manufacturer’s website or call their toll-free number to inquire about the calorie content of the food you’re serving your pet.
For detailed information on how to determine what your overweight pet should weigh and how many calories to feed to get those extra pounds off, I recommend this article.
Working with Your Vet to Help Your Pet Lose Weight
The Wall Street Journal article mentions certain tools veterinarians are employing to identify overweight pets, open a discussion with their owners, and get the animals on a weight loss program.
These tools include:
- Software to track your pet’s Body Condition Score
- A blood test that measures body-fat percentage
- Treadmills designed for dogs
- ‘Weight Watchers-type pet diet plans’
I think tools to help measure and track your pet’s weight and physical condition are a great idea, as are doggie treadmills.
There are a few very important reasons I recommend you avoid these weight loss pet diets like the plague:
- Too much fiber. Contrary to manufacturers' marketing claims, making your pet feel temporarily full by stuffing her with fiber is not a good thing.
Too much fiber can block absorption of healthy nutrients into your pet's small intestine. It acts as a mechanical barrier, preventing trace minerals, vitamins and antioxidants from getting to and through the walls of your pet's gastrointestinal tract.
A dog or cat eating too much fiber and too little protein is being deprived at the cellular level where it really counts. The reason many pets on low fat diets seem constantly hungry is not due to a lack of calories, but to a lack of proper nutrition in the cells of their bodies.
- Too high in carbs. Low fat pet foods are high in carbohydrates – there's no getting around it. Carbs are high in calories, and if they aren't burned away, your pet's body stores them as fat.
If you boost your heavy pet's carbohydrate intake and don't boost his activity level significantly to use up those extra calories, what you end up with is an even fatter 'dieting' dog or cat.
- Not enough high-quality protein. Worst of all, what comes out of low-fat pet food to make room for all those extra carbs and fiber is the very protein your carnivorous dog or cat needs for good health. Second only to water, your pet's primary nutritional requirement is protein. The bulk of your dog’s or cat’s diet should be protein and pet food manufacturers know it.
I recommend you add a holistic or integrative vet to your pet’s healthcare team. Your traditional veterinarian (especially if he or she works for Banfield), should be able to provide the measurement tools to determine your pet’s weight and fitness level.
However, a holistically-oriented practitioner should be more knowledgeable about how to feed your pet in a species-specific way that provides optimal nutrition and desired weight loss.
Three Crucial Steps for Pet Weight Loss and Maintenance
- Feed a balanced, species-appropriate diet. If you need to upgrade the type of food you’re currently feeding to your pet, set a goal to gradually improve the quality. Also feed controlled portions – usually a morning and evening meal, carefully measured.
- Factor treats you feed your pet into the daily calorie plan. Keep in mind pre-packaged commercial treats are a primary reason for excess weight in many pets. These snacks are loaded with carbs, sugar and fat and are specifically designed to create intense cravings in your dog or cat.
- Exercise your dog or cat on a consistent basis. He needs to elevate his heart rate for a minimum of 20 minutes several times a week in order to move his body into a fat-burning state. There are lots of ways to keep your dog active even during the long, cold winter months. It’s just as important to get overweight kitties moving.