By Dr. Becker
Did you know the most common type of malnutrition in humans and companion animals in the US is obesity? It’s sad, but true. We overindulge in food ourselves, and do the same with our pets.
Most people think of malnutrition as undernourishment, but here’s the scientific definition:
“Poor nutrition caused by an insufficient, oversufficient, or poorly balanced diet or by a medical condition, such as chronic diarrhea, resulting in inadequate digestion or utilization of foods.”1
In America, people and their pets are suffering not from the underconsumption of food, but overconsumption. And while overeating in humans is self-inflicted, our pets rely on us to nourish them properly. If we under- or overfeed them, or feed a nutritionally unbalanced or inappropriate diet, we create health issues for them.
According to Dr. Kelly Swanson, professor of Animal and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois, the most important player in a pet’s health is his or her owner. And the first step in solving the problem of pet obesity is simply recognizing when an animal is overweight.
“Owners need to actually recognize that their pet is obese, and is not just a funny, pudgy animal that looks cute,” said Swanson. “Lean, healthy pets not only live longer, but more importantly, have a better quality of life.”2
If you're not sure if your pet is too heavy, you can find weight guidelines at Pet Obesity Prevention.
The body condition of dogs and cats is assessed on a scale of 1 to 9, where 1 is emaciated and 9 is obese. A pet at a healthy size will fall in the middle of the range at 4 to 5. If your pet is a normal weight and in good physical shape, you'll be able to feel his ribs, but not see them. You should be able to see your pet's waistline when you look down at him, and notice a tuck in the abdomen when you look at him from the side.
Why Your Pet Is Fat… and Why It’s Up to You to Fix the Problem
Overweight and obesity in pets is both a standalone disease and the root cause of many other disorders that develop when an animal is carrying around too much weight. It’s important that pet owners understand the consequences of letting their dog or cat get fat.
Overweight pets run a significantly higher risk of developing serious debilitating diseases including arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, hypothyroidism, respiratory problems, and kidney disease. Any one of these can result in a significant reduction in both the quantity and quality of your pet’s life.
Dr. Ernie Ward of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) considers a major contributing factor to be commercial pet food and treats.
“Pet obesity is plainly a people problem, not a pet problem,” says Dr. Ward. “The most important decision pet owners make each day regarding their pet's health is what they choose to feed it."3
Raw Diets: The Answer for Fat Pets?
Traditional weight loss strategies for pets involve feeding diets high in fiber, based on the notion that increased fiber intake results in decreased food consumption. This strategy may make sense for certain species, but not dogs and cats, who are carnivores. High fiber foods are biologically inappropriate for carnivores designed to eat a meat-based diet.
The traditional veterinary community typically overlooks feeding strategies for overweight pets that involve the nature of the food itself. Dr. Katherine Kerr of the University of Florida, whose focus is the eating patterns and nutritional health of African wildcats, believes raw and whole prey diets may provide an alternative to processed pet food.
“While observing feeding behaviors, we soon recognized that felines aren’t physiologically made to chew,” said Kerr. “When feeding whole prey, they basically just crush the skull and swallow it whole.”
Kerr believes the diets of wild cats, which include the skin, hair, and bones of their prey, plus other plant and animal fibers, are beneficial to the cats’ energy, metabolism, and gut bacteria. She believes meat-based and whole prey diets in pet dogs and cats could produce similar results. I agree.
Further, Kerr says that these types of natural diets don’t receive the respect or research funding they deserve, and believes they can play a crucial role in maintaining the health of pets while also mitigating disease, allergic conditions, and obesity.
Another Option for Fat Pets: Calorie Restricted Diets
Another approach to keeping pets at a healthy weight and/or slimming down an overweight pet is the calorie-restricted diet.
A calorie restricted diet (CRD) is typically a diet reduced to 70 or 75 percent of normal daily caloric intake.
For example, if you have a 15-pound kitty whose normal daily calorie count is 220, you could reduce that amount by 25 to 30 percent and feed only 154 to 165 calories per day. You feed the same food, just less of it.
Long-term calorie restriction has been shown to have beneficial effects on free radicals, which decreases oxidative stress. It is the inflammation resulting from oxidative stress that is thought to be the primary cause of age-related degenerative disease.
In studies done with rats, mice, rhesus monkeys, and humans, a CRD has been shown to decrease or reverse:
Arthritis High blood pressure and heart disease Inflammatory skin conditions Kidney disease Cognitive decline Liver disease Type II diabetes Cancer risk
Research shows animals on calorie-restricted diets have less degenerative disease, improved overall health, and longer lifespans.
In a study of 48 Labrador retrievers from 8 weeks of age until death, 24 dogs were fed a 25 percent CRD and 24 control dogs were not. The results:
“Compared with control dogs, food-restricted dogs weighed less, had lower body fat content and lower serum triglycerides, triiodothyronine, insulin, and glucose concentrations. Median life span was significantly longer for dogs in which food was restricted. The onset of clinical signs of chronic disease generally was delayed for food-restricted dogs.”4
The dogs also had a lower rate and severity of osteoarthritis in joints and lived an average of 2 years longer than the control dogs.
I recommend that you consult with your holistic veterinarian before transitioning your pet to a calorie-restricted diet. The optimal “diet food” for your overweight pet is a nutritionally balanced fresh food diet that nourishes your pet for her ideal body weight (that means “calorie restricted” when your pet is fat). Once your pet reaches her ideal weight it’s important to keep her lean for the rest of her life.