Avoid This ‘Patented Food System’ if You Love Your Pet, It’s a Trap

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

intermittent fasting for pets

Story at-a-glance -

  • Well over half of all dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese; if yours is one of them, with the new year underway, it’s a good time to commit to getting your pet back in shape
  • Since processed pet food has contributed to the pet obesity epidemic, it’s best to avoid it as a solution to your dog’s or cat’s weight problem
  • Intermittent (therapeutic) fasting can be a great tool for weight loss in an otherwise healthy dog; however, neither cats nor dogs in certain categories can be safely fasted
  • Intermittent fasting can also provide many other health benefits for dogs
  • Overweight and obese cats can lose weight eating species-appropriate food in the right amounts; both dogs and cats also need plenty of exercise to lose weight and maintain good physical conditioning

Since many of you reading here today are pet parents of an overweight or obese cat or dog, and since we’ve just entered a fresh new year full of possibilities, it seems like a good time to talk about getting your furry family member back to a healthy size and improving his or her overall well-being.

According to the founder of the Association for the Prevention of Pet Obesity (APOP), Dr. Ernie Ward, more pets today are being diagnosed as obese rather than “just” overweight.1 And the heavier a pet is, the higher the risk for obesity-related conditions such as arthritis, high blood pressure, kidney disease and certain forms of cancer.

Many of these diseases can take years off pets’ lives and destroy the quality of daily life. The financial cost can be devastating, too. Estimates are that pet parents spend tens of millions of dollars to treat their animals for obesity-related conditions, when simply feeding better food and less of it would have prevented the problem in the first place.

How NOT to Help Your Pet Lose Weight

Processed pet food manufacturers, which have played a starring role in helping to create the current epidemic of fat pets, are hard at work trying to figure out how to address the problem while adding to their bottom line. One example from a pet food industry journal:

“Nestlé Purina PetCare started research several years ago in cats on what it calls — and has since patented — intermittent calorie restriction (ICR). That has resulted in a new line of foods for dogs and cats under the Pro Plan brand called Simply Fit.”2

These new formulas are based on intermittent fasting studies on humans. Intermittent fasting obviously involves eating less food, but feeding pets less food wouldn’t serve Purina’s bottom line.

What the company came up with instead is, I confess, pure genius: a weight loss system that requires pet owners to buy two formulas together — one with a base calorie amount, and the other with 25 percent fewer calories per serving — to be fed on an alternating schedule.

Purina claims its “patented weight loss system” solves two problems: 1) pets on diets don’t feel deprived, and 2) pet parents don’t feel guilty for not overindulging their dog or cat. In reality, pets fed these formulas are eating the same low-quality food that helped make them fat to begin with.

My advice, as always, is to avoid any weight loss “solution” that involves a processed diet. True intermittent or therapeutic fasting (not Purina’s co-opted version) is a great approach for both weight loss and improved overall health in dogs (but not cats — more about that later).

In fact, with a few notable exceptions (growing puppies, lactating females, senior and geriatric dogs, dogs with health conditions for which fasting is contraindicated, and small toy breeds prone to hypoglycemia), I believe fasting is the cheapest, most underutilized strategy not only for weight loss, but also for improving health, wellness and longevity in dogs.

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The Myriad Benefits of Fasting

Intentional intermittent fasting involves sufficient nutrient intake on non-fasting days to maintain vital tissues, organs and muscle, along with liver enzyme co-factors to help with fat breakdown and the release of toxins.

Fasting triggers a dog’s body to metabolize fat. Waste products stored in fat are released. This waste not only includes breakdown products of natural substances the liver couldn't process, but also toxins absorbed from the environment, for example, chemical pest repellents. Robert Mueller, co-developer of BARF brand diets and an advocate of fasting lists several other benefits, including:3

  • “Elevating macrophage activity, which will engulf and destroy bacteria, viruses, and other foreign material.
  • Allowing the digestive system to relax and let the body focus on other important bodily functions.
  • Allowing the body to regenerate briefly. ‘It is amazing to watch a complete reversal of digestive symptoms such as upset stomach and diarrhea, as well as allergy relief.’”

The same health benefits that occur in people who therapeutically fast also occur in dogs who are fasted. One of the most notable, system-wide benefits is a reduction in the amount of insulin, a pro-inflammatory hormone that circulates in the body. This not only reduces systemic inflammation, but also helps to maintain insulin sensitivity.

We know now that dogs enter into the profoundly health-enhancing metabolic state of nutritional ketosis when fasting is implemented and preliminary research demonstrates that the same immunologic and metabolic improvements seen in calorie-restricted humans are most likely happening in canines as well.4

Giving the body a break from constantly digesting and processing food not only restricts calories, which is linked to long-term health benefits,5 it improves mitochondrial function6 and allows organs a chance to repair and restore function, and it sparks a process called autophagy, which allows the body to recycle and clean up cellular debris and waste that builds up over time.

Approaches to Fasting Your Dog

There is more than one way to fast a healthy dog, but for purposes of weight loss, the first thing you must do is calculate how many calories to feed each day. Let's say your Golden Retriever is 80 pounds and should be 65 pounds:

Daily calories = Body weight (kg) x 30 + 70

First, convert your dog’s weight from pounds to kilograms. One kilogram = 2.2 pounds, so divide her ideal weight (not her current weight) in pounds by 2.2. 65/2.2 means your dog's ideal weight in kilograms is 29.5. Now the formula looks like this:

Daily calories = 29.5 (kg) x 30 + 70

And finally, it looks like this:

Daily calories = 955

If your dog eats 955 calories a day she should drop steadily to her ideal weight of 65 pounds and maintain it. Intermittent fasting for this dog could involve, for example, feeding two regular meals within a 6- to 8-hour period for a total of 955 calories. You might feed the first meal at noon and the second at 6 pm, creating an 18-hour fast (from 6 pm to noon the next day). My own dogs are only fed once a day, so they actually fast the majority of every day.

You can also feed your dog just before you leave for work, and again immediately upon arriving home, creating a 10- to 12-hour fast while you’re gone during the day.

Always keep in mind that dogs aren’t evolutionarily adapted to three meals a day. There are numerous studies that point to increased longevity and decreased disease potential when animals consume the same number of calories over time, but distributed in a more natural evolutionary pattern.

An alternative to intermittent fasting is a once-a-week fast, which for healthy adult dogs means six days of regular meals, followed by a 24-hour period of water only. Some people choose to offer a big meaty bone on fast day, which really isn’t a true fast, but still results in substantially fewer calories being ingested in a 24-hour period.

I strongly encourage you to consult with a holistic or integrative veterinarian if you're considering fasting your dog. And needless to say, all fasts involve restriction of food only, never pure drinking water.

How to Feed Cats Who Need to Lose Weight

Fasting more than 12 hours is never a good idea for cats, especially if they're overweight, due to the risk of hepatic lipidosis, so a different approach to weight loss is required. Pet foods high in carbohydrates — typically kibble — are the biggest cause of obesity in both cats and dogs. Cats thrive on a diet high in animal protein and moisture, with low- to no-grain content.

A nutritionally balanced, high-quality fresh food diet is the best choice for both cats and dogs who need to lose weight. It's important to adequately nourish your pet’s body as weight loss occurs, making sure his requirements for key amino acids, essential fatty acids and other nutrients are met.

The key to healthy weight loss in cats is to meet their unique nutritional requirements through a balanced diet while feeding less food, which forces the body to burn fat stores. My recommendation is a moisture-rich homemade fresh food diet, comprised of lean meats, healthy fats and a few fibrous vegetables as the only source of carbohydrates.

Also be sure to calculate the daily calories required for your cat to reach his ideal weight. The formula for kitties varies slightly from the canine formula (above) to account for the very sedentary lifestyle of most housecats:

Daily calories (feline) = Body Weight (kg) x 30 + 70 x 0.8

Measure food portions using a measuring cup and drastically limit treats (be sure to include treats in the total daily calorie count). Also consider feeding at least some of your cat’s meals not in a bowl, but in an indoor hunting feeder that encourages natural feline behavior and physical activity.

Given enough time and patience, most kitties can successfully make the change to a healthier diet and smaller portions (see my part one and part two videos on how to win the healthy food battle with your cat). However, since it’s dangerous for felines to go without eating, it’s important to ensure your cat doesn’t simply refuse to eat as a reaction to a new or different diet.

Importance of Exercise for Overweight Pets

Consistent daily exercise, including at least 20 minutes (and preferably 60) of aerobic activity will help your pet burn fat and increase muscle tone. If you're unable to provide your dog with this much physical activity (and some dogs require even more), consider joining a pet sports club or doggy daycare. Another option is to hire a dog walker (or dog jogger, hiker or biker).

If your pet is very overweight or obese, he may not be able to endure extended periods of exercise initially. Swimming is actually an excellent low-impact, gentle form of exercise for dogs that need to start out slow, as well as those with arthritis or mobility issues. Ask your veterinarian what exercises are safe for your pet to do, and which you either need to avoid or put off until he's in better condition. If you're dealing with a fat feline, check out 10 ways to help your cat exercise.