5 Bad Habits Guaranteed to Shorten Your Pet's Life

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

obese cat

Story at-a-glance -

  • Over half the dogs and cats in the U.S. are fat, and their humans’ bad habits are to blame
  • Free-feeding pets is a very bad habit for which there are many healthier alternatives
  • Following pet food package feeding instructions is another mistake pet parents make; counting calories and controlling portions is a much better option
  • Additional bad habits that keep pets fat include feeding carb-heavy processed diets and treats, and ignoring the need for daily exercise

I talk often about the terrible epidemic of too-heavy cats and dogs in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), in 2017 an estimated 60 percent of cats and 56 percent of dogs in the U.S. were overweight or obese.1

The root cause for the unconscionable problem of fat pets is easy to explain: too much biologically inappropriate food and treats, coupled with too little exercise. Less understandable is why so many pet parents continue to practice habits that will (not might, but will) cause serious damage to their dog's or cat's health and shorten their lifespan.

Let's take a closer look at a few of those bad habits, as well as alternative habits you can adopt to help your heavy pet shed weight, avoid obesity-related diseases, and live longer.

5 Bad Habits That Keep Your Pet Fat

No. 1 — Free-feeding — Also known as feeding ad libitum or the all-day all-they-can-eat buffet, this mistake by necessity goes hand-in-hand with a poor-quality diet, specifically kibble, because it's the only type of food you can safely leave at room temperature 24/7. Free-feeding is the perfect way to create an overweight or obese pet. In addition, a constantly available food source turns your carnivorous hunter into a grazer, which goes against nature.

Wild cats and dogs are always on the move in search of their next meal. Many pets, on the other hand, are free fed. The more you feed, the less interested your dog or cat is in "hunting" — which is good exercise — around the house. Before long, the only time you'll see him actually move is when he's headed to the buffet to devour more of the food you so generously provide for him 24/7.

Replacement habit: Separate your pet's daily rations into several small portions and place them in different locations around the house for him to find. Make use of food puzzle toys for dogs and indoor hunting feeders for cats, which encourage hunting behavior and provide mental stimulation.

Also consider putting food bowls at the bottom and top of as many flights of stairs as you have to encourage muscle-building exercise throughout the day. Alternatively, you can feed two portion-controlled meals a day. While many people feed their pets twice a day, feeding just once a day actually offers a number of health benefits, including a lower risk of diabetes.

No. 2 — Following pet food package feeding guidelines — Most people who feed commercially available pet food follow the suggested feeding guidelines printed on the package, which often isn't the best approach. These recommendations typically use overly broad weight ranges such as "under 20 pounds" when clearly, a 15-pound dog requires significantly more calories than a 5-pound dog.

Package feeding instructions also use wide serving ranges, such as "feed 1/2 to 1 1/2 cups." These suggestions obviously can't take into account, for example, an animal's activity level, and they tend to be short on other important details, such as whether "feed 1/2 to 1 1/2 cups" is a daily or per-meal guideline.

Replacement habit: Decide (with the help of your veterinarian, if necessary) what your pet's ideal weight should be. Then use one of the following formulas to calculate the precise amount of calories to feed daily to get your pet down to his or her ideal weight and maintain it. Let's say Bernie the Beagle is 30 pounds and his ideal weight is around 22 pounds: Daily calories (canine) = Body weight (kg) x 30 + 70.

First, convert Bernie's weight from pounds to kilograms. One kilogram = 2.2 pounds, so divide his ideal weight (not his current weight) in pounds by 2.2. 22/2.2 means your dog's ideal weight in kilograms is 10. Now the formula looks like this: Daily calories = 10 (kg) x 30 + 70. And finally, it looks like this: Daily calories = 370. If you feed Bernie 370 calories a day, he should drop steadily to his ideal weight of 22 pounds and maintain it.

Let's say your cat, a female Maine Coon, is ideal at a svelte 12 pounds rather than her current weight of 16 pounds: Daily calories (feline) = Body Weight (kg) x 30 + 70 x 0.8. (The formula for cats includes a slight adjustment to account for the extremely sedentary lifestyle of most kitties these days.) Her ideal weight of 12 pounds divided by 2.2 converts to 5.5 kilograms; now the formula looks like this: Daily calories = 5.5 (kg) x 30 + 70 x 0.8. And finally, it looks like this: Daily calories = 188.

No. 3 — Feeding starchy, carb-heavy, processed pet food — A very big contributor to the pet obesity epidemic is processed pet food. Many pet parents overfeed, but very often the problem is also the quality of the food they're offering in addition to the quantity.

If you're feeding a dry diet, while it might be free of grains, it can't be free of carbs, because carbs are necessary to form kibble. If you look at the package label, you'll see potato, sweet potato, lentils, peas (pea starch), chickpeas, tapioca and/or other carbohydrate sources. Starch breaks down into sugar, even though you don't see sugar on the pet food package label.

Many dry pet foods are loaded with carbs (40 to 50 percent of total content in some cases), which can lead to blood sugar fluctuations, insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes and other health problems in pets. Carb intake above the daily needs (less than 10 percent) of your pet activates internal enzyme factors that go to work storing the excess as body fat.

Replacement habit: Your carnivorous pet needs food high in animal protein and moisture, with low to no grain or starch content (which is pretty much the opposite of what dry pet foods offer, especially grain-free kibble). A high-quality fresh food diet is the best choice for pets who need to lose weight. It's important to adequately nourish their bodies as weight loss occurs, making sure their requirements for key amino acids, essential fatty acids and other nutrients are met.

The key to healthy weight loss is to meet your pet's nutritional requirements through a balanced diet but feed less food (portion control), which forces her body to burn fat stores. The first step is to transition her to a diet free of potatoes, corn, rice, soy and tapioca. My recommendation is a homemade fresh food diet of lean meats, healthy fats, and fibrous vegetables and low glycemic fruits as the only sources of carbohydrates.

No. 4 — Feeding too many treats — Treats — even very high-quality healthy ones — should make up less than 10 percent of your pet's daily food intake. It's also important to remember that treats aren't a complete form of nutrition and should never be used in place of nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate meals.

Overfeeding treats on top of daily food intake will result in an obese pet, and overfeeding treats while underfeeding balanced meals will result in nutritional deficiencies.

Replacement habit: Limit treats to training and behavior rewards, as a bedtime ritual, or as a "time to get in your crate" enticement. Again, keep treats at or fewer than 10 percent of your pet's daily food intake, which means offering very small amounts, very infrequently.

When choosing commercially available treats, make sure they're high-quality and sourced and made in the U.S. A high-quality pet treat won't contain grains or unnecessary fillers, rendered animal byproducts, added sugar (sometimes hidden in ingredients like molasses and honey), chemicals, artificial preservatives or ingredients known to be highly allergenic to pets.

I prefer to offer very small amounts of fresh human foods as treats, for example, berries, other safe fruits (e.g., melons and apples), cheese, frozen peas, raw almonds, cashews and sunflower seeds. For ideas on preparing homemade treats for your furry companion, download my free e-book "Homemade Treats for Healthy Pets," which is loaded with nutritious, super-simple recipes for both cats and dogs.

No. 5 — Ignoring or denying the need for exercise — You'll never see a fat dog or cat in the wild because they follow their natural instincts, which include the drive to be physically active. And while your Chihuahua neither acts nor looks much like her wolf cousins, she was designed to move like they do.

Given the opportunity and incentive, your little lap dog will walk impressive distances, hike, run, play, chase things, dig in the dirt, roll in the grass, enjoy every minute of it, and be healthier and happier for it. Only her humans, and possibly her too-heavy, uncomfortable body, are stopping her from being the little athlete she was born to be. How sad and unnecessary is that?

Replacement habit: 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, she may not be able to endure extended periods of exercise initially. Swimming is 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 she's in better condition. If you're dealing with a fat feline, check out 10 ways to help your cat exercise.

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