Commit Now to Do This for Your Pet in 2020

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

obesity in dogs and cats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Well over half the dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese, and now is the time to commit to fixing the problem in the new year
  • In 2020, parents of porky pets should throw out the carb-heavy processed diets, make mealtimes eventful, feed the right number of calories for weight loss, and kick-off a daily exercise routine
  • To accurately determine if your pet food contains excessive dietary carbs, you’ll have to do a quick math equation; the results will empower you to make the best food choices for your pets

To all of you out there with overweight cats and dogs: As we head into 2020, it's the perfect time to look at your pet with "20/20 vision" and resolve to get the situation under control in the new year.

Now, I'm sure some of you are thinking to yourselves, "OMG, another lecture on fat pets?" Believe me when I tell you I'd rather talk about something else! But as an integrative veterinarian committed to making and keeping pets healthy, it's my duty and obligation to address this "weighty" problem until the message gets through and pet parents take action.

With an estimated 60% of cats and 56% of dogs in the U.S. overweight or obese,1 it means this article applies to a majority of pet parents reading here today.

How to Tell if Your Dog or Cat Is Overweight

Because so many pets are overweight today, many people can no longer tell the difference between a fat pet and a normal-sized pet.

If you're not sure about your own dog or cat, look down at him. Does he have a tapered in waist? If not — if he's shaped more like an oval, he's probably too heavy. You should also be able to feel (but not see) his ribs as well as the bones near the base of his tail. If he's obese, you'll see obvious amounts of excess fat on his abdomen, hips and neck.

Also compare your pet to these body condition charts provided by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA):

body condition score chart dogs

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body condition score chart cats

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The goal for both dogs and cats is a body condition score of 5. Unfortunately, many owners assume their pet's body score is just fine because their veterinarian never mentions their pet has a weight issue during exams. Veterinarians fail to address extra pounds for many reasons, including because it can be an uncomfortable conversation.

I've had countless pet parents tell me I was the first vet to comment that their dog or cat needed to lose a few pounds, which tells me vets are not adequately addressing the slow but consistent weight gain that occurs over time with many pets and contributes to so many degenerative diseases that could be avoided with appropriate weight management.

Help Your Pet Lose Weight and Keep It Off: 5 Do's and Don'ts

1. DON'T feed a starch-heavy, carbohydrate-laden processed diet — Processed pet foods are a significant contributor to the pet obesity epidemic in the U.S. Many pet parents overfeed, but very often the problem is also the quality of 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 of your pet (less than 10%) activates internal enzyme factors that go to work storing the excess as body fat.

Calculate the carbs in your pet's diet by adding up the moisture, fat, protein and ash (estimate 6% if you don't see this value listed) on the pet food label and subtract this value from 100: this is the amount of carbs in your pet's diet.

DO feed your pet fresh food — Cats and dogs need 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 his body to burn fat stores. The first step is to transition him to a diet free of potatoes, corn, rice, soy and tapioca to get the carb content down to a biologically correct value of no more than 20% with a goal of less than 10% for healthy dogs and cats.

My recommendation is a nutritionally balanced homemade fresh food diet of lean meats, healthy fats, plus fibrous vegetables and low glycemic fruits as the only sources of carbohydrates. These "healthy" carbs are the perfect way to maintain your pet's microbiome, while providing fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients.

2. DON'T free feed — 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 wind up with an overweight or obese pet. In addition, a constantly available food source turns your carnivorous hunter into a grazer, which goes against her nature.

Wild cats and dogs are always on the move in search of their next meal. Many domesticated 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 her actually move is when she's headed to the buffet to devour more of the food you so generously provide for him 24/7.

DO challenge your pet at mealtime — Separate your pet's daily food allocation into several small portions and place them in different locations around the house for her 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.

3. DON'T follow 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 ½ to 1 ½ 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 ½ to 1 ½ cups" is a daily or per-meal guideline.

DO feed your heavy pet to achieve weight loss — Decide (with the help of your veterinarian, if necessary) what your dog's or cat's ideal weight should be. Then use one of the following formulas to calculate the precise number of calories to feed daily to get your pet down to his ideal weight and maintain it.

For example, let's say your canine BFF is 30 pounds and his ideal weight is around 22 pounds: Daily calories (canine) = Body weight (kg) x 30 + 70.

First, convert his 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 your dog 370 calories a day, he should drop steadily to his ideal weight of 22 pounds and maintain it.

Let's say your cat's ideal weight is a slender 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.

4. DON'T ignore your pet's need for exercise — You'll never see a fat dog or cat in the wild because they follow their natural instincts, which includes the drive to be physically active. And while your Yorkie doesn't behave or look 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?

DO make sure your pet gets daily aerobic exercise — 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 who 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.

5. DON'T overfeed treats — Treats — even very high-quality healthy ones — should make up less than 10% of your dog's or cat'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.

DO feed healthy treats on a very limited basis — Limit treats to training and behavior rewards only. Again, keep treats at or fewer than 10% 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.

A better idea is 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," where you'll find lots of nutritious and simple recipes for both cats and dogs.