Did you know that an estimated 56 percent of pets (cats being the majority) in the United States have been diagnosed as overweight or obese? National data tells us this condition has reached epidemic proportions in the United States and is growing!
Unfortunately, obesity may cause a number of health complications for our four-legged family members. According to some veterinarians, pets that are in fit condition may live an average of two years longer than pets suffering from obesity. Not only can obesity in pets lead to some major health problems, but obesity can negatively affect their way of life. It could prevent them from doing the activities they enjoy, such as running, playing, hiking or swimming. It also creates a vicious cycle of constant weight gain. To combat this growing health concern, pet owners can educate themselves to prevent their furry family members from losing the life they love.
What causes obesity in pets? There are multiple factors which contribute to weight gain in pets. These include breed, age, spay or neuter status, sex, illness or chronic conditions, diet, and pet owners themselves – the amount of food and exercise a pet receives is directly controlled by the owner.
Dr. Tai Federico, veterinarian and owner of Riverview Animal Hospital explains, “One of the biggest problems is that most people really don’t know what a fit [pet] looks like. They’re really supposed to have a more defined waistline. That can be a better indicator than a number on a scale.” Dr. Federico and other veterinarians state that you should be able to feel and see the outline of your pet’s ribs, their waist should be easily identifiable (especially from above), and their tummy should be tucked up when viewed from the side, not sagging or hanging. Pet owners can view the recommended weight ranges for pets on the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention website at petobesityprevention.org. As always, it is highly recommended that all pet owners consult with their family veterinarian should there be any questions or concerns regarding a pet’s weight.
What can pet owners do to prevent obesity in their pets? Many owners do not realize that obesity starts with just a few extra pounds. As the pet ages and diet or environment change, weight gain can quickly sneak up on them and can become too much in a very short amount of time. If your pet is already at a healthy weight, the best thing a pet owner can do is to help the pet maintain a healthy diet and activity level. Some easy tips that will help to ensure a healthy weight for pets include:
1. Be conscious of your pet’s caloric needs.
2. Make sure your pet gets plenty of playtime and exercise.
3. Choose a quality and well-balanced brand of food.
4. Feed your pet proper portions, not excess.
5. Limit or eliminate people food or table scraps.
6. Limit the number of treats given.
7. Regularly monitor your pet’s weight.
How is obesity diagnosed in pets? Believe it or not, similarly to the way it is in humans. Your veterinarian will assess your pet’s body and find their body condition score (BCS). This score is basically the same as a human’s Body Mass Index (BMI). Veterinarians evaluate body condition using a standardized scoring system on a scale of one to nine and will use their weight as a secondary tool. Ideal body condition in pets is generally four to five. A seven is considered overweight, and an eight or above is classified as obese.
How is obesity in pets treated? The process to helping your pet get back in shape and enjoying a healthy lifestyle is quite simple, but it does require serious commitment on the owner’s end. Treating obesity requires research and working with your veterinarian to develop a tailored weight loss plan. Your veterinarian may suggest a meal plan such as one that is higher in protein. A higher protein diet may help your pet feel full longer, allowing you to reduce their food intake. In conjunction with diet, your veterinarian will definitely recommend exercise. Limiting treats is also very important! Veggies such as kale stems and baby carrots are an excellent substitute to high calorie treats. Remember, treats are to pets as candy is to kids. Some treat brands may have little to no nutritional value.
According to Dr. Federico, “The single most important factor in weight loss is their diet. You can’t outwork your diet.” Increasing your pet’s activity level can play a tremendous role in weight loss, but if the pet is extremely overweight a heightened activity level can be harmful. Excess activity can be hard on their body, bones, and joints and could lead to injury. Before you decide to go “beast mode” it is best to start slow, get the pet down to a safer weight, and gradually increase the activity amount and intensity. If you are beginning activity to maintain a healthy weight, a minimum of 30 minutes of leash time each day is recommended for dogs. If outdoor conditions are unfavorable, allow dogs to play fetch inside the home. Cats should be allowed to chase toys indoors for a minimum of 30 minutes a day as well.
Think of exercise with your pet as “prescribed playtime." Acknowledging and treating problems and maintaining a healthy weight will allow you both to spend a lifetime of health and happiness together.
Devon Apodaca is executive director of the Humane Society of Imperial County.