Unfortunately, more than half of the companion animals in the United States are overweight. Being overweight can lead to numerous health issues, which ultimately lead to a shorter life span and a lower quality of life. Pets who are overweight are more susceptible to diabetes, heart and respiratory disease, as well as osteoarthritis and other orthopedic issues. There have even been some studies showing an increased incidence of cancer among overweight pets. In order to manage our pet’s weight, we must first be able to tell if he or she is indeed overweight.
Many people will base their assessment of this according to what breed they have and what the scale says, however this is not the best approach. Not all dogs of the same breed are the same height, and many do not have the same bone structure. This of course is true for cats as well. The best way to evaluate your pet is to determine his body condition score (BCS).
The body condition score takes into account your pet’s height, bone structure and muscle mass. At Purdy Veterinary Hospital, we score pets on a scale of 1 through 9, 1 being emaciated and 9 being obese. Ideally we are looking for pets to be in the 4 to 5 range. A pet with an ideal body condition score of 4 to 5 has a noticeable waist when viewed from above, a tuck to his belly when viewed from the side and his ribs can be felt with minimal fat covering. A cat in this range should only have a very small fat pad on his belly. Feel free to visit our website @ www.purdyvethospital.com/bcs to view a chart, with illustrations, that will make this much easier to understand.
If it is determined that your pet is above a 5 on the body condition score, then weight loss would be recommended. Weight loss is achieved by having your pet burn more calories than he is consuming. This is achieved by increasing activity, decreasing calorie consumption, and in many case doing both. One of the biggest reasons pets become overweight is because owners are unaware of exactly how much they are feeding.
Many owners fill the food bowl whenever they observe that it is low and many others give treats throughout the day, without paying attention to how much they are giving. By using a measuring cup and feeding one or more distinct meals throughout the day, owners can begin to observe how much their pet is eating and can begin to make adjustments based on this assessment. Reducing the number of treats, or feeding healthier treats is also very helpful.
Many clients ask me, “How many cups should I be feeding?” Without knowing the caloric density of the food (how calorie rich the diet is) and the activity of the pet, this is an impossible question to answer. Just as there would be a difference for you if you ate three cups of ice cream, vs. three cups of vegetables, diets vary and therefore there is no universal amount of pet food that should be fed to any particular pet. The simple answer is to feed less if you want him to lose weight, more if you want him to gain weight, and the same amount if he is already at his ideal weight. Again, knowing, how much you are feeding is crucial to being able to make adjustments.
While there are mathematical formulas that can be used to determine the number of calories and therefore the number of cups or cans that should be fed for any particular pet, I usually recommend that pet owners consult the chart on their container of pet food. Be careful, however, as these charts are just approximations. The best approach is to use the chart as a reference point as well as your feeding experience to determine a good starting point. Use your pet’s ideal weight when viewing the chart, not his current weight, if your goal is weight loss.
Be careful, however, as you do not want to drastically reduce the amount your pet is eating. This could have bad side effects, especially in overweight cats, who can develop hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease), if calories are cut too quickly. If your pet is far away from his ideal weight, perhaps feed for a weight that would bring him closer to his ideal weight as a first step. Every few weeks, you could reduce the amount a little more, as he gets closer and closer to his ideal weight. As a general rule, your pet should lose no more than 2% of his body weight per week. If he is losing more than this, you are decreasing his intake too quickly. Determining if your pet is losing weight can be a difficult assessment to make if you are just eyeballing the body condition score, therefore it is best to use a scale, to objectively track progress.
Don’t forget that exercise is also part of the equation. Dogs can benefit from taking brisk walks, jogging, playing fetch, and swimming, among other activities they enjoy. Few cats will ignore a laser light and there are many other toys available that will keep them busy. By keeping our pets active, we not only help them to burn calories, we also help to stimulate them mentally.
For some pets, weight loss can be very difficult. It’s possible that your pet may have a medical condition that is responsible for his poor body condition score. For this reason, it is always a good idea to consult your veterinarian before starting a weight loss program. One example of this would be hypothyroidism in dogs. Putting a dog with this condition on a diet would not be best for his health and could result in nutritional deficiencies. Correctly diagnosing the problem and treating him with thyroid supplementation would increase his metabolism and help him lose weight, improving his overall health.
Another reason to consult your veterinarian is because a prescription weight loss diet might be best, given your pet’s particular situation. Prescription weight loss diets can be helpful because they are less calorie dense and pets are able to eat more volume and feel fuller, while still consuming less calories, and also getting the proper amount of vitamins and minerals. In addition, some of these diets also have supplements, like L-carnitine, that can help your pet more efficiently burn fat.
There are some things about our pets that we can not control, but their weight is something we can. With the help and oversight of your veterinarian, and some knowledge regarding the importance of body condition score, portion control and exercise, you can reduce the risk of many ailments and ultimately improve the quality of life for your pet. It’s never too late to start!