Keeping Your Pet at a Healthy Weight

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A roly poly puppy or chubby kitten might look cute, but carrying extra fat can endanger your pet’s health. Here’s how to keep your pet’s weight in check.

Why You Should Watch Your Pet’s Weight

Studies indicate that nearly 50 percent of adult dogs and cats in the United States are overweight or obese, and that percentage increases among older pets. Obesity increases the risk for other serious health problems, including osteoarthritis, diabetes (in cats), heart and respiratory diseases, and many types of cancers. Extra weight also puts pets at increased risk for complications during anesthesia if they need to undergo surgery or other procedures. And if a pet already has a health condition, obesity makes the problem that much harder to manage. An overweight pet also deals with lower energy overall, hampering his ability to enjoy an active lifestyle with you and your family.

What Causes Weight Gain?

You already know the answer to this one. Weight gain occurs when Fido eats more calories than he burns off during normal activities or exercise. Factors that can contribute to weight gain include:

  • Overfeeding or overeating
  • Inactivity or low activity levels
  • Breed
  • Age
  • Reproductive status (intact versus spayed/neutered)
  • Preexisting diseases (e.g., hypothyroidism, diabetes mellitus, Cushing's disease)

Certain breeds, especially smaller ones, are more prone to being overweight or obese, as are many senior pets.

How to Assess Your Pet’s Weight

Whether your pet is a dog or a cat, and regardless of what size or breed it is, you should be able to feel — but not see — its ribs. Being able to feel some ribs is a sign that your pet is at a healthy weight. Additionally, if your pet is at a healthy weight, you should be able to see a distinct “waist” where the body narrows, just behind the rib cage and in front of the hindquarters, when you look at him from above. When viewed from the side, your pet’s abdomen should appear to be slightly tucked up behind the rib cage. If your pet has fat deposits over his back and at the base of its tail, or if he lacks a waist or an abdominal tuck, chances are that he has a weight problem.

Veterinarians typically use a measurement called a body condition scale or body condition score to assess whether a pet is underweight, overweight, or just right. Your veterinarian can use this scale to show you what to look for when checking your pet’s weight.

Know Exactly How Much You Feed

Keeping track of both your pets’ meals as well as their treats can give you a better picture of the calories that are adding up. Although commercially produced pet foods must meet AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) nutritional standards, which ensure that they contain protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water in certain proportions, treats are often not nutritionally complete and balanced and can contain a lot of calories. By keeping an eye on what your pet is eating each day, you and your vet will easily be able to come up with a plan if it turns out your pet needs to shed a few pounds.

We know it can be tough to keep perfect track of how much your pet eats each day, especially if there are, shall we say, many cooks in the kitchen. You might want to try keeping a “food diary.” Everyone in the family should write down how much he or she feeds the pet every time the pet is fed. Remember, treats count and so do rewards given during training sessions, so add those to the diary as well.

Another idea is to have someone in the family in charge of the treat jar. Every morning, the allowed treats for the day are put in the jar and if someone wants to give the cat or dog something special, it must come from that jar. Once the jar is empty, the pet has had his daily allowance.

Choosing the Right Food

Not only do you need to feed your pet the right amount of food, but also the right type for his species, age, and size. For example, an adult dog or cat should not be fed a formula for puppy or kitten growth. Ask a veterinary professional for advice on what products offer the right nutritional mix for your pet, and how much and how often to feed. Most diets come with feeding guidelines, but every pet is different. Your veterinarian can make recommendations specifically for your pet.

Say No to People Foods

Feeding “people” food to pets is a bad idea — not only can it contribute to weight gain but it can also give rise to other medical problems. Some foods that are perfectly healthy for people, like grapes, can be toxic to pets. Even foods that aren’t toxic can contribute to stomach problems, food allergies, or other problems for pets. Additionally, feeding table food to a pet that is already receiving a nutritionally balanced pet food changes the “balance” of that pet’s diet. Consult your veterinarian before feeding any human food to your pet.

Say Yes to Exercise

To keep Fido slim and trim, you also need to give him plenty of opportunities for regular exercise, keeping in mind what’s appropriate for his age and health status, of course. If your vet gives you the all clear, a vigorous daily walk is a great place to start for many dogs. And while you might not have much luck getting your kitty to walk on a leash, regular play periods with fun toys, such as a light pointer or tossed ball, can help keep him active, healthy and happy.

Read the Label

Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations require every pet food to include a label listing its ingredients and a guaranteed analysis of how much protein, fat, and other important nutrients are in it. Reading the percentages can get complicated, so one of the best ways to assess the quality of a diet is to look at the ingredient list. By law, the pet food manufacturer must list the ingredients by weight. For more information on reading pet food labels, visit the FDA's site and click on “Pet Food Labels — General” under “Information for Consumers Fliers.”

This article was reviewed by a Veterinarian.

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