Overweight pets are increasingly common the world over, and in South Africa. Why? Because most pet owners show their love for their pets by overfeeding or handing out treats.
So much so that obesity in dogs and cats has become the number one health problem experienced by pets. Unfortunately, few pet owners are consciously aware of their pets’ weight issues.
“It’s just a cookie, Mom…”
“It’s just a piece of sausage off the braai…”
“Just look at that face…”
We have all been there with our pets, feeding them unhealthy (but delicious) treats as a token of our love. But what we don’t realise is that this love token is a significant contributor to our pets becoming overweight or obese.
While some of the negative effects of obesity can be reversed by guided diet changes and increased physical activity, other effects might have a lasting detrimental effect on our furry friends, particularly their bones and joints
Overweight pets: When is my pet too porky?
It is common for pet owners not to realise that their pets are gaining weight. As a pet parent, you see your fur baby every day and the progression to obesity is often gradual and goes unnoticed. A simple rule of thumb is that one should be able to feel individual ribs quite easily, but not see them stand out. Almost like feeling the back of your hand. Additionally, we are looking for an hourglass appearance at the waist. If you cannot feel the ribs with ease (feels more like the palm of your hand) and the tummy appears to have a barrel or sausage-like shape, it is time to think about weight loss.
Overweight pets: What harm can a kilogram or two do?
Overweight pets needn’t be so huge you can’t lift them. In some animals even just a kilogram or two extra can place significant stress on the body.
Remember, an extra two kilos for your pet is not the same as two additional kilos on humans. A cat that weighs 6kg instead of 3kg is the equivalent of a human doubling in size! Imagine if your weight went from 60kg to 120kg how uncomfortable you would be.
Overweight pets are at risk of more than 25 different health conditions linked to excess weight, including arthritis, struggling with heat and consequential heat stroke, heart disease, diabetes, breathing problems, and skin diseases to name just a few.
What can you do if your pet is overweight?
We know how difficult it is to say no to your furry baby, especially when they look at you with those pleading eyes. The easiest way to help your pet to lose weight is to contact your vet and enrol your dog or cat in a weight loss programme. We are able to guide and advise you through the whole process, troubleshoot when things are not going according to plan, and even providing a shoulder to cry on when it becomes hard (because it does). In a nutshell, these are the most important things to remember.
- Change what they eat
Selecting the right diet can sometimes be tricky, but is a vital step in any weight management strategy. There are various foods on the market, some low calorie, some low carb, some low fat. Feeding a well-balanced diet, at the correct amount per day is the recipe for success. Be careful, though, of feeding less than the recommended amount. This can lead to a pet not getting enough nutrients, which will actually initially cause weight gain. If a pet is gaining weight while being fed the correct amount, it is best to consider changing the diet, and not just simply cutting the amount you feed.
But can I still give my pet treats?
The simple answer is yes! But it is essential that you remain conscious of the calories in those treats. A slice of cheese for a Jack Russell is equal to a hamburger for a human. Most of us cannot eat a hamburger a day on top of our normal food and not gain weight. It is the same with pets.
And it doesn’t matter to your cat or dog how big the treat is. A small tidbit has the same emotional effect on your pet as a large tidbit, so keep it small.
A few simple things you can do:
- Choose healthy or low calorie treats.
- Rather give many small pieces than many big pieces. A rule of thumb is to take whatever treat you were going to give and break it in four. Then only give the one ¼. In that way, the calories from treats are immediately reduced to just one quarter.
- Take the calories from treats into account when determining the amount of food being fed each day. Remember the golden rule for any weight management is: total calories in should be fewer than the total calories used.
- Change how they eat
Food should not be available at all times, especially not for dogs. Also, do not refill bowls when they are empty or when they come begging. By having food available all of the time, you are unable to control food intake. Most pets will continue to eat even if they are already full. Cats can also be trained to eat two meals a day, but some don’t adapt well to this behaviour, in which case bowls should be filled with the correct amount twice a day. When the bowl is empty, it stays empty until the next feeding.
Overweight pets should not be fed table scraps, or food from the table. Firstly, they do not need it. Secondly, it is a major contributor to the calories that cause weight gain. Human food is very often a lot richer than dog food, with higher calorie counts, and that speeds up the weight gain. And thirdly, there is often added salt that may not be good for them.
We know it is difficult to resist those puppy eyes. But did you know that the only reason they are begging is because they were trained to beg? Somewhere in the past they came up to you and were given a treat. The next time they did it (and it was probably more to be close to you than to have something to eat) they got another tidbit. So, before you knew it you had very successfully, albeit unintentionally, trained a new behaviour or habit. This is exactly how we train animals to sit, stand, come, roll over and do all sorts of other tricks. Rather don’t give table scraps. And if you cannot resist those puppy eyes, rather put them in another room or keep them busy in an area away from where you are enjoying your meal. You can, of course, also feed them just before you eat, so that everyone is enjoying their meal at the same time.
- Change activity levels
Remember one of the golden rules of weight loss? Calories used versus calories consumed. And the simplest way to use up more calories is to get your pets moving more. Set aside time for your dogs every day and take them to the park for a walk, or play a vigorous game of fetch in your back yard. Some dogs love to swim, which is one of the best exercises for losing weight. Cats that are allowed outside will very often roam during the night and burn calories that way.
Other ways to increase activity include making them work for their food by playing games such hiding treats around the house (remember to break them into teeny weeny pieces), feeding from puzzle feeders which take longer to navigate, or placing food and water bowls far away from their favourite sleeping place so there is some effort involved in getting to the food bowl.
A word of warning though: if your pet has not been very active, please do not expect him to manage a long walk straight away. Just as we humans need to get fit to cope with long periods of exercise, so do our pets. Dogs with arthritis may also not be able to do long walks; this may actually cause more harm than good. That’s why a visit to the vet to check for underlying arthritis or heart disease is not a bad idea. Your vet will help you choose an appropriate exercise plan for your pet.
Obesity in dogs and cats: What if he puts on all the weight he lost?
It is so easy to fall into old habits, and for pet owners to once again slip into feeding larger quantities, offering more treats, or feeding food that is not tailormade for weight management. You’ve worked hard at helping your pet lose weight and the results are there for all to see. He’s healthier and happier. The changes are dramatic. Keep it up for your sake, and his.
Article by Drs Morné de Wet and Tiaan Visser, Cottage Vet