If your dog or cat looks more like a footstool than an animal, it's time to do something about that excess weight.
There is an epidemic of fat pets in the United States, one that's often unrecognized.
"It comes from the fact that they are beloved," says veterinarian Louise Murray, vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York. "We see them as part of the family, and we feed them. (The obesity) comes from a good place because we love them. But we need to get it under control because it can cause health problems."
A survey earlier this year, conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, which works within the veterinary community to combat pet obesity, found that more than half of the dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese. (Obesity is defined as being 30 percent above normal weight, and one-fifth of our pets qualify.) The trouble is, many pet owners don't see it.
Thomas Graves, a professor of veterinary clinical medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois, and director of the Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine, compares it to the childhood obesity epidemic.
"Some of these studies, they get parents to try to identify their child's body type," he says. "Most parents can't do that. We're seeing the same thing in dogs and cats. Probably 40 percent of them are overweight, 20 percent of them obese. And the vast majority of pet owners fail to recognize that their pets have a weight problem."
The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention has a chart (petobesityprevention.com/pet-weight-check) that will give a dog or cat owner an idea. It's a good starting point, but a visit to the vet is still recommended.
"There are medical conditions that can cause obesity and weight gain," Graves says. "So any animal with a weight problem needs to be evaluated by a veterinarian. That way, a proper weight loss program can be designed by the veterinarian."
The program generally involves diet and exercise.
"The truth about pet food is that most pet foods are really good," Graves says. "The pet food companies spend lots of money researching proper nutrition. They want pets fed healthy food that keeps them alive a long time -- and buying more food."
He doesn't pick one pet food over any other but says to buy a premium brand, one appropriate for the life stage the pet is in. And check with your vet about how much to feed your animal. A spayed or neutered pet is less active and needs less, and some pet foods recommend more than is needed.
Murray says that most dogs' weight problems can be blamed on leftovers, snacks and treats, not their regular food.
"Those things are very caloric, and that adds up," she says. "For dogs, the best advice is to cut back on the non-dog foods, the unofficial stuff."
Cats are different, she says. They become overweight not from treats, but because their diet is too high in carbohydrates.
"Cats are nature's pure carnivores," she says. "They were never meant to eat carbohydrates. Their bodies are not designed to handle them at all. Unfortunately, a lot of the cat foods on the market are high in carbs, especially dry foods. It's easy for us to leave a bowl out all day, but then they're snacking on carbohydrates all day."
Canned or moist foods from pouches are a better choice, she says.
Exercise is the other key. You might even want to participate -- nice, long, moderate walks, Murray suggests. Three or four times a week is about right, but work up to it gradually. "You don't want to take a couch potato out there with a Frisbee; it could injure them." If you're not interested in exercising, a little fetch goes a long way. You throw the ball, Fido retrieves it. Over and over and over. The point is to get the dog moving.
Exercising a cat can be as simple as tying a toy to a fishing pole and waving it around, or flicking a laser pointer around the room and have the cat chase it. Or ...
"One of the best ways to get a cat to exercise is to get a kitten," Graves says. "Kittens are a pain in the neck. I can't tell you how many times an owner has a cat losing weight, and they come in, and we can't figure out why. Then I find out they got a kitten four months ago and, well, that's the reason. Cats do well in groups. They play more; they tend to eat better."
SIGNS YOUR PET NEEDS A DIET
These tips are from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention website:
How to tell if your pet is a healthy weight:
Ribs are easily felt
Tucked abdomen -- no sagging stomach
Waist when viewed from above
Your pet is overweight if ...
It's difficult to feel ribs under fat
Sagging stomach: You can grab a handful of fat!
Broad, flat back
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