PREPARING FOR SUCCESS
Before embarking on any weight-loss program for your pet, you must take it in for a complete physical exam, blood test, and urinalysis to rule out any disease process that could be contributing to the excess weight and correct it before altering your pet’s diet or routine. It’s paramount to make sure your pet is healthy before making any significant changes to its diet and exercise regime.
Your veterinarian will help determine your pet’s daily caloric requirements, select suitable food, and calculate the exact amount to feed so you’ll know what, how often, and how much to feed. The vet should also help supervise the maintenance of your cat or dog’s weight condition coupled with an exercise plan and follow-ups.
It’s vital that your veterinarian rule out conditions that can look like obesity, such as excessive fluid accumulation in the body, and confirm that your pet is obese and not exhibiting symptoms of heart, kidney, or other metabolic diseases. Medical conditions that impact hormone balances in pets may contribute to the development of obesity. These consist of diabetes, thyroid, or pituitary gland dysfunction, including hypothyroidism and hyperadrenocorticism. Brain disease and pancreatic tumors known as insulinomas can also influence metabolism and appetite. Certain medications that are frequently prescribed by veterinarians can also affect metabolism and appetite, including glucocorticoids like prednisone and dexamethasone, barbiturates such as phenobarbital, and benzodiazepines such as Valium. Also, spaying and neutering, which in and of itself does not make a pet fat, does decrease the number of certain hormones present in the body, which can affect metabolism.
Genetics plays a role in metabolism as well, with certain breeds more predisposed to obesity. In cats, mixed breeds are more susceptible than purebreds, and dog breeds such as Labrador retrievers, cocker spaniels, cavalier King Charles spaniels, Shetland sheepdogs, dachshunds, beagles, pugs, Cairn terriers, basset hounds, and hound breeds in general are all more likely to suffer from obesity. Also, pets over 4 years of age and pets belonging to obese owners are more prone to excess weight gain.
Work with your vet to develop a diet and exercise plan that’s tailored to your individual pet’s lifestyle, age, and medical history. A historical review of changes in your dog or cat’s body weight can be useful in establishing a pattern of weight gain and may help identify a particular event or change in environment that relates to the increase in body weight. Be sure to analyze your pet’s eating and exercise habits. If your pet is eating too much and exercising too little, a change is in order. You should make a diet history of your pet that lists the types and amounts of food your cat or dog is receiving. Be sure to include all snacks, treats, biscuits, kibble, wet food, supplements, people food, and any other edible item that your pet is consuming.
Write down how much exercise your pet is getting. Sitting on the cat tree or walking to the food bowl does not constitute exercise. Swimming, running, walking, chasing toys, scratching a post, catching a ball, and running around the apartment all burn up calories and can be documented as exercise.
Bear in mind that it most likely took weeks, if not months, for your pet to gain weight and it may well take equally as long for them to lose it. Dogs should only lose 1% to 2% of their initial weight per week, and cats should lose less than 1% per week. This equates to two to three pounds per month for the average dog, and half a pound per month for the average cat. For example, a 10-pound cat losing one to two ounces per week is healthy, and a 100-pound dog can safely lose about a pound per week. Shoot for a cat or dog reaching its ideal weight in six months to a year.
Weight loss in cats must be gradual to avoid complications from hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver syndrome (FLS), an accumulation of fat in the liver that may result in death if left untreated. FLS is particular to overweight felines and is one of the most common liver diseases diagnosed in cats (this condition is not recognized in overweight dogs). The typical scenario with FLS is that the overweight cat has gone through a period of anorexia or not eating. The chances of FLS occurring are greater if the cat is obese before the anorexia begins. Next, the excess fat stores are rapidly broken down to supply nutrients for the anorexic cat, with this fat being deposited very swiftly in the liver, failing to be adequately processed. The fat becomes stored in and around the liver cells, resulting in liver failure. The cat will often become icteric, or jaundiced, with the whites of their eyes, skin, and mouth turning yellow. This is a life-threatening illness that must be treated immediately, or the cat will die. Treatment is aggressive with intravenous fluid therapy, nutritional support, and hospitalization until the cat’s appetite returns and the liver starts functioning normally. Always take your cat to the vet if it fails to eat for at least two days.
There is no magic weight-loss pill for people or pets. Once a pet is obese, it will remain obese even if extra caloric intake stops, because fat stores take very little energy to maintain. For your cat or dog to lose weight, their caloric intake must be less than calories expended through exercise and metabolism. As I said, there’s no magic involved—just discipline and common sense. Most pets are overweight because of too many calories and too little exercise, so physical activity and proper food choice are critical.
I strongly advise controlled feeding, regardless of whether your pet is obese. This method lets you control the amount of food your pet receives and allows for easy adjustments. Free-choice feeding has been an especially significant factor in feline obesity, because cats are hunters and aren’t accustomed to eating whenever they want.
Dieting is an essential part of every weight-loss program. You have two choices when it comes to reducing your pet’s caloric intake: You can decrease the total amount of pet food your cat or dog is currently eating, or switch to a brand that’s lower in calories. A 25% reduction in the total food given can often work for a pet that is mildly overweight. For example, if you’re currently feeding one cup per day, you would now feed only ¾ cup (divided into two daily feedings) for your pet’s allotted ration, and nothing else. Even one additional treat will slow down weight loss. I prefer to eliminate table scraps and treats altogether. Yes, eliminate! I’ve seen many cats and dogs lose weight simply because their owners stopped all treats and table scraps. The pets were happier, the owners were delighted, and I was thrilled when the scale showed suitable weight loss from this simple change in owner behavior. Also canned food is 75% water versus dry food which is only 10% water so feeding more canned food will decrease calories!
Don’t use food as a substitute for attention or a cure for guilt. Bond with pets during playtime and on walks instead of with treats. Think of treats as candy bars that are high in fat and calories. Instead, reward your pet with love and praise, or if you must give them something to eat, use a piece of food from their daily ration or a low-calorie treat. For cats, think in mouse-like portions.
With obese pets, which may need a more severe calorie restriction, simply decreasing the amount of regular food could restrict too much protein, vitamins, and minerals, and could cause nutritional imbalance. Therefore, a reduced diet may be in order. Your cat or dog still needs a high-quality, meat-based diet that’s high in protein but low in fat. Read labels and choose a low-fat food that’s still animal protein based. The fat content of dry food should be between 12% and 16% to be considered a low-fat diet. The daily feeding guide on the package should be used as a starting point, but you’ll need to adjust, as individual requirements vary greatly among pets. Beware of pet foods that merely add fiber to bulk up the food. Look for foods that have L-carnitine, which helps turn fat into energy.
It’s not uncommon for veterinarians to design a weight-loss program that is 60% of total caloric requirement for optimal body weight for obese dogs, and 66% for obese cats. There are numerous low-calorie brands on the market today, along with prescription diets for weight loss available from your vet. Reducing diets are good because pets receive all the vitamins, protein, minerals, and nutrients they need in fewer calories. Typically, your pet will be able to eat a larger quantity of food and still lose weight. This is because a reducing diet is lower in fat and less concentrated in calories and has a higher fiber content. There are even brands made for indoor sprayed or neutered cats that are low in fat. Remember, there is considerable individual variation in caloric requirements among cats and dogs, so food intake needs to be individually adjusted to ensure appropriate weight loss.
Bear in mind that whenever you switch diets, you should do so gradually. You and your vet will decide which one is right for your pet and its weight loss needs. Once you decide on an appropriate diet and a daily amount, stick to it. No cheating! If, at your first weigh-in, there has been little or no weight loss, then the daily allowance needs to be lowered (if you didn’t cheat).
It really is easier than you might imagine if you have conviction and remember that you’re extending your pet’s life span and increasing its quality of life. Changes may be slow and subtle, especially in the beginning, but if you persist, you will succeed.
• Make sure everyone in your family knows about your pet’s new diet plan and behaves accordingly.
• Keep pets away from the table at mealtime.
• Feed more canned food, which is mostly water, instead of kibble.
• Keep pets away from snacking youngsters.
• Assign one person to feed all cats and dogs in the household.
• Avoid feeding all pets from the same dish, especially cats.
• Feed pets prior to eating your own meal.
• Feed pets only at mealtimes.
• Always make fresh water available.
• Make sure pets don’t have access to the neighbors’ dog or cat food.
• Feed your pet its total allotment in two or more small meals.
• Feed all meals and treats in the pet bowl only.
• Reduce or eliminate all snacks and treats.
• Measure the exact amount of food offered at each meal.
• Substitute food rewards with attention, toys, and games.
• Feed pets separately to avoid food competition.
• Chart your pet’s progress on a weekly basis.
• Keep pets out of rooms where meals are prepared.
• Never put your cat or dog on a crash diet.
• Never change diets abruptly.
Patience and common sense will lead to successful weight loss. Spending quality time with your pets is calorie-free and may even help them burn calories.
Weight rechecks should be done every two to four weeks, depending on your pet’s specific weight-reduction plan. This is necessary to determine if weight loss is too slow, too fast, or just right. If necessary, appropriate adjustments can be made accordingly. Many vet clinics offer free monthly weigh-ins for cats and dogs on weight-loss programs and the vet staff can really help boost morale, as changes may be slow and subtle, especially in the beginning. Remember, obese cats can only tolerate moderate caloric restriction and gradual weight loss.
Losing weight is only half the battle. Once your pet has reached its target weight, you need to instigate measures to make certain that subsequent weight gain does not occur. This means permanent changes in your behavior, so you don’t fall back into old bad habits. Your vet will help you adjust your pet’s food intake by either increasing the feeding amount or switching to a maintenance diet for your pet’s life stage. You should continually monitor your pet’s food intake and exercise regimen for life. Keep in mind that an animal’s physical activity level and stage of life are the two most important factors that influence nutrient needs.
FIT, NOT FAT
In any successful weight-loss program, exercise is crucial because it’s the only practical way to make sure you’re burning more calories than you’re consuming. Physical activity is just as beneficial for pets as it is for people. For some dogs, their only exercise is a brief walk or two each day, largely to relieve themselves, not solely to encourage exercise. Most indoor cats have no reason to hunt for prey, defend their territory, or do little more than walk to their dish for a meal. Unless encouraged by their owners to exercise, most cats and dogs spend their day napping. The more weight there is to carry around, the more inactive your cat or dog becomes and the harder it gets to exercise and reduce weight. It’s a vicious cycle.
You are the key to a successful fitness program for your cat or dog. You set the routine, find the motivation, use your creativity, and are responsible for getting your pet out there exercising. Try to create a routine and stick to it. Most pets won’t exercise by themselves. Dogs and cats may play with one another or entertain themselves briefly with toys, but as the pet parent, it’s your job to direct exercise play and keep your pets active. If you want to try something new, doggie yoga, pet treadmills, and personal pet trainers are readily available.
All exercise plans should start off slowly, initially exercising a pet only as much as they can comfortably perform—especially if your pet is fat and out of shape—working up to 30 minutes twice a day for dogs and 15 minutes once or twice a day for cats. Once weight loss occurs, your pet should be able to exercise longer and the amount and intensity of exercise can be gradually increased. As they lose weight, most pets will experience an increase in mobility and energy level, and will look and feel better.