May 17, 2013

Veterinarians have estimated that more than 88 million pets are far too heavy, and this tendency toward chubbiness is causing injuries, illnesses and even shortening life spans. Unfortunately, there is a serious disconnection between what veterinarians tell owners and what the owners see in their pets.

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention surveys veterinarians and owners each year to find just how overweight our pets are. Recent surveys have shown that their veterinarians classify 53 percent of dogs and 55 percent of cats as overweight or obese, but 15 to 22 percent of owners see those same pets as normal weight. In the words of the association’s founder, Dr. Ernie Ward, pet owners have now normalized obesity and made fat pets the new normal.

What’s even worse is that despite veterinarians’ warnings, the numbers of fat pets continues to grow. In recent years, the number of pets classified as obese (greater than 30 percent above normal body weight) has increased with each survey. This means that each year greater numbers of pets are at higher risk for a variety of weight-related problems.

Carrying excess pounds can cause pets to develop breathing problems; the extra fat can cause fatty liver disease and aggravate arthritis. The fat molecules are a great source of inflammatory agents, called free radicals, which can aggravate the arthritis or any other inflammatory disease such as asthma or pancreatitis.

Cats are extremely prone to acquiring Type 2 diabetes when they are overweight, and any anesthetic procedure for your pet is automatically more of a risk because of increased body fat.

Above all, excess weight will shorten a pet’s life. A landmark study has shown that pets who take in a limited number of calories live almost two years longer than pets without calorie restriction.

Pet owners are the major gateway both to preventing pets from becoming obese and helping them lose the excess fat. After all, it’s the owner who controls the pet’s access to food.

So, if your veterinarian has diagnosed your pet as overweight, first, don’t despair. Your veterinarian is happy to develop a plan that will safely and effectively reduce the extra pounds. Next, use tools like a Body Condition Score chart ( to more fully understand what an overweight pet looks like.

Involve your whole family in the pet’s weight-loss process. Assign one person to be the pet’s primary feeder and make sure that no one else in the family is providing non-approved treats or snacks on the side. It may not seem like much, but even a couple of dog biscuits each day can add an extra 50 to 100 calories. That’s almost 25 percent of a small dog’s total daily requirement!

For obese pets, your veterinarian will recommend a prescription weight-reducing diet. Although you might be tempted to continue feeding the previous brand of food in smaller portions, this practice could actually lead to nutritional deficiencies. Reduction diets are specially formulated to provide the right amount of all nutrients while limiting the amount of calories.

You may need to change your pet’s feeding schedule, too. Most pet owners leave food out for their pets all day (free-choice feeding), and that often leads to the obesity problem. Or they only feed a large amount once a day. By feeding the right amount twice or even three times a day, you can actually help your pet lose more weight.

Increasing your pet’s exercise is also a crucial component to weight loss. Once your veterinarian gives the OK, try to work up to two 20-minute walks per day or even one hour-long walk. The extra benefit is the positive effects on your own health, too.

For cats, use kitty toys to encourage play and movement. Play chase games up and down stairs so your kitty gets in some step aerobics. Teasers on strings and even laser pointers can keep your cat moving; a couple of 20-minute sessions each day will help your feline burn more calories.

Many cat clients ask me what is the pouch that hangs down between some cats’ hind legs. It is not a normal part of cat anatomy. My brother–in-law coined the term “ventral turret” for the saggy skin there. It is present in cats that are not getting enough exercise. They are indoors sitting in a sunny spot rather than climbing, jumping and hunting. So, really, our kitties need an abdominal workout, and doing play sessions on stairs is a good start.

Once you have started the process, your veterinarian will want to see you for regular weigh-ins and consultations to make sure you are meeting goals and adjusting as needed.

This is a serious issue and has a proven effect on longevity. We all want our pets to be with us for as long as possible, so helping them lose excess weight is just one way we can help make that happen.