While this is an on-going, year round concern, every October we observe Pet Obesity Prevention Day in an effort to help combat the epidemic of tubby puppies and fat felines.
Looking at the data, more than 60% of cats and 56% of dogs are considered overweight or obese. That's about 56 million cats and more than 50 million dogs! Just like with us, those extra pounds can cause a wide range of problems for our pets including orthopedic issues, diabetes, or even a shortened life span. In fact, a landmark 14 year long study done by Purina showed that dogs who were fed 25% fewer calories than their litter mates lived 1.8 years longer!!
While it might be easy to dismiss these concerns by saying "my pet is just big boned" or "she's just fluffy", it is important to recognize the problems associated with obesity as well as some of the root causes. We certainly know that specific breeds of dogs (Labs, Bassets, Beagles, Bulldogs) are predisposed to being overweight and we recognize that some disease states (like hypothyrodism in dogs) can affect weight gain, but the bottom line is that we tend to feed very energy dense foods to our pets, we spoil them with yummy treats, and we allow them to feed "free choice". All of these factors have contributed to this on-going epidemic.
If you want to help your furry friend shed those extra pounds, here's a few tips to guide your efforts. First and foremost, discuss your thoughts with your veterinarian and work with him/her to set up an appropriate weight loss plan. Far too often, owners will try to simply reduce portions or try "fad" type diets that could cause problems for the pet. Have a good physical examination done, follow through with diagnostic tests (to screen for medical causes of obesity), and be sure to have regular "weigh ins" done to monitor progress.
Next, make sure you and your veterinarian agree on a proper diet. In some cases, simply reducing portion size could work, but it's vital to understand how less food may impact your pet's intake of essential nutrients. In some cases, it might be better to consider a veterinary therapeutic weight loss diet.
Just like with people, proper exercise is key to weight loss as well. Most pet experts would consider 2 twenty minute walks per day as ideal for many pets, especially those who are more sedentary. Remember, your pudgy pup won't be able to run 2 miles with you immediately...take it slow and allow your pet to build up stamina and endurance before embarking on strenuous exercise.
Cats can be a little more problematic when it comes to exercise. Certainly, many cats will tolerate and even enjoy a leash walk outside, but we often have to be more creative with our feline friends. Some owners have turned to interactive toys, like Kitty Teasers, and others have tried placing small piles of kibble around the house to try and stimulate more "hunting behavior".
Make sure you understand the right expectations for your pet's weight loss. Many cats and small dogs should NOT lose more than 1/4 lb per week, so a modest 3-4 lb weight loss plan could take 3 or 4 months to complete! As always, check in with your veterinarian whenever you have questions or concerns.