Half of the dogs and cats in this country are overweight, putting them at risk of joint pain, diabetes, and shortened life spans.
By Margaret Littman, Prevention
Americans aren’t the only ones whose waistlines are expanding–our pets are getting bigger too. “In twenty years I have watched pets get supersized in front of my eyes,” says Ernie Ward, DVM, a Calabash, NC, a veterinarian, author of Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter, and founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP).
Just over half of all cats and dogs in US households are either overweight or obese, reports the APOP 2009 National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Study, and the reasons our pets are packing on the pounds aren’t that different from the reasons their owners are. Just as we’re eating larger portions and more snacks than a generation ago, so are our pets. Because our lives are busier, we’re less likely to get the exercise we need–and less likely to take a long walk with our dogs or engage our cats with a ball of yarn.
It might seem that an extra pound or two on our four-legged companions isn’t so terrible. But that little bit can be a significant percentage of a pet’s total weight. For example, a Yorkie who tips the scales at “just” 12 pounds is equivalent to a 5-foot-4 woman who weighs 218 pounds.
Some owners disregard the health hazards associated with overweight pets and instead focus on how cute their plump cat or roly-poly puppy looks, says Nick Trout, DVM, a staff surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston and author of Love Is the Best Medicine: What Two Dogs Taught One Veterinarian about Hope, Humility, and Everyday Miracles. But overfeeding a fat cat or dog is basically loving it to death, says Dr. Trout. Overweight and obese pets not only have shorter life spans but also suffer from more medical problems during their lives, including back pain, arthritis, kidney disease, and diabetes–and they’re more expensive to care for as a result.
Just as disturbing, says Dr. Ward, is that an inactive pet is more likely to become depressed or anxious. That’s because a sedentary lifestyle leads to an alteration in the three major brain chemicals responsible for mood–and that can create emotional issues. “Aerobic activity for as little as twenty to thirty minutes a day balances norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin levels,” he says, “resulting in a better, more stable mood.” Also, well-exercised pets won’t be quite as wired indoors, so they’ll be less prone to chewing, barking, and other troublesome behaviors.
Pet Exercise Dos & Don’ts
DON’T be a weekend warrior. Exercising heavily on a Saturday after a whole week off can aggravate arthritis and cause joint injuries and sore muscles.
DO watch for warning signs of fatigue. Be alert to extreme panting, and check if your dog’s ears are back from her face and her pupils are dilated.
DON’T use a retractable leash. If it doesn’t retract quickly enough, your dog can accidentally become entangled with bikes, strollers, and other dogs.
DO let your dog walk and run on packed wet sand. It’s easier on the joints and may cause fewer injuries than dry sand (for you and your pup!).
DON’T tie your pet to your bike. Even if the leash doesn’t get snagged in the spokes, your pup will tire before you do.
How to Start Your Furry Friend On A Diet
1. Use Portion Control
The serving size on a bag of kibble is formulated for active adult dogs and cats, says Ernie. Ward, DVM. So if your 90-pound dog needs to lose 15 pounds, follow instructions for a 75-pound dog, suggests Barbara Royal, DVM, of the Royal Treatment Veterinary Center in Chicago. But cats become critically ill if they don’t get enough food, so instead of restricting amounts, switch to a high-protein variety or one with fewer carbohydrates.
2. Limit High-Calorie Snacks
Traditional pet treats are the canine or feline version of a Twinkie: high in sugar and carbs, low in protein. Look for high-protein treats that can be torn into small pieces. “You don’t have to give your pet a huge dog biscuit to get him to sit,” says Meredith Rettinger, DVM, a Los Angeles veterinarian working on Project: Pet Slim Down, a Purina Veterinary Diets Web reality series.
No More Fat Cats
Cats don’t like to do anything they’re not in the mood for–and exercise is no exception. Very few will tolerate being walked on a leash; if yours will, use a nylon harness instead, as cats can slip out of collars. The easiest way to get your kitty to move around is to strategically place her food and litter box in areas that require her to walk and climb.
Many toys are designed to engage a cat, but some owners also have success with a laser pointer or a feather tied to a broomstick. Play with your cat for 10 minutes a night to help her release energy and burn calories, suggests Louise Murray, DVM, DACVIM, vice president, ASPCA Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City.