TAKING A BITE OUT OF OBESITY
By Millie Armstrong, DVM
As a doctor, I see a lot of obese patients. In fact, one of my most recent patients gained 12 pounds this past year. He could hardly get on the exam table and his belly was drooping to the floor. If he didn't go on a diet soon, he was on the verge of developing very serious health risks, some of which might be life shortening. The patient, a beagle named Snoopy, should ideally weigh 25 pounds but tipped the scales at 48.
Fortunately, his human friends were willing to listen to my advice this visit and together we planned a course of action to regain Snoopy's waistline.
With animals, a common axiom seems to be "Food is Love." Unfortunately, several people take this to the extreme and really pile on the love when it comes to the dinner bowl. Well-wishing friends add to the problem by saying, "One cookie won't hurt him." People don't appreciate just how accurate the phrase "killing them with kindness" can be.
Veterinarians recently surveyed estimate that between 25 to 44% of dogs are obese and overeating is the main culprit.
Reasons for pet obesity
- People tend to feed their pets too much and supplement their food with table scraps or fatty snacks.
- Feeding instructions on food bags are higher than animals require nutritionally, compounding the problem of how much to feed.
- Many brands of lower cost pet food are full of fillers meaning that animals can be overweight but nutritionally starving. Ask your vet for the best diet for your pet.
- A lot of dogs and cats are driven to eat non-stop until they find the bottom of the food dish.
- Certain medical conditions can cause obesity in pets, such as hypothyroidism and Cushing's disease. A veterinarian can examine each pet and discuss its medical history to determine if additional testing is necessary.
The health risks associated with obesity in pets are a major concern. Obese animals pose greater anesthetic risks during surgery. Excess weight leads to back, hip, and joint problems, which can lead to an early euthanasia if the pain cannot be controlled. As in people, obesity predisposes animals to diabetes. Obese cats that stop eating for a few days, for whatever reason, risk developing fatty liver disease. This life threatening form of liver failure is much more serious than the original problem that caused the cat to stop eating.
Oftentimes, simply reducing the amount fed and replacing table snacks with more appropriate low calorie treats will be enough to reduce the weight.
How to help your pet lose weight
- Speak to your veterinarian about an appropriate course of action for your pet's unique situation.
- Mix the new food with the old food for a week, to give the animal time to adjust to the new food.
- It is important to feed the amount specified for the animal's ideal weight, not its current weight.
- Treats such as low-calorie biscuits are available; low fat rice cakes, hard vegetables or fruit also serve as nice treats.
- Exercise with your dog (and cat) to burn off calories and to show your affection. Playing fetch, swimming, walking-all burn calories and keep the bones and joints in good working order. Cats can be a little more challenging to stimulate; feathers, ping pong balls, catnip toys and penlights will trigger outbursts of energy. (Do not play with strings, yarn or rubber bands, as these may be swallowed and lead to an obstruction in need of surgery.)
- Involving children in pet exercise and games adds to the enjoyment and instills a sense of responsibility.
Do not expect great changes in 1-2 months; as in people, it is best to lose weight gradually over the course of 6-12 months to avoid drastic changes in metabolism. Once the weight is off, a maintenance-feeding program can be developed.
Dr. Millie Armstrong is a member of the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association. For more information visit www.vtvets.org.