Guest post from Dr. Patrick Mahaney, VMD
You may not even realize it, but your companion canine or feline could be pushing the upper limits of a healthy body weight. Carrying extra weight can cause mild to severe health concerns. The clincher is that obesity-related health problems are actually quite preventable once you’ve established different feeding and lifestyle habits for your pet. In my clinical practice, obesity is the number one disease I diagnose in my canine and feline patients (with periodontal disease being the second).
I am personally connected to this issue, as I grew up as an overweight child and made a concerted effort to improve my health and fitness in my teenage years and into adulthood. As a natural extension, I am passionate about promoting anti-obesity awareness for pets. Pet owners must recognize the negative health implications associated with obesity. As an ideally functioning body relies of the operating sum of its parts, all body parts suffer under the stress caused by carrying extra weight. Life-threatening and potentially irreversible health diseases affect the following systems:
- Cardiovascular and Pulmonary- The blood vessels, heart, and lungs inefficiently function when striving to provide oxygen rich blood to more body tissue than they are physiologically capable of serving.
- Dermatologic- Portly pets cannot properly groom themselves and are more prone to inflammation from skin-fold dermatitis and infection from bacteria and yeast.
- Gastrointestinal- Inactivity delays peristalsis, the involuntary contraction of the intestines, leading to indigestion and constipation.
- Immune- Lack of activity and obesity and cause stagnation in the lymphatic system, thereby reducing fluid drainage and ability of white blood cells to manage infection.
- Metabolic- The hormonal synergy between the kidneys, liver, pancreas, thyroid, and adrenal glands is thrown out of balance.
- Musculoskeletal and Nervous- Arthritis (joint inflammation), degenerative joint disease (DJD, the consequence of chronic arthritis), and improper nerve impulse conduction all occur from supporting excess weight.
How can you tell if your pet is be overweight or obese? I use body weight as a landmark, but focus on a pet’s Body Condition Score (BCS) by referencing the Body Condition Scoring Chart created by the Nutritional Support Services at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. The BCS scale ranges from one to five, with one being too thin and five being too fat. The ideal BCS is three. Pets having a BCS of four are considered Stout. Those grading as five are Obese. Here’s the full range of the BCS scale:
1 = Emaciated. Ribs, lumbar vertebrae, pelvic bones and all body prominences evident from a distance. No discernible body fat. Obvious absence of muscle mass.
2 = Thin. Ribs easily palpated and may be visible with no palpable fat. Tops of lumbar vertebrae visible. Pelvic bones less prominent. Obvious waist and abdominal tuck.
3 = Moderate. Ribs palpable without excess fat covering. Abdomen tucked up when viewed from side. This is the ideal body index score.
4 = Stout. General fleshy appearance. Ribs palpable with difficulty. Noticeable fat deposits over lumbar spine and tail base. Abdominal tuck may be absent.
5 = Obese. Large fat deposits over chest, spine and tail base. Waist and abdominal tuck absent. Fat deposits on neck and limbs. Abdomen distended. Now, put your eyes and hands on your pet to determine his BCS. If you’ve scored your canine or feline as being Stout or Obese, you need a plan to promote healthy weight loss.
Here’s my 5-step plan for helping your pet lose weight and keep it off.
1. Schedule an exam with your veterinarian
Some diseases (arthritis, hypothyroidism, etc.) can contribute to your pet’s overweight status, so your veterinarian should perform an examination and any necessary diagnostics (blood/urine testing, X-rays, etc.) to check for underlying causes. Your vet can also determine if your pet is healthy enough to start an exercise program.
2. Enforce calorie restriction and portion control
American owners often feed their pets more than the recommended daily calorie requirements. Always feed your pet at the lower end of the manufacturer’s suggested range per body weight (per day) and use a metric measuring cup to determine the proper portion. If you’re worried your pet will be hungry all the time, consider his long-term health instead. In a 2002 study, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine reported that dogs fed a calorie-restricted diet lived nearly two years longer than those consuming additional calories. The fourteen-year study also proved these pooches were less prone to painful osteoarthritis. By reducing your pet’s daily meals, you’ll be giving him a less painful “retirement” and you’ll get two more years with your best friend.
3. Reduce processed pet foods and increase whole foods
All food, whether for pets or for people, provides some of the building blocks for body tissue development and is a vital factor in the maintaining the body’s ability to normally function. Fresh and moist protein, carbohydrate, and fat sources are more energetically useful to your pet than the ingredients found in dry kibble that are radically changed from nature’s creation. Add extra fiber, moisture, and antioxidant-rich vegetables to your pet’s diet. Reduce your pet’s commercial food by 25-33% and replace the amount with steamed and finely chopped or pureed vegetables. Ideally, choose locally grown and organic food sources such as bell peppers, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, and zucchini. Can’t get fresh veggies in the winter? Buy extra veggies when you go to the local farmer’s market and freeze some for colder months or for when certain vegetables aren’t in season.
4. Feed more frequently
Provide an appropriately-sized meal for your pet at least every 12 hours. More frequent feeding reduces bingeing and promotes improved digestion, slower eating, less aerophagia (swallowing of air), and consistent metabolic rate. Don’t forget to wait 30-60 minutes after each meal before exercising. If you can’t be home to feed your pet on time, a timed feeder will make sure he gets fed at the same time every day. You can also feed your pet each meal in a food-dispensing toy. This gets your pet moving and also restricts his portions.
5. Commit to daily exercise
We all have the same number of hours in each day, yet how we use our time is completely up to us. Even if it’s only for 30 minutes a day, schedule time to engage in some form of exercise with your pet. When starting out, choose simple workouts such as briskly walking around your neighborhood with your dog or having your cat chase a laser toy around the house. Then increase the duration and intensity as your pet’s fitness progresses. You can even get your dog a backpack to build up his endurance. You’ll also benefit from your pet’s exercise habits. The PPET (People Pets Exercising Together) Study proved that owners who regularly exercised with their dog were better able to stick with their own workout plan than participants without pets. Here are some fun activities to try with your dog:
- Agility training
- Running on a treadmill
- Playing in a dog park
- Other outdoor activities including biking, skiing, and yoga
There is no singular food, feeding style, or exercise program that should be maintained over your pet’s lifetime. But your commitment to prioritizing health and fitness through diet and exercise should be unwavering. When our pets age or are affected by illness, their dietary and exercise needs will change. Seek the guidance of your veterinarian and use common sense when creating feeding and fitness programs for your pet.