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Very unhealthy cat!
Very unhealthy dog!

In pets, as in humans, obesity is a common problem.  In the US it is estimated that 25 – 40% of the pet population is obese.  I would actually estimate that at least 70% of pets are overweight or obese.  The health issues that are caused by, related to, or worsened by obesity include:

  • diabetes,
  • arthritis,
  • skin problems,
  • respiratory problems,
  • liver disease (cats),
  • worsened fatigue,
  • higher anesthetic risk,
  •  unwillingness to eat special diets when they are sick,
  •  shortened life span.

 A study that looked at two groups of Golden Retrievers showed that a group of dogs in ideal body condition score lived 2 years longer than the overweight group.  This is 14 years in doggie years. 

In practice, I’ve seen dogs that are obese and have arthritis that can barely walk.  I’ve seen cats that are no longer able to groom their hind end causing painful mats and skin infections.  I’ve treated dogs and cats that have infections because of skin folds caused by fat.  I’ve given pets medications for respiratory problems that would have been better controlled with weight loss alone.  Owners spend a lot to get these pets medications, grooming and dealing with the various health problems.  The solution lies not in medical treatment, but in diet and exercise programs. 

Every time I see an overweight pet I wonder how long it will be until I see this pet on emergency for a diabetic crisis or some other weight related problem.   These pets are very unhealthy and due to the medical cost and excessive food bills….very expensive!

If you have an overweight pet I think it is important to figure out why the pet is being overfed. Unless we can overcome the psychological reasons for overfeeding, we will not be able to treat these animals and improve their health, quality of life, and prolong their life.  I think veterinarians are reluctant to discuss this with clients.  Every veterinarian has also found that clients often are quite offended when you tell them their pet is overweight.  It seems that some owners almost take it as a personal affront.  So, some veterinarians won’t always discuss the problem fully and will tread very lightly around the subject.  So, if you are reading this to help your overweight pet then I applaud you!  I want you to think about why you overfeed.  The following is a list of possible issues based on my experience:

  • For many owners food equals love.  They aren’t giving a treat they are giving love!
  • Assumption that every time the cat meows or the dog whines that it is hungry!
  • Assumption that their pet should never feel hungry or it may be unhappy!
  • Assumption that the pet won’t love me if I don’t feed them what they like.
  • They won’t eat kibble or canned food so I have to feed them steak only.
  • They hardly eat anything and I don’t want them to starve.

Do you fit into one of these categories?  Do you have other motivations for overfeeding?  It is time to challenge these assumptions.  Food doesn’t equal love.  Food is good nutrition and a necessity of life.  Love is play, attention, and pets.  Pets vocalize for many reasons but if you feed them every time they vocalize you will teach them to vocalize.  Pets will overeat if given the chance as, in nature they would feast when supply was plentiful.  Your pet will love you if you feed them good nutritious food.  Children don’t stop loving their parents for trying to ensure they eat well.  Later in life, they may even thank them!  If you feed things like steak and table scraps, you will train the pet not to eat anything else.  If there is no steak, they are unlikely to starve before eating something else (although cats sometimes try).  Lots of owners think that their pet hardly eats anything and yet it is overweight.  If the pet is overweight, it is eating too much!  Possibly the food is not being measured so it doesn’t seem like much, or the pet isn’t exercising much, or someone else is supplementing the food.  Explore your thoughts and feelings and see if you can make a list of your reasons for overfeeding.  Be honest and it might help you overcome these inaccurate assumptions. 

Many owners simply do not know how much to feed their pet and/or keep feeding the same amount throughout the pet’s life.  Instead I encourage owners to base the feeding amount on the pet’s weight, body condition score and exercise level.  Some also follow the recommendations on the pet food bag but these are simply starting points and they don’t take into account the pet’s individual metabolism or exercise level.  Others read the pet food label but then don’t use a measuring cup so they are inadvertently feeding too much.  Yep, a margarine container is usually way more than a cup!  

Remember again, love comes in pets, playing games, exercising and relaxing with your pet.  Substitute these instead of treats when your pet is hounding you (pun intended).  This might be what they really wanted in the first place.  Also, consider substituting low calorie treats or even pieces of kibble instead of high calorie treats.  Please believe that if your pet is overweight it is eating too much.  When you start really tracking your pet’s food, you may recognize that.  As for the picky eaters, there is information below in the articles listed at the end that can help with those pets.  If you identified other reasons that you overfeed,  I hope you will advise your veterinarian and ask for help in defining the problem and solving it. 

I challenge you to put a post-it notes on your pet’s food and all the different treats.  Write the following things on the notes:

  • What am I feeling and why am I feeding this?
  • Does the pet require this to be healthy?
  • How much exercise has the pet done today?

Then really think hard about the reasons you overfeed.  Even explore them with a counselor if you have access to one.  I think most people who overfeed love their pets but don’t really understand that they are killing them with misguided kindness.

Another challenge I have for you is to watch 3 episodes of the Downsize My Pet show on TV.    Watch the changes in these pets and see for yourself how much happier and healthier they are at the end.  When you are watching the food challenge where they have owners overeat to the same degree as they are overfeeding their pets listen to how awful they feel.  Also think about how you would feel if you ate a Christmas meal every night and how hard it is to stop when there is so much really rich and tasty food.  Then consider how this would affect your quality of life and how it is affecting your pet’s quality of life.  Don’t feel guilty, but do use this to motivate yourself to improve your pet’s health from now on.   

So, if you have an overweight pet, you should visit your veterinarian.  They can do a physical exam and possibly even bloodwork to rule out medical issues and/or get a baseline.   Then they can start you on a safe diet plan.  Cats need to lose weight very gradually so it is important to go for monthly rechecks and continue to reassess the body condition score.  Ask your veterinarian how to body condition score at home and/or watch the video below.  This will help you stay involved and motivated.  You can also consider doing measurements around the chest and abdomen to help you follow the weight loss.  Make a chart and check every two weeks.  Also ask your veterinarian how much exercise and what type of exercise is acceptable for your pet and their individual health situation.  I don’t want your pet to get injured!  Also ask for information on the calorie count of the various treats or human foods you are feeding and see whether they are acceptable while on the diet.  Now be honest and tell them everything!  Then stick with it and watch your pet’s youthful energy return as the weight comes off. 

Another common problem that occurs in a household is that one person spoils the pet with tons of treats.  It can be difficult to get someone to change but see if they will consider it.  Also, consider putting the pet in a different area of the house when that person is eating.  You can also exercise the pet more to try to counteract the extra calories.  Possibly a family counselor could help you all deal with this issue as it can be a great source of family conflict.  If you cannot get this person to stop then consider whether rehoming the pet is an option.  Do your best!

The following articles have information on exercise, feeding, and play that will be useful:

Thank you for your interest and for loving your pet enough to say “No More Overfeeding”.