The Skinny on Pet Weight Loss

By: Dr. Kristi Sharpe

Is my dog overweight? If you’re asking this question, the answer is most likely yes. Just like people, pet obesity is on the rise and can cause your pet significant health problems. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention 55.8% of dogs and 59.5% of cats are considered overweight or obese in 2018. The good news is pet obesity is easier to fix than our own. Dogs and cats can’t open the pantry and help themselves (well not usually anyway). So controlling their caloric intake and midnight cravings is pretty simple. I write this and chuckle to myself because I know the struggle is real. Your cat screams at you because it can see the bottom of its food bowl. Your dog decides since you’ve cut his rations he’ll raid the trash instead.

Pampered pets can certainly make their displeasure known. In this article, we’ll go over how we formulate a diet plan for each pet. We’ll also touch on pitfalls that could arise once the diet is underway.

First, you need to determine how overweight your pet is. This is where we come in. The veterinary clinic is where all your pets’ diets should begin. First we’ll weigh your pet and then do a physical exam to determine their body condition score (BCS). The BCS helps us take your pet’s skeletal frame into consideration when deciding what an ideal weight should be. After all, 75 pounds can look a lot different on different dogs. Scores are given on a scale from 1-9 with 1 being emaciated and 9 being obese. Once a BCS score has been determined and an ideal weight identified we can use that information to calculate how many calories your pet needs to reach their target weight. If you’re interested in learning more about BCS charts the World Small Animal Veterinary Association has a nice handout outlining the key points. I’ll post a link below.

Ok, so we’ve established the pet is overweight and we know how many calories we need to get them skinny. What’s next? Educating the owner. Owners are the key to a successful diet so they need to understand what is going on. We go over what kind of food they feed, how much they currently feed and how to determine the caloric content of that food. If an owner tells me they feed 2 cups of food a day, I usually have to clarify what a cup is to them. When we are talking about measuring food, a cup is actually one measuring cup, not a solo cup, not a coffee cup and not a Dollywood anniversary souvenir cup. Most owners are pretty shocked when they realize just how many calories they’ve been letting their critters eat because of not measuring.

Calorie information for a food will usually be listed on the label as kilocalories (kcals) per cup or can. For clarification, one calorie is one kilocalorie. So don’t get confused by wording.

If it’s not listed on the label you can usually find this information with a quick Google search. You can use the calories per cup (or can) to determine how much you should feed your pet. For example if your food is 475 kcals per cup and your dog requires 950 kcals per day to reach its ideal weight you should feed 2 cups a day.

Treats can drastically impact a pet’s diet so we need to keep them in check as well. The calorie requirement is strict which means every French fry dropped, every treat given and anything else that goes into their mouth count toward their calorie allotment. You’d be surprised by how many clients don’t think about treats when we ask them how much their pet eats. For instance, a large milk bone contains 90 calories. For a dog that is on a 500 calorie diet one Milk-Bone a day is almost 20% of its daily calorie allotment. If you have a pet that is insistent on having a snack between meals consider healthy alternatives. For dogs, healthy treats include carrots, frozen green beans, apples, and blueberries. If your dog prefers the prepackaged treats then stick to training treats since they’re small and usually only contain a few calories per treat or use their dry kibble as a treat. For kitties, the freeze-dried chicken or fish treats are low calorie and high in protein. Avoid any soft and chewy prepackaged treat for both cats and dogs as these are usually very high in calories.

Once we’ve established a pet’s diet plan we need to follow up. We should recheck their weight every two weeks to make sure they’re losing and to also make sure they’re losing at a healthy rate. Dogs should lose about 2% of their body weight every two weeks. Cats should lose about 1%. If pets are put on a crash diet with an extreme calorie restriction we can cause serious health conditions like hepatic lipidosis (ie fatty liver). So we want a slow and steady weight loss. It’s ok if we hit a plateau. Just like in people it’s inevitable. If your pet hits a plateau before they reach their ideal weight a veterinarian can guide you on how to jump-start their weight loss. In our more stubborn cases, specialized prescription diets are available to help dogs and cats reach their ideal body weight.

Getting your pet to lose weight can be frustrating, but don’t give up. Studies have proven that reducing your pet’s weight can increase their lifespan by years. It also reduces the risk of other diseases like osteoarthritis and diabetes. It is definitely worth the effort to shave off those extra pounds. Your veterinarian can help guide you through the process. There are also websites like the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention that provide a wealth of information for owners.

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