By Jessica Remitz
While many pet owners feel that feeding their animals hearty meals, table scraps, and treats is a sign of love and caring, overfeeding a cat or dog leads to an abundance of health problems that can shorten or endanger their lives. Here’s a look at why obesity is an issue and how to help keep your beloved pet slim, healthy and happy without the extra treats or servings of dinner.
The Dangers of Overfeeding
Just like us, it’s important for animals to have the right balance of essential vitamins, nutrients and minerals for their bodies to function properly. Animals that aren’t fed a balanced diet can have a variety of health problems, like bone malformations or poor density due to a lack of calcium and phosphorous and heart disease due to a lack of taurine, says Sarah Carter, DVM at the MSPCA Angell Shalit-Glazer Clinic. While you want to make sure you’re feeding your pet the right amount of food, overfeeding can cause an entirely different host of issues, namely obesity, which can be difficult to manage.
“An obese animal is not a healthy animal; they often have less energy and it is harder for them to get around [to] go for walks and get up and down stairs,” Dr. Carter says. “A cat or dog that can run and jump will be much happier and have much better mental and physical health.”
Obesity can lead to diabetes, inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, and certain types of liver failure in cats. According to Dr. Carter, orthopedic and neurologic diseases can also be more difficult to treat when an animal is obese. If a dog or cat has slipped a disk or fractured a limb, for example, it will be much harder for them to recover and move around if they are carrying extra weight, she adds. While any animal can be predisposed to obesity, pets that lead sedentary lifestyles and consume extra calories are at the highest risk of being obese. Unfortunately, a large number of pets are currently overweight or obese regardless of their breeding.
How to Help Your Overweight Pet
The key to keeping your pet’s weight in check is to feed them a well balanced diet with an appropriate number of calories for their breed, age and body type. While it’s essential to discuss the specifics of your pet’s diet (including what and how much to feed them) with your veterinarian, Dr. Carter recommends the following for maintaining your pet’s health and reducing its weight:
- Look at pet food labels—if a pet food is labeled as nutritionally balanced for the maintenance of an adult animal, it will have fewer calories than a food designed for growing, gestating or lactating animals. “When feeding an adult, non litter-bearing animal,” Dr. Carter says, “make sure their food is only labeled for maintenance.”
- Decrease treats and table scraps—reduce the amount of treats and table scraps you feed your animal by decreasing the frequency with which you treat your pet or giving them smaller-sized treats. Try breaking a treat your pet likes into small pieces and give it to them throughout the day rather than all at once.
- Increase exercise—increase the amount of daily activity your overweight pet gets by extending or increasing the frequency of your daily walks, putting steps in front of your cat’s food or purchasing interactive toys that encourage your pet to move throughout the day. “Keep in mind, though, that if your pet is overweight, it has probably not been the most athletic animal,” Dr. Carter says. “Gradually increase the amount of exercise that you’re providing so that your pet can work its way up to more athletic activities.”
- Monitor your pet’s weight—weigh your animal regularly to see if it is continuing to gain weight. “Weight gain happens gradually so it can sometimes be missed,” Dr. Carter says. “Talk to your veterinarian about body condition scoring. Once you know how to score your animal, you’ll be able to check whether it’s becoming over- or underweight.”
- Talk to your vet—about adjusting your pet’s diet after it has been spayed or neutered, as cats and dogs that have been spayed or neutered require fewer calories than unaltered animals.
Reducing the amount of food you feed your pet to help them lose weight may lead to nutritional deficiencies, and restricting calories too quickly for overweight cats can lead to liver failure, so it’s best to work with your veterinarian to determine the best plan of action.
“Prescription diets have been created to help with weight loss that restrict the number of calories your pet consumes while giving them the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients required to maintain their health,” Dr. Carter says. “These foods can be acquired from your veterinarian who will also be able to provide insight as to how well the diet is working.”
Loving your pet means feeding them a well balanced diet, so if you’re concerned about restricting their food intake and losing their affection, remember that there are many other ways to show our pets we love them. Playing with your pet regularly, taking them for walks, providing them with mentally and physically interactive toys and spending time with them are all non-food related ways to show your pet you care.
“Feeding your pet and then ignoring them will not make your pet feel loved,” Dr. Carter says. “Most animals want your affection and attention, not just your food.”