Podgy pooches and chunky cats, why our pets are getting fatter and what we can do about it. Dr Jo Righetti takes a look at pets and obesity.
Just like us, our pets are gaining weight! Obesity is becoming more and more common in our pet dogs and cats. Around the world it’s commonly estimated that over half of our pet dogs and cats are overweight.
While any breed of dog can gain weight, commonly reported cases of obesity are found in Beagles, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, Labradors and Pugs. Unfortunately, even when their dogs are clearly overweight, owners often fail to see it in their own pets.
Cats have traditionally been less represented in the overweight cases, tending to be fussier with their food choices, but they too are also gaining in size.
So why are our pets becoming larger?
Reasons pets are obese
Obesity is a complex interaction of factors but overall it is a case of more energy being taken in than being used in our pet’s daily life. Extra energy intake is stored as fat.
The following may influence our pet’s tendency to gain weight.
Feeding our family is often our human way of expressing love but even our pets can suffer from too much of this edible nourishing. It’s difficult to resist those begging canine eyes or our cat meowing at their food dish, yet again. Recent canine research showed that owners of overweight dogs were more likely to view their pet as a baby, perhaps triggering that nourishing desire.
Animals, in the wild, naturally spend a large proportion of their daily life in search of food. In our homes, we give them their dinner on a plate and leave them with little to do for hours at a time. Our pets often still enjoy the hunt for food and seek out additional opportunities to find it – from your plate or even the garbage bin!
If we do not give our pets enough opportunity to exercise, just like humans, they may become couch potatoes. Their metabolism slows down and less food is required. If we keep feeding them the same amounts, they gain weight. Some pets are naturally more active than others. If your pet enjoys your company of the sofa more than chasing a ball or long rambles, then they may be more likely to gain weight.
Just as we all have different personality traits, so too do our pets. Some humans value energy-rich foods that are high in sugar or fat. Likewise, overweight dogs are more likely to choose higher-energy rewards than those dogs of ideal weight.
Cats don’t have a sweet tooth, but many do seek out fat-laden foods, with cheese or cream being favourites.
Risks of obesity
Obesity carried many risks for our pets, just as it does in humans These include physical risks and behavioural consequences.
Overweight pets are more likely to suffer from heart disease, cancer, respiratory problems, diabetes, joint issues and more. Being less mobile leads to a poorer quality of life and so obese pets are often less interested in exercise and play.
Obesity can lead to behavioural problems. Overweight dogs are more likely to guard or steal food, perhaps not surprisingly since they value food so much. Other undesirable behaviours that are commonly reported in overweight dogs include excessive barking, being fearful outdoors and growling and snapping at strangers or other dogs.
How to tell if your pet is overweight
The following may help you determine if your pet could do with losing a few kilos:
- Feel your pets’ ribs. If you cannot feel them, chances are your pet is overweight. If their ribs are protruding, your pet may be underweight.
- Your pet should have a waistline. The middle portion of their body should curve gently inwards compared to chest and hips.
- If your pet finds it hard to exercise, when they previously enjoyed it, or they waddle when walking, then they may be overweight. Other conditions such as arthritis can make it more difficult to exercise, so always check with your vet.
- Other people may tell you that your pet is fat. While they may not be experts, they may be able to see an increase where you are unable to.
- Ask your vet.
How to slim down your pets
Determine your pet’s ideal weight, depending on their breed, age and activity level. Ask your vet if you are unsure. Your vet may also screen your pet for any underlying conditions that may be causing obesity. These include diabetes and hypothyroidism.
Proportion your pet’s food
Once you have determined your pet’s ideal weight, you can calculate the amount of food they need. Commercially available diets have guidelines on the packaging or ask your vet.
The total daily food amount can be fed in different ways. For example, your dog could have two or three meals a day or your cat six meals. Be careful not to go over the allocated amount and if you are feeding lots of treats, then reduce down the amount of their usual diet.
Examine your routines
Studies of obesity in dogs have found that dogs of normal weight tend to be fed twice a day and are walked daily. Overweight dogs tend to be fed more or less often and exercised less. Obese dogs are also given more treats.
If you need to slim your dog down, try feeding twice a day, sticking to their prescribed daily rations and watch their treat overload. Try to exercise your dog every day, if possible. Family, friends, neighbours or dog walkers may be able to help with dog walking.
Use food for life
If your pet values food in their life, use this to your advantage. You may like to:
- Play games with food.
- Use food as a reward for desirable behaviours during training.
- Use food-releasing toys to slow down your pet’s eating behaviour.
- Hide food around your home and garden for your pet to find.
- Use food to occupy your pet when you cannot be with them.
Using food in these ways will help your pet fulfil their natural drive to seek sustenance, while keeping them active and at ideal body condition.
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