When less is more: Getting overweight pets down to size

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File photo. File photo.

As we roll toward the end of January, I gather a lot of us have New Year’s resolutions that are already unraveling and set to expire by Groundhog Day. C’est la vie—in 11 short months, you can give it another shot. In the meantime, maybe it’s time to provide some surrogate willpower to those who have even less than we do. That’s right…the dog and cat have really let themselves go.

I understand that the roly-poly cat is kind of cute, and that the pudgy dog just looooves bacon. And as the owner of a hound dog, I’m well acquainted with the mind-control properties of pleading eyes. But it’s going to be a lot less cute when the cat needs insulin twice a day, and the dog develops crippling joint disease at 7 years old. From diabetes to arthritis, all that weight has consequences, and that means it’s your job to keep it under control.

Most animals are overweight for a simple reason—they eat too much and don’t exercise enough. There are some exceptions that may be worth looking into if your pet isn’t responding to a diet plan (dogs, for instance, can struggle with thyroid conditions that complicate weight loss). But by and large, this genuinely boils down to math. If animals burn more calories than they consume, they have to lose weight. Our pets are amazing in countless ways, but violating the laws of thermodynamics isn’t one of them.

So how much food should your pet get? Just as in people, there’s no magic number that can apply to everybody. Animals have varying caloric needs based on size, genetics, and activity levels. I generally recommend using their current feeding as a baseline, and adjusting from there based on the target weight. But that means knowing how much they’re eating right now. “A handful, maybe?” or “About this much of a bowl” just aren’t specific enough. You need a measuring cup. And you need to break the habit of just filling the bowl when it’s empty (this is an especially common problem with cats). Meals should be measured and given two or three times a day.

That’s where the good news comes in. Human diets are such a chore. The food is always different from meal to meal, and it’s hard to keep track of how many calories things have. But our pets eat pretty much the same thing every day, it’s been explicitly designed to provide proper nutrition, and it comes out of a bag. Adjusting calories is a simple matter of filling up to a different line on a cup. You have complete control over what gets put in your pet’s bowl, and that means you have the power to get him down to size.

Some animals require heavy reductions in feeding to make the right impact. In those cases, it may be worth considering an entirely new diet rather than trying to feed less of the usual food. The problem is that food contains more than just calories. When you feed less of it, you are also feeding fewer vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. And if you have to cut way back, you may wind up shortchanging your pet in other ways. Vitamin supplements might be considered in these cases. Otherwise, dedicated low-calorie and prescription diets are available to help ensure that your pet gets proper nutrition while you shave off the calories.

Of course, animals don’t only eat during mealtime. There’s always somebody looking to toss the cat a treat, or share their dinner with the dog. It adds up! Keep in mind that animals are a lot smaller than we are. Your “little piece” of meat is a Porterhouse to a Jack Russell Terrier (which doesn’t stop him from eating it in less than two seconds). We mean well, but our eyes are much bigger than their stomachs, and those uncounted spare calories can completely ruin efforts to improve your animal’s health. Cut these out completely until you have a really good sense of what direction things are headed, and even then, offer them sparingly. If you need treats for training purposes, stick to low-calorie options like carrot pieces. Or, if you pre-measure your pet’s food for the day, just take a few kibble from that pool and use those.

So far, we’ve really only dealt with the “calories in” half of the equation. It’s important to remember that you can also encourage weight loss by increasing the calories spent during exercise. Cats can be a bit tricky in this regard—most aren’t too inclined to join you for a jog. But laser pointers and other toys can be used to get cats moving again. Meanwhile, Charlottesville offers no shortage of parks and hiking trails to help you get the dog back in shape. And who knows? You might find yourself making a dent in your own New Year’s resolution in the process.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003, and has lived in Charlottesville since. Got a question? E-mail mike@ c-ville.com.

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