Human obesity is a serious problem in North America, and pets are losing the battle of the bulge as well.
Statistics estimate a staggering 35 to 40 per cent of dogs and cats in North America are overweight or obese. So what is the source of the problem and what does it mean to our pets?
In animals, as in people, multiple factors can be involved.
Pet neutering and spaying are highly recommended for their health benefits and for population control, but they can result in a slightly slower metabolism. Similarly, hypothyroidism promotes weight gain because of sluggish metabolism. Genetics may contribute - some breeds are prone to obesity, including cocker spaniels and Labrador retrievers - but sedentary lifestyle, poor diet choices and lack of portion control are the main culprits.
In short, excess weight is the result of consuming more calories than are expended.
Health problems caused or exacerbated by obesity include joint disease, diabetes, pancreatitis and respiratory and immune compromise. Obese cats can develop a serious liver disease known as hepatic lipidosis. Overweight animals are at increased risk for heat stroke and surgical and anaesthetic complications.
These conditions are serious and can have a significant negative impact on both quality and length of life.
So what's the solution?
Well, the old adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" rings true for obesity - we can raise our pets to follow a healthy lifestyle.
Responsibility lies entirely with pet owners as our pets can't open the cupboard.
First, adhere to your pet's daily caloric requirements.
Directions on pet food bags serve only as a guideline: they often over-estimate the amount of food your pet requires. Your veterinarian can give you a more accurate feeding guide. In addition to this, conditioning your dog or cat to meal feeding from the start is ideal, as pets that "graze" over the course of the day are more likely to overeat.
Always measure the food in a proper measuring cup. Feeding treats is fine and what pet owner (myself included), doesn't love to get to their pet's heart via the stomach? Remember though, to account for treats in the daily calorie count (even little treats can add up) and try low-calorie rewards.
Avoid feeding table scraps as the caloric significance to dogs and cats is astounding. For instance, feeding a 1 oz piece of cheddar cheese to a dog is equivalent to a human eating 1.5 hamburgers, while for a cat it equates to 3.5 burgers.
Maintaining an active lifestyle for your pet is also essential for weight control. Aim for walks of at least 10 to 15 minutes, several times daily. Other activities such as agility, fly-ball and dog parks are great ways for you and your dog to have fun and keep active. Indoor multi-level cat-trees, interactive toys and laser pointers can help to keep your cat fit.
What about the pet that is already overweight?
Your veterinary health team is a valuable asset. A physical examination and some lab work will help ensure that no underlying health problems need to be addressed. Your veterinarian can tailor an appropriate diet, feeding and exercise plan to your pet's needs and track your progress with monthly weigh-ins.
Make sure everybody in your household is on board and there are no diet saboteurs. If you are concerned your pet is overweight, see your veterinarian before starting a weight-loss program.
Pet obesity is preventable. By keeping our pets trim and fit, we can help them spend a long and happy life with us.
Dr. Krista Nelson is a graduate of Ontario Veterinary College. She currently practices emergency medicine at Toronto Veterinary Emergency Hospital, a 24-hour emergency and referral hospital in Scarborough. Visit us at www.tveh.ca, 416-247-VETS (8387), https://twitter.com/#!/TorontoVetEmerg