Weight management in companion animals

The season of fun and fitness is upon us. As we start to get out and get moving, it is a good time to think about healthy weight for not only ourselves, but also for our canine and feline friends.

Just as in our human population, excessive body weight is an extremely common health problem in our companion animals. Additionally, obesity is the most common nutritional disorder in dogs and cats, affecting nearly 30 percent.

Maintaining a healthy weight can go a long way in helping to maintain a healthy pet, and in extending the amount of quality time we have to share with them. As pets age, obesity can predispose them to numerous other health problems, such as diabetes and painful arthritis, and can put excessive strain on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

One reason we see such a high number of our pets become overweight or obese is simply a lack of knowledge. We recommend having your pet (and their waist line) evaluated by their veterinarian at least once every six months at their wellness checkup. Early detection of a non-ideal body condition is key in getting it under control.

Your veterinarian should assign your pet a “body-condition score.” This is a system by which we can quantify how overweight, or underweight, your pet may be. This body-condition score can be either on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being extremely underweight, 3 being ideal and 5 being obese, or a scale of 1-9 with 4-5 being ideal. Based on this assessment, you will know what you need to strive for to obtain a healthy weight for your companion. And your veterinarian is there to help you determine how this can be done.

The keys for maintaining a healthy weight in our pets are the same as they are for us — monitoring caloric intake and exercise. Based on current weight and ideal weight, we can calculate the recommended caloric intake for your pet. Armed with this information, you can get your pet on a diet. However, caloric restriction is not usually enough. We also recommend encouraging exercise as much as possible. This means nice long walks for our canine patients, ideally 45-60 minutes a day if possible. Remember to take walks during the cooler times of the day in the hot summer months, such as at dawn or dusk, to avoid overheating.

It can be a little more difficult to get our feline patients moving. You can use a laser pointer, peacock feather or other feline-specific toy to try to actively get them to play every day. You can also use one of many special feeders designed to make cats work to get their meal. One cheap and easy way to do this is to take an empty plastic soda bottle and cut a few holes in it that are just large enough for the kibble to come out of. Your kitty will need to bat it around for a while in order to get to their dinner!

Cutting out excessive treats can also help. We understand that giving your pet a treat is part of maintaining the special bond between you. However, that treat does not need to be something that is calorically rich. You can use a low-cal treat, such as baby carrots, broccoli or green beans. Or even take a handful of their kibble from their morning meal and use this handful, one kibble at a time, as treats throughout the day. If you have a question about what treats are safe to give, make sure to ask your veterinarian.

If you find it impossible to get your pet’s weight down, your veterinarian is there to help. It may be necessary to rule out underlying health issues, such as Cushing’s disease, diabetes or hypothyroidism. If everything checks out OK, a prescription reduced-calorie diet or a diet that promotes a healthy metabolism may be recommended.

For all of the things that may come up throughout your pet’s lifetime that are unavoidable, an unhealthy weight is something that we should be able to prevent, or, at the very least, recognize and reverse. It is also something that we can do together — a nice long walk in the park, a run along the river or a dip in the pool are all things that we can do with our pets to encourage a healthy weight. Get out there and have fun with your four-legged friend! It can do wonders for the emotional bond we share, as well as our waistlines.

Dr. Nicholle R. Hommel is an associate veterinarian at Society Hill Veterinary Hospital. For more information, call 215-627-5955 or visit www.societyhillvets.com.

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