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Ask the veterinarian: Pet Obesity

SOUTH FLORIDA – A recent study by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that nearly 54 percent of dogs and cats in the U.S. are either overweight or obese. 

Like their human companions, overweight pets are more likely to suffer from medical conditions such as diabetes, heart problems, respiratory ailments, orthopedic injury, liver problems, arthritis, and degenerative joint disease. 

Here are some questions I am most frequently asked by owners of portly pets.

Why is my pet always hungry?

It is very important not to confuse hunger with food drive.  Like their wild ancestors before them, dogs and cats are opportunistic feeders.  Carnivores in the wild can potentially go for weeks without a successful hunt, so it makes sense for them to load up on calories whenever food is available. 

For many of our pets, that "call of the wild" still rings loud and clear.  I once had to surgically remove about four pounds of cat food from a miniature dachshund's stomach.  The stomach had expanded to the point where it was interfering with normal cardiac function.  What was this dog thinking after the first or second pound of food?  Surely not "I'm hungry!"  This is food drive at its finest.  Something inside that little dachshund was telling him to eat as much as possible, as it could be a long time until his next meal.  This ancient survival instinct works against us in our efforts to keep our pets healthy and lean.

When your food driven pet starts begging for food or treats, try to re-direct them with a toy, a game or a trick.  When it comes to training, food drive can be your friend, as food rewards are powerful motivators when our pets are learning new behaviors.  In other words, food-driven pets can be remarkably easy to train.  Since many pets eat and beg for treats as a way of relieving boredom, new activities serve the dual purpose of both burning calories, and giving our pets something interesting and fun to do. 

So does that mean treats are OK?

Not really.  Commercial dog treats are frighteningly high in fat, calories, sugar and sodium.  And most American pet parents are way too generous with them.  The following statistics are used with permission from the book "Chow Hounds" by veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward:

  • One Milk Bone Gravy Bone for Small and Medium Dogs = 45 calories.  When given to a ten pound dog requiring 220 calories per day, it is the caloric equivalent of a human eating two Krispy Kreme Chocolate Iced Glazed Donuts.
  • One Purina Beggin' Strip for a ten pound dog = one McDonalds Cheeseburger for us.
  • One Premium Pig Ear for a 40 pound dog = six 12oz Coke Classics for us.
  • One Good Life Wholesome Bone for a 60 pound = FOUR KFC Original Recipe chicken breasts for us.

Many of my patients get several of these goodies every single day.  Substitute store bought treats for healthy choices such as vegetables or plain rice cakes. 

In our home, healthy treats are broken into pieces the size of a pencil eraser.  They are only given as rewards for genuine accomplishments, and are often substituted for praise, affection, toys, and play.  Our pets are not nearly as excited about the treats as they are about the treat event. This works to our advantage when we decide to trash the treats.

But I have a big, enclosed yard.  Shouldn't that provide my pet with all of the exercise she needs?

Again, not really.  Dog parents with large, fenced properties often assume their dogs get adequate exercise by running around in the yard all day. In reality, most dogs will bolt out the door, excitedly check the perimeter, then settle down.  Since dogs are pack animals, running in a  yard by themselves is not a fun activity for them.  Ultimately, they give in to their bodies' natural instincts to lie around and conserve their energy until the next food event occurs.

I personally believe there is no substitute for a brisk walk with your dog.  It strengthens the human-animal bond and provides mental stimulus.  Cats can be enticed into exercising with a cat dancer, a simple, $3 toy that their owners can wave while sitting at a computer or watching TV.  Consult with your pet's regular veterinarian to determine what levels of activity are appropriate for your furry friend.

OK, Doc, I get it - he's fat.  How much SHOULD he weigh?

Veterinarians rely more on what is known as the Body Conditioning Scale as opposed to numerical charts.  A quick and easy way to determine your pet's body condition is to look down at him while he is in a standing position.  There should be a subtle, but noticeable inward curve between the rib cage and the hips.  If your pet's coat is long or curly, you may have to assess this with your hands.  If there is no discernible inward curve, or worse yet, if you see an outward curve, it's time to talk to your vet about a change in his feeding and exercise regimen. 

Another easy test is to feel for your pets' ribs.  You should be able to easily find them with your hands.  If they are easily visible, he is underweight.  If you can easily find them by touch, his weight is probably ideal.  If they are hiding underneath squishy layers, or if you cannot find them at all, it is probably time for a change in lifestyle.

I'm already doing all of those things, and she STILL won't lose weight.  She may even be gaining!  What am I doing wrong?

Possibly nothing.  While changing a pet's diet and exercise regime usually wins the day, there are certain medical conditions that can cause our fur kids to pack on the pounds.  Some of the more common culprits are diabetes, Cushing's disease, and hypothyroidism.  A pet that is suffering from arthritis or orthopedic pain may become reluctant to exercise, and therefore more likely to gain weight.  Before starting any weight loss program at home, be sure to have your pet examined by his or her veterinarian, and screened for any underlying medical problems.

Do you have a question for Dr. Kupkee?  Send it to askdrk@sabalchaseanimalclinic.com