Should Your Pet Go on a Diet?

September 2, 2011 | By | Comments (3)

Touchy question, I know, and one that could even offend. But it’s a subject worth discussing with your vet, as excess weight can lead to health problems down the road.

In our household, Mr. Monkey, pictured below, is on a brand-new fall regimen of a mile-long evening walk. Truth be told, we’re doing it as much for our own health and fitness as for his, so this has multiple benefits. (Full disclosure: He is not a fan of the scale, but indulged me this time by sitting very still since a treat lay in store, off-camera.)

dog on scale photograph by jennifer mirsky

Obesity in dogs is very common and comes from getting too many calories and not burning enough, as with people. This can lead to respiratory and orthopedic issues as well as the exacerbation of heart issues. Jennifer Chaitman, VMD, ACVIM, cites a recent study that suggests the best thing to do for arthritis is to have a dog lose 6% of body weight.

Chaitman suggests starting a food journal for your pet, as you might do for yourself, and adding up the calories over a week’s time. “I tell owners to get an accurate assessment of calories. People use coffee cans instead of measuring cups…their pets get extra treats from the doormen (editor’s note: a city phenomenon, though neighbors can be unwitting culprits as well), the dog walker…”

Once there is a tally of calories, this can be compared to calorie guidelines that are based on the pet’s body weight. If it seems that the pet is getting the normal amount of calories but is overweight, then Chaitman would test the pet for hypothyroidism. If everything was determined to be fine, she would cut back on the calorie intake between 10-25%, accompanied by increasing the pet’s activity level, with the goal of losing 1 lb a month (unless it’s a small dog), until the pet reaches the target weight.

cat profile photograph by jennifer mirsky

Reducing a cat’s weight is even more of an exact science. According to Chaitman, the simplest solution is to take away dry food and put the cat on canned food, but this must be done with vet supervision. “You cannot put cats on a crash diet,” she says. “I have them lose no more than 1/2 lb a month.” She explains that if a cat’s calories are restricted too much, the cat can develop Hepatic Lipidosis, or fatty liver. If the liver gets overwhelmed, it fills with fat and shuts down. This can even be fatal. Hence, the importance of working closely with a vet and taking it slowly.

OK, I’m officially sobered by this information. Rather than digress into medical jargon, let me share my take-aways:

1) Bring your pet to the vet to make sure your pet is not overweight. If your vet advises reducing your pet’s weight, proceed to take-away 2.

2) Talk with your vet about the overall plan, what the target weight should be, and how much to increase the exercise level (or in the case of a cat, time spent engaging your cat in playtime activity).

3) Keep a food journal for your pet and share this with your vet. Be honest! Yes, you do have to count any table scraps you dish out, as well as treats.

4) Be patient! This is not a quick process. A dog the size of a Golden Retriever can take 6 months to lose 6 lbs. A cat should only lose 1/2 lb per month, maximum.

5) Stick with my motto, which hails from the Greeks: “Everything in moderation.” A little exercise doesn’t hurt either.

How about you? Do you have overweight pets? Which methods have you tried out and what has been successful?