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Obesity in Pets - Why Does It Matter?

The number of pudgy pooches and chubby cats is growing. It's estimated that over half of the nation's pets are either overweight or obese. Many pets love to eat, and humans love to feed them, but can result in serious health problems. These include joint problems, heart and respiratory problems, among others. That's why it's so important to keep our pets at a healthy weight.

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Some of the common causes of obesity in dogs and cats include:

  • Too much food, or food that's too readily accessible. Simply scooping out food with a dish may result in more food than your pet needs. Even leaving food out, always available for snacking, can encourage pets to eat more than they should.

  • Multiple pets in a household may result in one pet eating a portion of another pet's meals.

  • Too many treats. People enjoy giving their pets a treat, and pets enjoy them just as much. Sneaking a morsel off a plate to a pet might not seem like much ... but doing it several times a meal, several times a day, adds up fast - and it's even worse when there are other people in the family who do the same thing.

  • Insufficient exercise. Exercise helps pets burn more calories. In our busy world, trying to balance the demands of work and home, sometimes we don't walk our dogs or play with our cats often enough.

  • Breed - some breeds of dogs seem to be more prone to weight gain. Examples include labrador retrievers and beagles.

  • Stress, medication, or illness. Any of these can cause weight gain in pets.

There are things we can do to help our pets maintain a healthy weight. The excess weight isn't just a bigger risk for health problems - it can impact a pet's quality of life, too. The extra weight can make it harder for them to breathe; overheat more easily; and tire more easily too. Joint pain is big issue with obesity, so moving around can be uncomfortable or even painful.

Prevention of obesity is easier than trying to get a pet to lose weight after it's already overweight. But even if a pet is already carrying a few extra pounds, there are things we can do to help return them to better health.

  • Use feeding guides as a recommendation only. Pet food packages will often provide a chart which will state how much a pet should be fed based on his weight. However, this is only a guide; how much a pet needs to eat really depends on it's age, activity level, size, and other factors.

    The general rule of thumb is that pets who are at a healthy weight should have a slight fat covering over their ribs and hips, but their bones are easily felt with a bit of pressure. Pets should have a definite waist and a 'tummy tuck' when looking at them from the side.

  • Don't leave food out all day long. Although some pets will simply stop eating if they're satisfied, there are many who will happily chow down on whatever's on offer, any time it's available. An automatic pet feeder can manage portion control, only feeding pets in specific amounts throughout the day.

  • Feed a quality, nutritious diet suitable for the species (dogs need to eat differently than cats) and for the individual pet. Some pets have food allergies, for example, and individual pets may do better on one type of diet (such as a limited ingredient food). If your pet is otherwise healthy, it's okay to try different types of food. A change in diet for sick pets should always first be discussed with a veterinarian.

  • Exercise your pet more. Dogs are easier to exercise than cats. Take them out for an extra walk, or stay out for a few minutes longer. Or play with them in the yard for a few minutes every day. With cats, use interactive toys to encourage play ... or get a tall cat tree with various platforms, cubby holes, and dangling toys that encourage them to jump, stretch, pounce, or bat things around.

    Start slowly if your pet isn't accustomed to exercise. It is a good idea to get the all-clear from your vet first if your pet has been a couch potato for a long time. Exercise isn't just good for our pets' bodies; it's also good for their mental health.

  • Older pets may benefit from a change in diet. There are some high-quality pet foods formulated especially for senior pets, which include joint supplements like glucosamine or MSM, and beneficial oils like salmon oil. Not every pet will respond (or may need additional supplementation - ask your vet), but if they do, it makes moving around easier and thus getting adequate exercise is easier too.

  • Any sudden or dramatic change in weight, whether it's a loss or a gain, should be checked by your vet. It could be a sign of an underlying illness.

Many vets have stated that people don't appear to realize when their pets are fat. It's a difficult conversation to have because people are often shocked, upset, or in denial that anything is wrong. Obesity in pets is preventable ... it's also fixable (in otherwise healthy pets) ... and it's well worth the effort to ensure our furry companions have the longest, healthiest, and happiest lives that they can.