It seems topical to be talking about weight gain. Other than those who succumbed to the norovirus or a touch of flu, most of us have put on a few pounds over the festive season. So have our pets…
Obesity is, pardon the pun, as much a growing problem in our furry friends as in the human population. In man, obesity is an excess of body fat leading to poor health, with a fifth to a quarter of us affected. The same definition holds for our pets, and in a straw poll I conducted yesterday at work a quarter of animals walking through the consulting room door were overweight.
Our pets don’t do their own grocery shopping or choose their portion sizes. This furry fatness happens, simply, when we feed our lovely pets more energy than they use. Yes, those big eyes, and sometimes loud miaowing/barking/hutch-thumping/kicking at the stable door are difficult to ignore, but it’s our responsibility to feed our pets properly. Just like with our children, feeding falsely is not love, and we sometimes have to be a bit cruel to be kind.
This is because, just like in humans, animal obesity can cause long-term health issues. In dogs and cats we see diabetes, heart problems, orthopaedic problems such as increased risk of cruciate ligament rupture and osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, even some increased chance of developing cancer and skin disease (I have seen animals so fat that they can no longer reach all those parts they need to reach to groom adequately). Rabbits need to be able to reach their bottoms to eat certain pellets they pass. Fat horses and ponies are more prone to laminitis. We are reducing their quality and length of life by allowing them to become obese.
So what should my animal look like? You want to be able to feel the ribs without a fat covering; there should be a waist and not a straight line from the ribs to hips when looking from above. A horse should not have a huge crest.
And how to achieve this? Much like us – more exercise and less food!!
Generally, cutting out treats and feeding a bit less of the usual rations is fine, as long as the usual rations provide a complete and balanced meal, eg good quality biscuit. Feed a set number of meals, with a set-sized scoop. (I find most pet food manufacturers are rather generous with their suggested feeding guides.) Rabbits need ad lib hay too.
Greedy animals can be supplemented with vegetables; just avoid onions and the leek family. Carrot sticks will satisfy many dogs as a reward.
Sometimes it is not enough to simply feed less. There are commercially-prepared diets that are lower in fat and higher in fibre; your vet can advise you. (I did have one delightful but rather frustrating client who promised that she was being very diligent with feeding the low-calorie diet so it was a mystery why Poppy her large labrador kept on getting larger… Close questioning revealed she was feeding the low cal food ON TOP of the normal rations!)
Alongside eating less, our obese pets need to exercise more. If very overweight, little and often is more sensible.
Finally, and again, just like with us humans, if the weight isn’t shifting after sensible changes like this, there could be a medical reason. Two hormone problems in particular – hypothyroidism and cushings disease – can cause obesity in animals, and your vet can look into this.