For pet owners with an overweight animal companion, there can be a difficult balance between wanting to treat a pet and wanting to keep them in the best health possible. However, with moderation and consistency, owners can ensure their pet reaches a healthy weight without discomfort.
Dr. Lori Teller, an associate professor in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, says that a healthy diet is integral to successful weight loss.
Treats, whether specially made for pets or table food, should not make up more than 10% of an animal’s diet, and when given, the calories of a treat should be included in a pet’s total daily intake, she said.
“Healthy treats may include green beans, baby carrots, celery sticks, or apple slices,” Teller said. “There also are other ways to treat pets besides food; many pets may be satisfied with some attention, whether that is a game of fetch, a catnip toy, or a chin scratch.
Veterinarians can make recommendations on healthy treat options as well.
Owners with an overweight pet also should consult with their veterinarian to set a weight loss plan that is best for their animal. As a general rule, Teller says that a gradual reduction in body mass is safest.
“Weight loss should be done in a stepwise fashion; pets should be weighed monthly to determine if they are losing weight appropriately,” Teller said. “Rapid weight loss can lead to problems, such as liver disease or nutritional imbalances, and weight loss that is too slow prolongs the adverse effects of excess weight to the pet’s health.”
Exercise can also be a healthy tool in promoting a pet’s weight loss. For dogs, this can include walks, swimming, frisbee, or fetch.
If a dog is resistant to exercise, Teller recommends starting slowly. Taking walks in new areas may help mentally stimulate your dog in new ways, and, as a result, your dog may not even realize that they are going out for exercise.
If your dog is hesitant to get moving, Teller also recommends ruling out underlying health problems that may make exercise painful for them.
“Dogs that are extremely overweight or obese may have an orthopedic problem, such as a torn cruciate ligament or herniated disk, that causes pain or discomfort with exercise,” she said. “Rule out or treat underlying medical problems and talk with your veterinarian about an appropriate exercise plan. Some dogs may benefit from a few sessions of physical therapy to gain better mobility.”
Cats and other non-walkable pets can also benefit from exercise. Cats may be encouraged to move with certain toys, such as a laser pointer. Teller says owners can place the cat’s food in a location where they will have to work to get it, such as on top of a tall cat tree.
“It is possible to train a cat to walk on a leash and go for walks,” she said. “This needs to be done slowly over time, but there are many owners who make this work.”
Just as humans trying to lose weight may find themselves tempted by snacks, pets can also get impatient between meals. Teller recommends breaking a pet’s food into multiple meals throughout the day—anywhere between two and four—and providing food on a regular schedule to reduce hunger.
“One more way that owners can help their pets is to feed the pet’s entire daily food supply in puzzle toys,” Teller said. “This is both mentally and physically stimulating. The pet will need to figure out how to get the food out of the toy. This will also make the pet eat more slowly, thus helping the pet to stay satiated for longer periods of time.”
Although saying no to a begging pet’s puppy dog eyes may be difficult, the health of a beloved pet is well worth the discipline.
“Remember that animals that maintain at a healthy weight throughout their lifetime can live an additional two years over that of an overweight pet,” Teller said. “That two years is worth the effort to keep your pet at a healthy weight!”
Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University.