How To Put Your Pet on a Diet! (the ultimate weight loss program)
Weight loss and dieting for pets
Are you struggling to get your cat or dog to loose weight? Its one thing to know weight needs to be lost, its quite another initiating a weight loss plan and succeeding in reaching your dog or cats ideal weight. There is no one-size-fits-all solution as every families circumstances is unique. There are however some great general strategies that can help answer the question how to put your pet on a diet and ensure a successful weight loss program is formulated so your pet can get back to a healthier happier life.
Following on from the first post in this pet obesity series, fat kills and the dangers of being obese, in this post I will tell you how we can get your fat cat or overweight dog back to their healthy weight. If you aren't sure if your pet is overweight then check out this post detailing how to tell if your pet is overweight.
Fight the flab!
First up it is important to recognize exactly what it is your pet has been fed in the past. Does it really only get 2 meals a day? What about the crusts of toast at breakfast the post walk chew the mid-afternoon biscuit when you have a coffee the welcome back from work treat the clean up after the children throw their food all over the floor or the good night left-overs? If we don’t recognize where we are going wrong in over-feeding our pet then we can not hope to treat this disease to the best of our ability.
Broadly speaking there are 4 components of any successful weight loss program which are diet, treats, exercise and finally monitoring. Your pets regular veterinary practice is the best place to go for advise on how to manage each component and many run special vet nurse weight clinics which provide valuable information and support. Using their expertise you can easily find out what your pets target weight is. What the most appropriate diet they should be fed on is. How much exercise to give them and how to maintain a healthy weight once this goal is reached.
If you can’t discuss a weight loss program with your veterinary team then there is a weight calculator you can get by signing up to the OurPetsHealth newsletter to get you started. There is no substitute though for individual assessment by a trained veterinary team member. For our truly obese patients safety is key, and any weight loss program must really be overseen by your family vet.
Weight loss diet
OK, so lets look at each of these program components individually starting with diet. The ideal weight loss diet should fulfill a number of criteria. It should ensure that our pet feels full so that they voluntarily eats less and don’t constantly feel hungry or beg for more food. The diet should provide all the essential vitamins and minerals needed to maintain optimal body health. It should favor the loss of fat and ensure muscle mass is maintained.
It must also be tasty. No pet would choose to eat cardboard or sawdust! Changing our overweight pets onto a specially formulated weight loss diet will ensure that all of the above are met to the greatest degree possible maximizing your pets likelihood of losing weight.
For those pets that are only slightly overweight reducing the amount of their current diet or switching them to the light version while at the same time cutting out high energy treats can also be successful. However very often this strategy results in a little weight loss at the start only for this loss to quickly taper off well before our pets ideal weight is reached. This lost weight is often then relatively quickly put back on. This is so frustrating especially as once weight loss has been attempted and failed it is never tried again.
For animals with a lot of weight to lose we also tend to find these simple light diets or their normal diet fail to control feelings of hunger result in increased begging and also result in the loss of muscle rather than fat.
How to feed
The way we feed our chosen diet can also play a significant role. Slowing down our pets food consumption can mean that they choose to eat less and will also increase their feeling of fullness. Slowing down fast eaters can be achieved with maze bowls, finger bowls (amazon links), spreading their diet out in the garden or hiding it in a crumpled sheet. Just be sure they don't eat the sheet!
Treat and feeding balls are another great tool to both slow down your pets eating and give them some mental stimulation. These are hollow balls which you put your pets food into. A small hole then allows this food to drop out when your pet pushes it around the floor. Kong toys are yet another way to make it a bit harder for your pet to access their food and these also allow chewing and gnawing actions which can help prevent the build up of tartar on the teeth.
Regardless of diet being fed consistency of amount is key. It is a great idea to weigh out each days food and treat allocation and store this in a separate container. This means that everyone in the house knows that only food from that container can be fed each day and it also helps should any further dietary modification need to be made. Weighing the daily food out in a plastic cup and then marking this level on the side means that from then on it is super quick to check you are not feeding more than you should.
Treats - can I give them?
Treats is the next factor to consider. We all like to give out pets treats. It makes us feel good and our pets certainly enjoy them. Treats however are generally loaded with calories to such an extent that for a 20 pound or 9 kg dog a hotdog is the equivalent of a person eating 3 hamburgers. An oatmeal biscuit is equivalent to one hamburger. For a cat a single potato chip is equivalent to half a hamburger and a 1 ounce or 20 g piece of cheese represents half of their daily energy requirements.
You can see then how it is often treats alone that are responsible for our pets being overweight in the first place. We are literally killing them with perceived kindness. We can break this treat habit in a couple of ways. We can still give treats but we need to first ensure that treats don't make up more than 10% of a pets calorie intake and stick to lower calorie treats which can range from commercial light treats through to raw carrot broccoli and green beans or plain air popped popcorn and plain rice crackers. We can also simply keep back a handful of our pets diet at meal time and use this as treats throughout the day.
A final though about treats is to consider the fact that treats are things that bring joy. They don’t have to be food. Instead give your pet your time. Play with them. Take them for a walk. Teach them a new trick. You will both feel rewarded by this and as a bonus they will be exercising as will you.
Does exercise really help?
This brings us nicely on to the next component of a weight loss program, exercise. All of us can appreciate that exercise is an important part of any weight loss program. After all if you increase the amount of energy used surely weight loss must be the result. Unfortunately the degree at which exercise helps our overweight cats and dogs is not as much as many of us would think. Increasing exercise alone without making dietary changes will never result in a successful outcome.
Having said this should we increase the exercise our pet gets? Absolutely! Exercise plays several critical roles with the most important being the maintenance of muscle. This ensures that any weight loss is due to a reduction in body fat and not a reduction in muscle. Exercise will also act as a treat for your pet, removing the temptation for us to give them snacks and helping to stop them from begging for food. It also provides mental stimulation and improves our pets general quality of life.
So what exercise should we be doing? Well simply increasing the length and frequency of our normal exercise routine is a great start. Don't expect too much to start with as an obese cat or dog is likely to tire quickly. But as they get fitter they will be able to exercise more which is very satisfying to see and a great marker of their improving quality of life. We also need to be really careful with things like throwing balls for our obese pets as the forces involve in suddenly stopping or turning can result in injury such as ligament damage. Consider joining a dog training or agility class for a great physical and mental work out as well as providing both you and your pet with a fun sociable experience.
Controlled exercise in other forms such as hydrotherapy is another excellent strategy and is especially appropriate for animals suffering from joint disease or animals with owners who are unable to exercise them by other means.
Cats can be a bit more tricky. After all not many will happily run on a lead or come when called. We can still get them to exercise. It just takes a little more creativity. Cats love to climb and explore so setting up a jungle gym might be just the ticket. They love to stalk, pounce and chase so playing with some string or ribbon can encourage this. Be certain though to tidy up well afterwards as string that gets eaten can result in a surgical emergency.
A ping pong ball to chase can be very effective and a laser pointer or flash light is generally enough to excite even the most placid feline. I would urge restraint in use of a laser though as it is easy to end up with a cat who is constantly looking for the red light to chase! With cats short frequent games are better than long sessions. Play should stop or the toy should be changed as soon as your cat shows signs of losing interest.
It's also very important to take into account any other conditions your pet may be suffering from. This is why your vet team are the very best people to advise you on what is most appropriate for each of our individual pets. The last thing we want to do is increase the risk of orthopaedic disease or heart problems in at risk individuals.
Monitor, measure and record
The final component of a weight loss program is monitoring. We want to be certain our efforts are resulting in weight loss and we want to know how fast this weight loss is taking place. We also want to know that all this effort is resulting in an improvement in our pets quality of life! Our aim is a loss of 1-2% of body weight every week in dogs and 0.5-1 % in cats with a commonly achieved rate of loss being around 0.8%. It is also important that weight is not lost too quickly, especially in cats where there is a real risk of a potentially fatal condition called fatty liver or hepatic lipidosis. So long as no more than 1% body weight is lost each week this will not be a concern.
For an obese animal that is at least 30% overweight you can see that a weight loss program is a long term commitment not a quick fix. It is a commitment that is so worth it though. A healthier happier life.
No loss, what next?
So we’ve weighed our pet and they haven’t lost any or enough weight. It’s easy to feel disheartened but stick with the program make some changes and you will be rewarded. Any recommendation in amount to feed is only a starting point and the amount may need to be reduced to achieve weight loss. In fact this is often the case. Check that none of your other family members are sneaking your pet extra treats. A feeding record chart or food diary can really help prevent this.
Are we ourselves giving into their begging more than we should? Then ensure that we are feeding the best diet to reduce begging behaviour. Are they being given too much in day care or is your cat simply helping themselves from the neighbours food bowl. A little detective work can go a long way to get them on the road to their healthy weight.
Regular weigh-ins at your vets is a great way to track progress and stay motivated. I know nurses and vets simply love to see their obese patients loose weight and this enthusiasm can really help keep you motivated if you are feeling a little disappointed about slow progress. After all we are talking about a 3-6 month time frame for a healthy weight to be achieved in the majority of overweight pets. Even if your pet never makes it down to their healthy weight remember that every little really does help. We know that a lighter pet has a better quality of life and even a 6% loss in body weight can make a significant difference in comfort levels in our arthritic pets.
As well as focusing on weight lost monitoring general demeanour and activity levels can help to highlight one of the major reasons for undertaking a weight loss programme in the first place. Consider how much energy your pet seems to have. How active they are on walks. How far they are able to run and how quickly out of breath they become. How willing are they to play. Have they started doing activities they had stopped doing or never done before. If we can see the difference weight loss is making then we can be clear of the need to continue on the path to our pet achieving their healthy weight.
We made their healthy weight! What next?
So we make it. We manage to achieve weight loss in our pet. Brilliant your pet will be happier and healthier as a result! We've not finished yet though, there are a couple of final jobs left. First up give yourself a big pat on the back. Weight loss is difficult and it is all too easy to let things slip and revert back to old habits. Only around half of owners that commit to a weight loss program are still going strong after 6 months. Be part of the wining 50%!
The final challenge therefore is to maintain our pets new healthy weight and try and resist the creeping increase that often occurs. If we have managed to achieve weight loss while maintaining a normal or light diet, keep going by feeding an amount appropriate for their new weight. If you have had to use a prescription weight loss diet it is generally then better to change on to a specially designed weight maintenance diet. Keep up with the low calorie treats and exercise and in all cases keep up with weight monitoring so that should things slip action can be taken quickly, before your pet becomes overweight or obese again. Your pet will thank you for it.
If you have any questions, a weight loss journey to tell, tips you would like to share or anything you would like covered in future articles then please leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you. Also sign up to our newsletter to be sure not to miss out on our future articles and videos.
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