Food is Love

We’ve all had that moment of weakness. Your cat reaches over to tap your plate. Your dog watches you with sad, soulful eyes. How many of us have looked at our irresistible beggars and said, just one bite can’t hurt, right?

Most of us have, but there are a growing number of pets who receive more than “just one bite.” Obesity is on the rise. In 2018, data collected by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention classifies 59.5% of cats and 55.8% of dogs as overweight. Some of it could be attributed to pets who don’t have the best self-regulation skills (I’m looking at you, Labrador retrievers), but it’s primarily caused by overfeeding high-calorie foods and decreasing physical activity. Our lives are getting busier, and it’s hard for us to find time to make healthy meals and exercise for ourselves, much less for our pets. It’s more convenient to fill up the bowls whenever they’re empty. Besides, if your dog is eating all the food, he must be genuinely hungry, and you’re just doing your part in taking care of him.

It’s an unfortunate reality that our convenience is directly putting our pets’ health at risk. It dramatically increases the risk of debilitating arthritis. By their twilight years, they are usually in significant pain and require medications in conjunction with weight loss, but the latter is much more difficult to achieve when they’re painful and can’t walk that mile like they used to. Research suggests obesity makes them more prone to certain cancers, such as bladder cancer. Diabetes is especially prevalent in obese animals, particularly in cats, who also begin to struggle with grooming and will have accidents outside the litter box when they can no longer fit inside it or when it’s too painful to get in. Urethral obstructions, which are critical emergencies, are seen more commonly in overweight cats. Bear in mind that this is only touching dogs and cats; it’s not addressing obesity in horses and exotics.

So what can you do when the vet kindly tells you that your pet is too fat? Answer: more exercise, less food. It’s embarrassing to admit, but two of my dogs used to be obese. It took an emergency vet cautioning me that my epileptic dog was at risk of permanent brain damage from overheating during a seizure to finally start a weight loss regimen.

You probably don’t want to hear this, but scheduled feeding times are the easiest fix. If you have multiple dogs, you may realize that one has been eating way more than the other the whole time you’ve free fed. Twice daily feedings are the most recommended unless directed otherwise by your vet, but once daily works, too.

Always check the feeding guidelines on your food bag. The bag may say your 50-pound dog needs 3 cups per day, and you’ve been filling up a bowl that holds 5 cups twice a day. And if your 50-pound dog should actually be 35 pounds, then feed according to its ideal weight, not its current weight. But she’ll starve! you think. No, she won’t. She’ll need to adjust to limited food if she’s used to eating to her heart’s content, but she will adjust. Mine have been on scheduled feeding times and fed according to their bag for two years and given the opportunity they will still eat everything in sight, but they’ve maintained a healthy weight for a year now. That tells me they are getting the nutrition they need, they’re just being greedy little gluttons.

Also, be aware that what breed and life stage the food is for can skew feeding instructions. Lactation in breeding females is the most strenuous, energy-consuming life stage, even more so than growing juveniles and pregnant females. When a bag says it’s for all life stages, that means it’s packed full of nutrition—including calories—to satisfy lactating females. A sedentary older dog doesn’t necessarily need that. I have Pomeranians, so I feed them a small breed adult formula, and all my cats eat a standard adult formula. Some brands even have breed-specific formulas. Try to leave “all life stages” behind, unless you do, in fact, have a lactating female.

Obviously, exercise plays a huge factor. Don’t expect your old, fat golden retriever to jog five miles a day, but a brisk ten-minute walk around the block would be a good starting point. Cats are a little more difficult since most don’t walk on a leash, but I know of someone who got her cat to lose weight by tossing kibble down the hallway and making her cat chase after it every evening. Purina has a helpful page on managing overweight cats. Exercise also provides ample opportunity to socialize and bond with your pet.

Just like our own weight loss journeys, helping your pet lose weight is a commitment of time and effort. However, that commitment will pay off in the long run by giving you more years to spend with your happy, healthy pet. So when you go to give your dog his regular table scraps tonight, remember: are you doing it for him or for yourself?


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