How to Prevent Obesity in Your Pet

i-dfc7ffc8271fb4c2f09ed5af2e101d3e-Fat Dog.jpg

Because of the flood of responses I got to yesterday's post on The Insanity of the FDA Approved Obesity Drug for Dogs, I thought I'd start a series of follow up posts answering the many questions I got by email and in the comments here. The most common question was, Okay, so the drug is a bad idea, but what else can we do to make sure our pets don't get or stay fat? Below is a column I once wrote for Prevention Magazine, followed by tips, which should answer the most common questions:

When I was a teenager, I came home from school one day to find L.C., my
family's beagle, lying on the bottom shelf of our refrigerator. She was
nearly comatose and shaped like a loaf of bread. We knew L.C. had food
issues: She yowled in agony when people ate. She once swiped a
Thanksgiving turkey, dragged it out the dog door, and devoured it. She
studied us every time we opened the refrigerator. So in retrospect,
it's no surprise she ended up inside it.

Until then, we'd controlled L.C.'s weight by rationing meals and running with her in the woods. Now we added barricading the refrigerator: table in front, chairs piled around it. But she just moved the furniture.

If L.C. were alive today, instead of buying a new fridge with a strong latch (which we did), we could have gotten her a prescription for the first-ever doggie diet drug, which the FDA approved in January. You'd think that someone who owned a dog with such a clearly unbalanced (okay, deranged) relationship with food would think this new drug is a
good idea. But I don't. The problem behind obese dogs, even dogs like L.C., isn't canine eating disorders; it's people with feeding disorders.

There's an epidemic of canine and feline obesity, just like there's an epidemic of human obesity. Recent studies found that 35 to 60% of pets in the United States are overweight. This is no coincidence: People don't exercise, so their dogs don't exercise.

When people eat, they feed their pets, who gain weight right along with their owners. And given the ingredients of many pet foods, you might as well let them chow down on fast food every day. By feeding their pets junk, breeding them in overcrowded kennels where they have to fight for scraps, or abandoning them as strays who need to scrounge
or die, humans have turned the natural feeding instincts of animals into dangerous food obsessions.

We control what our pets eat. I recently found a starved stray on the interstate. I took her home and fed her. And fed her. And fed her. She ate a heaping cup of dry food in 28 seconds (I timed her). Three months later, I realized she'd gone from emaciated to pudgy. I didn't put her on drugs; I just gave her 1/3 cup less food at each meal. Three weeks later, she wasn't pudgy anymore.

During my years as a veterinary technician, I saw many dogs die from obesity or become paralyzed when their spines gave out. So when I see an obese dog on the street, I want to ask its owner, "You love your dog, right? Then why are you killing it?" I usually restrain myself. But the other day, I sat in my vet's waiting room with my 17-year-old dog, whose
shoulder had just started aching from arthritis.

An enormously fat malamute waddled in with a large-bellied man holding his leash. The man plopped next to me as his dog painfully lowered himself to the floor.

"How old is he?" I asked.

"Four," the man said. I cringed. He told me he'd spent thousands treating his dog's arthritis and replacing his hips when they gave out. "We've tried everything," he said, stroking the dog's head.

"Oh?" I said. "Have you tried putting him on a diet?"

Here are a few tips:

If your pet is already obese, talk to your vet. There are special prescription diets designed to help pets drop a significant amount of weight, but they're not a permanent fix. You still have to restrict the amount they eat, exercise them, etc. And once the diet is over, you'll need to continue with practices like these below.

If your pet gains weight suddenly, or is overweight despite the fact that it doesn't eat much, see your vet. As with humans, various medical problems can cause weight gain (like thyroid problems). 

For everyone else, there are plenty of healthy ways to satisfy your pet's food lust without making it obese:

First, if you don't know how much to feed your pet to keep her healthy, talk with your vet. Never rely on pet-food labels. How much she needs depends on her frame, activity level, and the type of food you give her.
Never give her people food.

Avoid pet foods that list any type of sugar or by-products as ingredients. Also steer clear of preservatives (ethoxyquin, BHA, BHT).

This is the one that's worked best for me with my dog Rhoda: Instead of feeding her from a bowl where she can inhale the food so fast, she hardly realizes she ate it, pack her meals inside a feeding toy like the <a href="">Busy Buddy Squirrel Dude</a>, which releases food slowly. Her dinner will last longer, and she'll be satisfied with less food.

Use common sense: If your pet is looking pudgy, simply feed it less and exercise it more.

In coming days I'll post another follow up with tips on how to exercise pets (particularly when you have an indoor cat, or when the weather is too lousy to exercise outside).  Stay tuned.

(Photo credit here, along with picture of very fat cat, and study showing that half of all dogs and cats in the UK are overweight ... I'd be the stat is higher in the US).

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We have two Golden Retrievers who eat sensibly and one chihuahua who will over-eat given the chance. At meal time, we leash the chihuahua to the couch with her measured portion and let the Goldens eat as much as they want for about 20 minutes. The Chihuahua mix scarfs her food in about 10 seconds; often, one or the other of the Goldens doesn't eat anything. After 20 minutes, we take up the Goldens' food and unleash the chihuahua.

We do this two times a day.

We give our dogs an occasional table scrap, but not regularly at all.

No obesity, even though we have one obesity-prone dog.

Stan, that's a hilarious image, and a great process. Kudos to you for doing it twice a day! That's a good tip for others.

It's tough to deal with feeding multiple pets when one is a food hound and one isn't ... since mine all tend to start out as starved strays, I never have that problem ... even my cat is a food hound: We have to keep a 5 lb dumbell on top of our kitchen garbage can because the cat figured out how to hit the foot button to open the lid, then jump inside fast before the lid closes ... once inside, she'll eats anything she can find, and throws scraps out to the dogs to keep them quiet. Hence the dumbell. We've tried to replace the garbage can with various models, and she always finds a way in.

I'd love for others to share stories of the crazy things they do to keep their pets from gorging themselves.

My parent's old dog Goldie was just a little heavy and had very bad arthritis in the winters. To the point that they were thinking of putting her down before the next winter. Then she got diabetes, and they got really strict with her diet. She lost maybe 5-10 pounds (on a Golden Retriever) and lived 3 more painless, arthritis free years.

My current dog is a Bassett mix with "food issues"; it's no big deal because if she steals a turkey then it's half-rations for a few days. But one time she gained alot of weight all of a sudden despite no change in diet . . . it turned out she was hypothyroid!! So sometimes there are genuine medical issues too.

My pet sitter grossly overfeeds my cats. After 2 weeks of vacation, the cats are noticeably larger. And the food area is a mess, because with so much food, they don't bother eating every morsel, and it dries and scatters. I think I need a better pet sitter. But it happened with the last one too.

Not all vets are mindful of pet weight issues, either. Years ago, I had a friend whose cat gradually became obese, and when I made her ask the vet about it, she reported that the vet was unconcerned. The vet was obese, too, apparently. I don't see how that matters, but there it is.

@Deborah: Very good point. My post was aimed at dealing with food-related obesity, but you're right that there are many medical problems that can cause sudden weight gain. I just updated my post to make it clear that I'm talking about diet-related obesity, and that there are some obesity cases that require medical attention. Deep down, I think people usually know when their pets' obesity problem is due to over feeding/under exercising. There's often a very stark difference between that and things like thyroid-related obesity. But it's important to clarify - thanks for pointing out my omission.

I'm curious about your advice to "Never give her people food."

Is that based on the notion that begging for food == bad? If so then you have a training issue.

Or is it based on the notion that people food == unhealthy? It seems to me that if the people food meets your other criteria (avoid sugar, by-products, and preservatives as ingredients), then what is the harm is giving a dog a piece of cooked chicken or steak (no bone).

@David: Yep, I say that in part because it encourages begging, which can help build (then strengthen) food obsessions. As with most of this, it's a human problem, because when we feed our animals people food, it's usually what we eat, which means it's cooked in fats, often filled with sugar, etc. Feeding pets boiled non-fatty meat (like chicken) isn't unhealthy on its own, the problem is, that's not usually the way people give their pets people food. If you're going to give your pet an occasional human-food treat, my 2 cents is, put that treat in his/her food bowl, don't give it while you're eating, and make sure it's low calorie. People often apply the one-bite-won't-kill-me attitude to unhealthy foods, and they extend it to their pets without thinking about how much smaller their pets are, and how much a sliver of, say, fried chicken, means to them calorie-wise.

The very nice people at my local Starbucks always give out little dixie cups of whip cream to dogs in cars at the drive-through, and the dogs love it. If you go through the drive through like that every few days, that's enough to pack on pounds for your dog. I actually brought the Starbucks folks a box of healthy treats a while ago, to give them the idea that whip cream isn't a dog treat.

I'm just glad you mentioned that bit about checking with your vet instead of just blindly following the advice on the pet food packaging. Not all pets need the "recommended" amount of food, for some it won't be enough, for others it'll be too much.

By Kate from Iowa (not verified) on 28 Oct 2009 #permalink

Have you noticed that the ones that have extremely obese dogs are the ones that are slightly obese as well? You definitely need to take a few walks, especially if you know that your dog has gained weight! To be honest I had no idea that there was a diet pill for dogs! This just reminds when people talk about obese people and say that its this case, it is not genetic. I would put blame on the owner.

My dogs are fed twice a day, in their crates. The slow eaters can take their time without anyone attempting to steal their food. I used to have Great Danes, which are prone to bloat, and since they were already in the crate it was easy to leave them there for an hour or so after eating so they would not run around. The dogs associate crates with food, so they don't beg unless I get stupid and give them tidbits. I am a breeder and I wean my pups very carefully to (hopefully) grow into dogs that are good eaters. I never free feed my pups and I don't feed them all from one dish. They do not have to compete for food and they don't get into the habit of nibbling here and there. When I start weaning they each get their own dish. By the time they go to their new homes they are finishing off their meals in their crates. It is easy to get them to eat more food, even as adults, because they are conditioned to finish the bowl, which is helpful when a dog needs to gain weight. I keep sighthounds, and none of my dogs are fat.

If you cut the dog's food (I don't know from cats) about 1/10 a day you can achieve slow weight loss. Buy the best quality food you can afford as it has fewer fillers which provide calories but no nutrition. If your pet is HUNGRY add some green beans, pureed pumpkin or sweet potato. These are healthy snacks and full of fiber which will create a feeling of fullness. Learn the calorie content of your dog's food and treats. For example, Large Milk Bone (tm) dog biscuits have 100 calories. A & M did a study that showed that Labs kept at a proper weight with adequate exercise lived two years longer than heavier out of shape Labs. I'm sure we can generalize those results to other breeds. Lots of cost savings on vet bills too. Great topic.

By Airedalelover (not verified) on 28 Oct 2009 #permalink

Funny story about your dog. Animals become overweight just like people because of their diet and exercise (lack of). All you have to do is ration their food and exercise them. Get off of the couch, grab the leash, and take the dog for a walk/run. Exercising a cat is trickier, but a kitty condo will do the trick or a stuffed mouse to chase.

A good article and all good points, except this: "never feed people food." A lot of people interpret that to mean NOTHING, EVER that is "people food." But there is nothing wrong with feeding a dog the RIGHT kinds of people food. Lean chicken or other meats mixed in with their meal (obviously accounting for the calories and cutting back accordingly) is healthy, as is using various veggies (if your dog will eat them) like carrots and the like as a snack. People CAN feed "people food" but they have to feed the right foods.

I have three cats who are very large (one is a Maine Coon; I'm not sure why the other two are so big). They certainly aren't underfed, but they are not overweight; the Maine Coon is actually on the slender side. I give them the best natural dry cat food I can afford, with 3 to 5 little treats each per day, and it's rare that they get a little scrap of baked chicken - NEVER from the table.

But they're all getting older. They never go outside (I live on a busy city street), don't run around nearly as much as they used to, and their reaction to a feather on a string is, "Oh, what's this? Hmm. Meh." I'm really hoping you have some tips for helping them get more active!

By speedwell (not verified) on 29 Oct 2009 #permalink

Both my medium sized Border Collie mixes have maintained healthy adult weights of just about 40 lbs. You can feel but not see their ribs, they have a nice tuck up and good energy and great health. We control their weight by sight, adjusting their meals when they look a little thin or thick and it works great. Each time they go to the vet, they are about the same weight.

They do get some human food but never as we are eating it nor off of our plates. I either walk away from the eating area and have them "work" for the food or it goes in their bowls which they have to wait to be given permission to eat out of.

I have no doubt that they'd eat themselves catatonic if they could but they never beg and the worst they do if dinner is late is snuggle a little more. Damn them and their adorableness.

We have 2 dogs, one a 3yr old Border Collie/Australian Cattle mix and the other a 1yr old Black Lab/Golden Retriever mix (we think) mix and 3 cats ranging in size from small to large (Maine Coon). Four of them are self-feeders but the Border Collie/Australian Cattle mix would eat until she keeled over if we let her - I think this has to do with her first few homes where she was abused before we rescued her. We give her 1/2 cup of food twice a day and a few milk bone treats during the day and that, along with the exercise she gets trying to herd the other dog keeps her fit :)

I have 2 Basset Hound/Beagles; they eat the same food and go on the same number of walks, yet one is very fit and muscular, and the other has definite weight issues. The fit one is always running around in the house, getting into stuff, playing. The not-so-fit one, like the beagle that got into the fridge, is food obssessed and naturally lazy. Seriously, if you don't wake him, he'll sleep 22 hours a day.

We've found that making sure he plays more outside of walks and restricting his food keeps him at a decent weight. We give him less than the other dog even though he's bigger and supervise them so he doesn't steal her food.

Just like people - no two dogs are the same. There's no substitute for responsible, loving care.

With the frequency that I've have to move around the past 10 years or so, I dont have a pet at the moment - I feel it would be cruel to stick them in quarantine everytime I find myself in a new place.
But before all that we had a Labrador who used to get into the cupboards and eat entire bags of bone meal fertilizer. We quickly learned to stretch rubber bands around the cupboard handles to stop him getting in, but he scratched the hell out of the doors trying!
We also had a Dalmatian who constantly raided the outside bins, so as a school project I designed anti dog dustbin devices to foil her: one design put a hinge on one side of the bin lid and a buckle on the other to secure it, the other design was simply putting one of those stretchy octopus straps with hooks on the ends over the lid to keep it on. both worked a treat!

She also used to bully the Lab and steal his food, so we had to feed him inside and put her outside for her food.

They do get some human food but never as we are eating it nor off of our plates. I either walk away from the eating area and have them "work" for the food or it goes in their bowls which they have to wait to be given permission to eat out of.

I have a puggle - a cross between a pug and a beagle - and these dogs are very popular in my neighborhood. Almost every other puggle we see on our walks is fat to obese. Our vet calls it the "puggle curse." The owners always ask me, how do you keep your puggle so thin? I can't quite think of a polite way to say, "I don't overfeed her."
Another issue is neighborhood businesses. In particular, a Mailboxes Etc where I get my mail. They love my dog, which is sweet, but they express their love my giving her 8-10 large dog biscuits. Of course my dog goes nuts for this and drags me down the street whenever we get within a half-block radius. I've tried talking to them about giving her, say, one treat, but they act like I'm suggesting a form of animal cruelty. The one time my dog did gain too much weight I solved it by not taking her to Mailboxes Etc for three weeks. Of course they gave me a hard time, always asking me why I wasn't bringing the dog in, and I couldn't tell them the truth . . .
Why are people so insane about feeding dogs? I feel like I show my dog more love by restricting her diet than by feeding her bacon, even though she outwardly appreciates the bacon more. Even my boyfriend is always trying to slip her extra food . . .

I completely agree with the comment before mine!!!
People need to stop thinking that food always equals love, and find other ways to show their affection. Like more natural things like exercise and activity games.
Their pet will thank it!!
It really IS a people problem but I am not surprised the pharma industry would try to cash in on the pet obesity.

We have a neutered puggle who will be 3 years old later this month. after a recent trip to the vet, he said our puggle was over weight and should weigh about 24 lbs. His weight 30.6 lbs. He is fed 1 cup of Purina Dog Chow twice a day and given 2 dental stick treats a day. The only "people food" he gets is sliced apples and ice cubes.
Any suggestions on cutting his weight (calorie count, etc.), He is walked 1 mile,twice a day.

By Dusty Buhler (not verified) on 07 Jul 2010 #permalink