Obesity is a relatively common problem with urban pet animals. Most pets will in fact become overweight in time unless they are actively prevented from doing so.

But it is not as simple as it seems and this article is intended to clarify the complexity.

Energy represents an important concept for the dog and cat, since it is excessive energy (calorie) intake that results in obesity.

Factors that may lead to excessive calorie consumption include:

weight
  • In colder climates, animals will consume more food to conserve body heat
  • Hormonal influenceassociated with oestrogen & testosterone appears to inhibit food intake so we tend to see desexed (neutered) animals consume more food
  • Boredom or emotional stress may cause an overeating situation
  • Pets can be conditioned to overeat due to the inadvertent actions of owners who mistakenly interprets the pet’s requests for attention with what appears to be a need for extra food
  • Some pets are manipulative by nature and take advantage of people they know will reliably respond to begging behaviour in a favourable way
  • In a multi-dog household we sometimes witness a dominant animal which may eat more than its fair share of food as a way of establishing its place in the pecking order
  • Animals that are not given the opportunity to take plenty of regular exercise, are likely become obese since they “use up” less energy
  • Snack foods are useful as training aids and are an important factor in the relationship between pet and owner. However, the calorific value of the snack should be considered when assessing the animal’s daily food intake
  • Genetics can have a lot to do with obesity. Eating behaviour appears to be an inherited trait. Greedy dogs seem to breed greedy dogs and this can be problematical
  • As well as being caused by a larger than necessary intake of food in total, smaller amounts of energy dense fatty foods can also cause calorie excess. The use of home-made foods is more likely to lead to excess calorie consumption compared with using commercially prepared pet foods because of the difficulty in assessing the nutritional values and nutritional balance of the food elements involved
  • Some drugs such as progestogens, corticosteroids and phenobarbitones have the side–effects of appetite stimulation. This may lead to the animal’s craving for food to some extent. By supplying more food despite having the same or less energy requirement, the pet will effectively be overeating.
  • Ingredients eg Carnitine, that modify metabolism to ensure that only fat is lost and muscle bulk is maintained.

The overweight pet has a number of stresses placed on its health as a result of its excessive body condition. Some easily appreciated (and very real) examples of “overweight body stress” include:

  • Cardiovascular overload
  • Lack of exercise tolerance – easily “winded”
  • Susceptibility to heat stress
  • Predisposition to acute/severe pancreatic disease
  • Skeletal stress - especially joints
  • Exacerbated arthritis symptoms

There are two types of overweight problems with pet animals:

  • “Primary” overweight cases may be predisposed by genetic, metabolic, hormonal or behavioural factors. They may also be related to reproductive status, age and gender. The basic cause is an over consumption of calories.
  • “Secondary” obesity is the result of any underlying disease process, such as hypothyroidism or other medical conditions and require an entirely different form of treatment

As was mentioned above, plump pets are pretty prevalent. Very few pet animals are really fit and trim in physical condition. Many would argue that plump pets are happy pets and I dare say that’s true enough up to a point. Many might also suggest that “over fit – whipcord and sinew” pets look unpleasantly gaunt and don’t enjoy a comfortable quality of life. That too, is a fair enough comment. The problems arise when plump turns to clinically overweight (obese) – and that is detrimental to health.

There are two stages to overweight situations

  • In the “dynamic” stage, the body fat accumulates due to excess calorie intake
  • In the “static”stage, food intake is balanced by energy expenditure but because energy expenditure has been greatly reduced by relative inactivity, a remarkably small amount of food is enough to maintain the “fatness”.

Management of the overweight pet

The key to the management of weight reduction is realising that successful weight loss is the result of a total wellness program and not just a special food. The program must address several aspects to be successful. These include:

  • An appropriate food
  • An appropriate exercise program
  • An element of behaviour modification

Dogs on weight loss diets are better off being fed frequent small meals as this will help the animal burn off more calories. It is important to understand that only the low calorie diet is to be fed with no additional treat, biscuits, vitamins, minerals etc. The odd slice of toast and Vegemite will blow any weight control program. It is also important that only one person is allocated to feed the pet. Many cooks really will definitely spoil this particular broth. You will lose control with more than one person running the program at home.

It is a good idea to make changes to the pet’s diet gradually to avoid digestive upsets and refusal of new food. Normally if dogs are really hungry they will eat almost any food given. Provided there is no ill health involved in the case, no harm will come to dogs if they go without food for up to three days. This is not necessarily the case for cats – gradual is best.

Although a reduction of food intake is the most direct solution to weight loss programs, it should be appreciated that there are some disadvantages associated with simply feeding less food. These disadvantages include:

  • The dog may show signs of hunger if it is fed very small quantities or less than usual
  • There is a risk of malnutrition associated with reduced vitamin and mineral intake with the possibility of deficiency signs
  • Muscle wasting can occur due to reduced protein intake
  • General signs of malnutrition may be seen
  • There may be some loss of lean healthy body tissue instead of losing fat

There are some real advantages associated with the feeding of a specifically prepared low calorie diet. These include:

  • Reduced fat (fats provide the main source of calories in most normal diets)
  • Calorie content is reduced but other nutrients are left in balance.
  • The animal will receive adequate vitamins, minerals, protein etc. because the diet is designed for weight loss
  • Low energy density in adequate food volume.
  • Food volume prevents “hungry misery”.
  • Complete change of diet is more effective because of lifestyle changes.

We can provide a variety of specialist foods and charge nothing for regular weight checks to ensure a diet is on target or that a fit, lean end point is maintained.