6 Steps to Successful Pet Weight Loss

Is your Chihuahua looking chubby? Does your poodle have a paunch? Is your Himalayan lying around more than playing? Sadly, they’re not alone. According to a pet owner and veterinarian survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than 50% of U.S. dogs and cats are overweight or obese, yet only 39% of dog owners and 45% of cat owners would describe their pet as such.

Without a clear understanding of their pet’s obesity and how to address the issue, many pet owners are unintentionally shortening their pet’s life. Overweight pets have an increased risk for many conditions, including arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart and respiratory disease, and kidney failure. Help ensure your pet has a better—and healthier—tomorrow by checking out these six steps to successful pet weight loss from Harbor Pines Veterinary Center.

 #1: Visit the veterinarian

Your pet’s annual wellness examination is a great opportunity to ask about their weight and overall body condition. But, if your pet is between appointments and their weight or appetite suddenly changes, don’t wait—they may have an undiagnosed medical condition or be experiencing pain.

When you visit Harbor Pines Veterinary Center, our veterinarian will rule out medical causes, such as thyroid dysfunction and endocrine disorder, measure your pet’s current weight and body condition score (BCS), review their daily feeding and exercise regimen, and assess their pain. They will then use this information to create a customized treatment plan, make tailored food recommendations, and suggest low-impact exercise. 

#2: Feed only your pet’s daily calorie requirement

Generally speaking, healthy pets gain too much weight because they consume too many calories and do not exercise enough. And, for most pets, the food they eat isn’t always in their bowl—table scraps and treats are known culprits for weight gain.

One of the best ways to promote and maintain your pet’s ideal body weight is by feeding a calorie-restricted diet. In other words, calculate your pet’s correct daily caloric intake and feed only that amount, ensuring you measure the portion exactly. You can adjust the amount during high activity (e.g., hiking, swimming, or sport training). Your Harbor Pines Veterinary Center veterinarian can help you calculate how many calories your overweight pet should consume for safe weight loss.

#3: Feed your pet on a meal basis

Free-feeding and automatic feeders contribute to pet weight gain by encouraging pets to graze throughout the day, which promotes overeating and prevents you from monitoring your pet’s food intake. Small-portioned meals at set times encourage your pet to eat on a schedule, which accelerates their metabolism and provides steady energy. When you are changing your pet to a meal-based schedule, set their food out for 20 minutes, and then remove any uneaten portion. After several days, your pet will be hungry at the scheduled times.

#4: Exercise your pet daily

Physical exercise is a cornerstone for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. But, true exercise requires an increased cardiovascular effort—not your average walk around the block. This means a steady, brisk walk for dogs, and short, intense activity bursts for cats using toys with dynamic prey-like motion (e.g., feather wands, balls, or laser pointers). Overweight pets will not have the stamina for sustained exercise, so begin with short sessions to prevent exhaustion and injury, and gradually increase the distance or duration as your pet improves.

Other low-impact activities that will build your pet’s core strength, balance, and coordination include swimming, underwater treadmill therapy, and rehabilitation exercises.

#5 : Monitor your pet’s body condition score

The traditional weight scale isn’t the most reliable way to chart your pet’s progress. Instead, we encourage pet owners to measure their pet’s body condition score (BCS). This approach scores your pet from one to nine on various characteristics using visual and tactile assessments to evaluate their overall body mass compared with an “ideal.” The characteristics include:

  • Palpable ribs — You should be able to feel your pet’s ribs easily, without applying pressure. 
  • Visible waist — When viewed from above, your pet should have an hourglass shape, with a well-defined waist after the last rib.
  • Defined “tuck up” — When your standing pet is viewed from the side, their underline should gradually slope upward, or “tuck up” from the last rib to the groin. In cats, the abdominal fat pad (i.e., primordial pouch) should be small. 

We recommend checking your pet’s BCS monthly during their weight loss journey. If your pet’s score falls outside the ideal range (i.e., four to five on this nine-point scale for cats and dogs) or they aren’t improving, schedule a follow-up appointment at Harbor Pines Veterinary Center for advice on adjusting your feeding and exercise regimen. 

#6: Engage your pet’s mind with enrichment activities

Depression, boredom, and anxiety can cause overeating and reduced activity, so you also need to engage your pet’s brain with mentally stimulating challenges. Pet enrichment toys and activities encourage your pet to use natural behaviors, such as foraging, hunting, manipulating objects, and problem solving. Replace your pet’s boring food bowl and ignite their curiosity with interactive options, such as:

  • Puzzles and treat dispensers — Your pet must use their nose, paws, and minds to free the food from inside these intelligent toys.  
  • Food enrichment — Fill toys such as Kongs and lickable mats with your pet’s food to encourage slow, mindful eating and better digestion. 
  • Snuffle mats — Hide dry food or treats in a dense woven mat or scatter them in untreated grass or a pile of towels and let your pet sniff out each piece.
  • Foraging toys — Hollow mice toys make a great hide-and-seek game for cats.

Let’s work together to put an end to the pet obesity epidemic—one meal and one walk at a time. If you’re concerned about your pet’s weight, schedule an appointment at Harbor Pines Veterinary Center.

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