Just as in people, being overweight contributes to a large number of diseases in pets. The problem can be metabolic, such as with hypothyroidism, but most often is a result of one problem: more calories eaten than expended throughout the day. Indoor pets are especially at risk for being overweight because of reduced activity. This is the obvious contributing factor as an obese animal is never seen in the feral population of canines and felines.
When an animal (or human) consumes any type of food, it is broken down into simple sugars in the digestive tract. These simple sugars are readily available to provide instant energy to cells and organs including the heart and the brain. Extra energy (glucose) that is not needed by the body is converted by the liver into fat to be utilized when food is scarce. The problem in house pets is that food is never scarce. No one likes to see their beloved pet go hungry. Fat is continually accumulated which begins to cause problems elsewhere in the body.
The body was designed to carry a certain amount of fat to provide energy between meals. Canines in the wild, like wolves and coyotes, go long stretches between meals. Therefore storing some fat is a healthy and necessary function.
Feral cats on the other hand, eat small meals of protein throughout the day and do not store much fat at all. In fact, this characteristic of felines makes them susceptible to a specific liver problem if they are allowed to become obese and for some reason stop eating. Cats were not designed to burn fat stores efficiently, and instead the liver becomes clogged with fat leading to failure (hepatic lipidosis).
Some connections between obesity and disease are easy to realize. Joints can be over-burdened by carrying too much weight and develop arthritis, an inflammatory reaction that causes pain. Furthermore, the dog or cat can rupture a cruciate ligament in the knee from being overloaded. Overweight pets are more likely to develop a herniated disc in the spine which can cause a great deal of pain or even paralysis.
Other obesity related problems are less obvious, but equally as devastating. Excess body fat can contribute to becoming diabetic. Diabetes is a serious disease that causes blood sugar levels to soar uncontrollably leading to all sorts of ill effects. Overweight pets are more susceptible to heat stroke because dogs and cats do not sweat to cool themselves, and the fat acts as an insulating blanket over the body. Respiratory problems and heart disease are caused by and complicated by obesity. Overweight pets are also at increased risk during anesthetic and surgical procedures.
Overall, obesity reduces quality of life and shortens lifespan. One Purina study showed that dogs with ideal body conditions live on average 15 percent longer than obese pets.
Feeding regimens are the first place to start when addressing obesity. Two or three small meals a day, rather than free-choice feeding (keeping a full bowl), allows the body to utilize calories more efficiently and store less fat. Feeding a balanced, nutritious diet formulated for a dog or a cat of a specific age and activity level is equally important. The amount to feed depends on the metabolism of the individual. Table scraps tend to be high in fats and salt. They are often given in addition to the pet’s regular diet that already contains an adequate number of calories for energy.
The other way to prevent obesity is to increase a pet’s activity levels. This can be difficult with an already obese dog or cat because their stamina may be decreased. They may already suffer from the side effects of being overweight. Consult a veterinarian about how much activity is appropriate for your pet. As weight comes off, you will see a considerable change in the dog or cat’s attitude and energy levels. What was once thought of as an old lazy pet can regain the pep of a young healthy animal.
It is important to not cause weight loss too quickly. Starvation is not the answer to obesity. Cats cannot metabolize fat rapidly without serious ill-effects. Check with a veterinarian to establish an ideal weight and timeline for weight loss.
Our pets will thank us for helping them maintain an ideal body weight. They will live longer and happier lives as a result.
Dr. Dan Meakin is the owner of All Creatures Animal Hospital, 1894 Ohio Pike in Amelia. Call (513) 797-PETS.