From the fall 2010 Community Practice Service newsletter of the College of Veterinary Medicine
 
 
Photo from the Biomedical Communications Unit
of the College of Veterinary Medicine.
PULLMAN – Obesity is one of the most common health problems in pets, and it can become worse in winter.
 
Studies have shown that as many as 25 percent of dogs and 40 percent of cats in the United States are overweight.
 
“Many owners think their pets need a fat store over the winter, but they don’t really,” said Raelynn Farnsworth, clinical assistant professor and WSU community practice veterinarian. “If pets remain outdoors during the winter, they do need more calories when it is cold, but often people feed them a lot more food when they really only need a little.
 
“Pets that are exclusively indoors or tend to gain weight during the winter can be fed a lighter calorie pet food during this time,” she said.
Assessing obesity
Each pet is unique but, in general, ideal body condition is when a pet’s ribs can be felt easily but not seen. When viewed from the side, the belly should appear tucked up. When viewed from above, a pet should have a noticeable waist in front of the hips.

Certain factors increase a pet’s chance of becoming hefty, such as gender, age, physical activity, caloric intake and breed. It appears that Labrador retrievers, cocker spaniels, beagles, basset hounds, Shetland sheepdogs, pugs, golden retrievers and dachshunds are among the more popular dog breeds with a higher propensity for obesity. For cats, mixed breeds seem more prone to obesity than pure breeds.

 
If it seems a pet needs to lose weight, consider having a veterinarian perform a thorough physical exam, which might include blood chemistry, blood cell analysis, urinalysis and thyroid panel. A number of conditions play a role in obesity, so it is important to detect underlying health problems that may need to be treated before initiating an appropriate weight loss program.
 
A weight loss program may include diet change, activity change and, in some cases, drug therapy. In spring 2007, for example, a new FDA-approved product was released to manage obesity in dogs.
Weight loss plan
Important features of a weight loss plan include setting a weight goal, setting an amount for daily caloric intake, selecting a specific amount of exercise, monitoring progress, adjusting calories, food and exercise as needed, and stabilizing the pet’s caloric intake at its reduced weight to ensure that weight is not regained.
 
Achieving weight loss in pets takes time and commitment. Realistically, it can take 8-12 months for obese animals to lose their excess weight.
 
Components of a weight loss plan will include:
 
Food: Many over-the-counter brands of pet foods offer “light” versions as well as therapeutic diets developed for weight reduction. Owners can ask veterinarians about what kinds would be best for their pets to make sure the animals get essential nutrients.
 
This is especially true for cats, since feline dietary recommendations have changed dramatically in the past few years. For cats that need a restricted-calorie diet, there are several alternatives. A veterinarian also can design a prescription diet if need be.
 
Treats: Low calorie treat options include therapeutic weight loss biscuits; people food like canned green beans, carrots, celery sticks, rice cakes, squash and broccoli (not grapes or raisins, which can harm pets); or a portion of the pet’s own weight loss diet designated to be given at treat time. Try to keep treat calories to 10 percent of a pet’s total daily calories.
 
Food diary: To get an idea of how much a pet is eating, consider keeping a food diary for a week or two. This not only accurately tells an owner what the pet is eating, but also gives ideas of where changes can be made.
 
It should include food the pet consumes and who gives the food. For pets that feed on their own throughout the day, owners can measure how much food is put out and then measure how much is left at the end of the day to get an accurate amount.
 
Exercise: Winter cold and snow need not stop an owner and pet from working up a sweat.
 
“If there is snow, take your animals snow shoeing or cross-country skiing on a leash,” Farnsworth said. “Just make sure they won’t get lost or suffer from frostbite.”
If it is not practical to exercise outside, consider chasing pets around the house and using activity-related toys and obstacle courses to get pets moving.