Want to Give Your Pet a Treat? Don't Overfeed Him!

Want to Give Your Pet a Treat? Take Care Not to Overfeed Him!

As Americans face the ever-growing obesity epidemic in this country, veterinarians are busy treating an ever-growing number of dangerously overweight pets. Here's more...
By Carol Johnson

Many pet lovers think they can easily show their dog or cat how much they love them by giving them a treat and rubbing their belly. But too many of those treats, and that belly will get bigger and bigger. Which is a sad state of affairs, because a pet's weight level is totally managed by its owner.

A 2005 study from Purina found that 60% of pets in the United States were overweight. But almost half of the owners surveyed said that their pet had an 'ideal' body condition. Most people show their pets love and affection by giving them snacks now and then, but they don't realize, for instance, that one single dog biscuit can carry as much as 100 calories. So if you give your dog five treats, that's 500 calories! Add to that the table scraps after dinner, along with their regular food, and before you know it, your healthy dog will become a fat sausage with legs.

Pet nutritionists say that obese pets can be a sensitive issue to owners, because they take it personally when the vet tells them their pet is overweight. But they should take it personally, because a pet's food intake-and therefore their weight-is completely controlled by the owner. And a pet owner doesn't want to admit his pet is fat, because it's clearly his/her fault.

Just like people who are carrying extra pounds, the added weight will eventually cause health problems for the pet, and may actually shorten the animal's life. Vets are seeing increasing numbers of pets with severe orthopedic problems, as well as respiratory, cardiac, and metabolic problems, all of which can be prevented by keeping them on a regular diet and exercise regimen. Many people don't use measuring cups to feed their pets―so if a bag of food says 1 cup a day, and you just pour the food into the bowl, you could easily be giving your pet twice the amount he should have, or even more.

Several websites, including the College of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State University, have a test you can use to find out your pet's body condition score, and learn whether or not it is overweight. The test is the same one used by many vets to determine what the ideal weight of an animal should be.

But you don't need a test to see if your pet is too heavy―there are two simple tests you can perform yourself, without having to have a vet tell you to cut back on the treats. If you stand over your cat or dog and look down at them, you should be able to see their 'waist' tucking inward just in front of the hips, just like a healthy human's waistline. If you run your hands across the chest and sides of a dog or cat, you should be able to feel their ribs, without a layer of fat covering them. If you can see the ribs just looking at the animal, then they are underweight―but if you can't feel them, then the animal is overweight.

If you decide that your pet should shed a few pounds, there are several easy steps to take that will be painless and actually enjoyable for your pet:
  • Control portion sizes and reduce the amount you typically feed your dog or cat. Use proper measuring tools to be sure you know exactly how much you're feeding them. Packages of dry food recommend portions based on the weight range of the animal, but you should use the range of your pet's ideal weight, not their current weight. And then use the lowest amount suggested for that weight range.
  • Don't feed your pet 'human food'. Table scraps, pizza crusts, and junk food are out of the question. You can prepare homemade meals for your pet, but only use fresh ingredients, lean meats, rice, and carrots. Some human foods can be toxic to animals, such as chocolate, mushrooms, grapes, tomatoes, and garlic. If you are unsure what foods might be harmful to your pet's health, it's easy to just stick with commercially packaged pet food. Just don't give them too much.
  • Try feeding your pet a diet pet food. Just like our food, most major brands of pet foods come in lower calorie versions, sometimes labeled as 'senior' for older animals. But your pet doesn't have to be old to merit lower calories. And if your pet turns up his nose at diet food, try mixing it with a little of his regular food for a while, then gradually reduce the amount of regular food, until you're feeding him only the lower calorie dinners.
  • Get your pet moving. If you have a dog, take him outdoors for a walk every day. Not only is getting fresh air good for the animal, being outdoors and exploring are good for his emotional health. You can play fetch, take him running or swimming, or set up obstacle courses for him to navigate. With cats, you can keep them active indoors by getting them catnip toys to play with and chase, or you can even walk them outside on a leash.
Just like people, animals too need to stay at a healthy weight in order to live happy lives without suffering from obesity-related ailments. But unlike people, they don't need willpower and discipline to lose weight. All they need is an owner who loves them enough to not give them treats. So give your dog a belly rub instead, and then play fetch for a while. He may not be able to say thank you, but you'll be able to enjoy having him around much longer.