Photo by Pets Adviser

Obesity is a major epidemic in the United States. Everywhere you turn there’s a new story out about just how fat we, as a nation, have become, and what we need to do to reverse this disturbing trend. Many public figures, including First Lady Michelle Obama, are working hard to help raise awareness by creating programs to help educate Americans about how to live healthier, more active lives.

But while you may have heard about the obesity epidemic as it applies to humans, you may not know that our unhealthy lifestyle choices are now having an impact on our pets.

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), pet obesity is fast becoming the number one health risk for our pets. APOP’s fifth annual veterinary survey shows 53 percent of adult dogs and 55 percent of cats were overweight or obese. And most disturbing of all — the survey also shows that fewer and fewer owners know how to recognize obesity in their own pets, so fat dogs and cats are quickly becoming the “new normal.”

As with humans, obesity in pets can lead to a wide array of heath problems including:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Breathing problems
  • Kidney disease
  • Shortened life expectancy

But the good news is that obesity in pets is easily prevented and can be reversed with just a little effort and a bit of re-training — on the part of the human. As with people, diet and exercises are the key to keeping your pet at a healthy weight.

The Diet Dilemma

Begin by selecting a good-quality pet food that keeps carbs and byproducts to a minimum. Cats in particular are not designed to cope well with the high percentage of grains found in most supermarket pet foods, so consider switching your overweight cat to a “grain free” diet, or at least look for brands that are higher in protein and much lower in carbs. Both cats and dogs have evolved to do well on particular type of diet — and neither one of those diets include many of the things we humans like to consume on a regular basis. If you regularly feed your pet “human food,” now is the time to cut that out entirely.

If your cat or dog is allowed to eat “free choice,” make the switch to regular meals. Instad of measuring pet food by the scoop, use a measuring cup to dole out more precise amounts for each feeding. And remember: it’s okay to tailor daily feedings to your pet’s level of activity. If you took Fido on a day-long hiking adventure, he can have a bit more food than if he spent all day at home lounging on the couch.

Finally, a word about treats. Remember when Cookie Monster had to change his slogan to “a cookie is a sometimes food”? Keep that in mind when treating your pet. Pet treats contain a huge number of calories, and if you give them out freely during the day you can easily feed your pet a whole other meal’s worth of calories in treats alone. Instead of giving them out simply as a reward for being cute or lovable, make your pet work for his treats! Work on obedience skills, teach him to fetch a ball (exercise bonus!) or make him perform a trick for you. And pay attention to the type of treat you’re using. Processed dog treats are not nearly as good a choice as small cut-up pieces of lean meat or fresh veggies (many dogs will do just about anything for a bite of baby carrot).

The Exercise Element

Exercise is just as important as diet in helping your pet slim down. Of course, as with people, the type and intensity of exercise will depend largely on your individual pet. Young, otherwise healthy dogs may be able to jump right into a rigorous workout routine of running, playing fetch, or hitting the dog park for daily play dates. Older, more sedentary dogs may need to ease into things by beginning with daily walks, swims (if you leave near a beach or lake…or have a pool), or other low-impact activities. If you are short on time, consider hiring a dog walker or taking your pup to doggie daycare on a regular basis to help him stay active during your workday.

While cats can be trained to walk on a leash (it’s true!), most people will have better success simply trying to engage their flabby felines in daily play — using any and every kind of toy your cat finds irresistible. Even putting your cat’s food on a different level of your house can help motivate him to move a bit more during the day.

Finally, remember that although putting your pet on a diet won’t require you resist that slice of pizza or piece of chocolate cake — battling obesity in our pets is also a matter of will power. We have to be strong and resist those pleading looks and puppy-eyed glances. It can be difficult to say no to our pets in these instances because we may feel we’re hurting them or causing them pain or distress.

Remember: by helping your pet keep a healthy weight, you are actually showing them just how much you care. Your reward for staying strong will be a happier, more active pet that will hopefully live a much longer life…with you. And I don’t know a pet owner in the world that wouldn’t want that!