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More than half of our cats and dogs are overweight, according to a recent survey. And it’s hurting pets and owners alike.
Overweight pets are at a higher risk for medical complications like osteoarthritis, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, breathing problems, and kidney disease. And their owners are at a higher risk for vet bills. To make matters worse, it only takes a few extra pounds to cause complications: 5 pounds for dogs and only 2 pounds for cats, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.
If you’re unsure whether your pet has a weight problem, start with Is Your Pet Obese? Here’s How to Tell. If you already know your pet is in the majority, here’s how to help them slim down without slimming your wallet down…
1. Start with the vet
Before changing your pet’s diet or exercise routine, visit the vet. If you’re deterred by the cost, remind yourself that this visit could save you future vet visits (and money) in the long run, considering that overweight pets are more likely to develop certain medical conditions.
Plus, overweight pets aren’t always overfed pets. Your vet can determine the reason for the weight gain, which they’ll need to know to determine the best course of action.
A dog’s extra pounds could be caused by a medical condition like a slow thyroid (hypothyroidism), according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.
A cat’s extra pounds could be caused by problems at home, says WebMD.com: “Is he not moving enough because he’s terrified in your house? Do the dog or the kids attack him every time he comes out of hiding? Or, is he bored because there’s nothing to do in the house so he just sits around and eats? If that’s the case, then changing his diet or the amount of food he eats won’t help his weight problem.”
2. Get the nutrition facts
If the vet determines that your pet is overweight because they’re overfed, it’s critical that you learn exactly what you should be feeding them, how much of it you should feed them, and how often you should feed them. Get an exact amount from the vet and use a measuring cup every time you feed Fido.
When my rabbit Slinky nearly doubled in weight, the vet determined we were feeding her too many pellets. We poured them into her dish every day, but the vet said they should be treated more like a weekly supplement because hay and fresh vegetables should constitute the bulk of a bunny diet. Once we started measuring the pellets out one day a week, Slinky slimmed down and lived to be 12 – which is several years longer than a pet rabbit’s life expectancy.
3. Treat sparingly
Treats should be limited for the same reason food should: The calories add up. The American Kennel Club says treats should not constitute more than 10 percent of all the calories dogs consume in a day.
If your pet begs, remind yourself that giving in will only reinforce the behavior. In other words, giving Fido a Milk-Bone every time he asks for one will teach him to associate begging with receiving treats – and therefore encourage him to beg more.
If you can’t resist the puppy dog eyes, try healthier treats. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention says dogs like crunchy vegetables like baby carrots, broccoli, celery, and asparagus. Or instead of treats, set out fresh water or simply pet your pet when they beg.
4. Get a move on
Whether you’re a human or a pet, exercise is key to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. There’s no way around it. Michigan State University‘s vet hospital explains, “Getting an overweight or obese pet up and moving is critical because we won’t see weight loss if we don’t change the metabolic rate (or metabolism) of the animal.”
But making Fido chase after more sticks may not be the answer. Tailor the exercise routine to the pet’s health. For example, the American Kennel Club points out that obese dogs should start with low-impact exercise like walking or swimming. (The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention offers a downloadable tip sheet for dog-walking for weight loss.)
If your dog is inactive because you don’t have the time to walk them, WebMD.com suggests hiring someone to do it for you. But if you don’t have time to properly care for your pet, consider finding another home for them instead. Your pet may be better off with a family that has more time, and you’ll avoid the added expense of an overweight pet or a paid dog walker.
For cats, WebMD.com says they don’t have to go outdoors to get enough exercise. Cats like to be elevated, so provide climbing structures. You could also put your cat’s food in a foraging toy, which makes them work to get the food out. (Here‘s how to make one yourself for free.)
5. Weigh in
As I wrote in Is Your Pet Obese? Here’s How to Tell, a recent study found that some pet owners can’t tell if their pet has a weight problem: 22 percent of dog owners and 15 percent of cat owners thought their pets had a normal weight when they were actually overweight or obese.
Perhaps that’s why many experts suggest regularly weighing your pet and keeping track of their weight. A log will help you keep your pet on track toward their ideal weight, and once they reach it, it will prevent you from not noticing if the pounds start creeping back on later.
Ask your vet if you can stop by and use their animal scale for free, or weigh Fido at home. Just step on your scale with and without him; the difference between the two weights is Fido’s weight. Although for small breeds, pets.WebMD.com suggests buying a baby scale.
For more ways to cut down your pet costs, check out 6 Tips to Save on Pet Medical Expenses.