At least 25 percent of dogs and cats in the U.S. are considered overweight or obese, 1, 2 making obesity the most common form of malnutrition in American pets. Obesity can contribute to multiple adverse health effects in pets, including diabetes, skin conditions, respiratory problems and orthopedic issues. Weight loss is recommended for overweight or obese dogs and cats to avoid the negative health effects of excess weight.

Your Pet’s Body Condition Score

The first step of creating a weight-loss plan for an overweight cat or dog begins with a visit to your primary care veterinarian. He or she should perform a thorough physical exam, including determining your pet’s body weight and body condition score. The body condition score is an assessment of fat mass that indicates to what degree an animal is overweight.

Knowing your pet’s body condition score is important since a pet’s appropriate weight depends on their breed and body frame. One ten-pound dog may be considered overweight, while another ten-pound dog is considered underweight or at an ideal weight. To assess body condition, your veterinarian will likely feel the skin over your pet’s ribs; spine and tail base to assess the layers of fat covering these areas and will also look for a waist. After assessing your pet’s body weight and body condition score, you and your veterinarian can determine what your pet’s ideal weight should be.

Decreasing the Calories Your Pet Consumes for Weight Loss

There are two major components to achieving weight loss- increased activity level and decreased calorie intake. Increasing exercise may be difficult for some animals, especially housecats that are not very active by nature and dogs with orthopedic and other diseases that may deserve their mobility. Therefore, decreasing caloric intake is just as essential as increasing walks or playtime.

Effective weight-loss plans often utilize a low-calorie diet that is high in fiber and dense in nutrients. Nutrient-dense foods have higher levels of vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients per calorie, ensuring that your dog or cat receives the proper level of essential nutrients during the weight-loss phase. Weight-loss plans do not usually work unless the diet is changed to be in calorie density. Simply restricting intake can lead to problems with the dog or cat being overly hungry and can also cause restriction of nutrients. There are many good commercial diets on the market that are low-calorie but dense in nutrients; your veterinarian can help you choose an appropriate diet. Home-cooked diets can also work but are difficult to formulate so that all nutrient requirements are met.

Treats in Your Pet’s Diet

While is sounds counterintuitive, treats should always be included in a weight-loss plan. Providing treats allows an owner to continue to bond with their per, but using low-calorie treats prevents an excess consumption of calories. Large treats, such as commercial treat biscuits or bones, should be avoided due to the number of calories in these treats. The ideal method is to provide low-calorie treats and to ensure that no more than five to 10 percent of total calories come from “extras,” which includes food for treats, medication administration and table scraps. Treat options vary from pet to pet because pets and owners prefer to use different kinds of treats. Smart choices include small and low-calorie treat biscuits, green beans, apple chunks and air-popped popcorn without butter or salt. Consult your veterinarian prior to implementing new treats to ensure that they are appropriate for your cats and dogs.

Overall, the key to a successful weight-loss plan for dogs and cats is acknowledging that food plays an important part in the human-animal bond. It is much easier to create a plan that works by including treats and a diet that does not cause excessive hunger than to put a pet on a strict diet without treats and with increased hunger and frustration levels. In addition, increasing activity level when possible will make it easier to achieve weight loss and includes an aspect of bonding with the pet as well. Talk to your veterinarian about how to ensure that your pet is as fit and healthy as possible.