Welcome to ‘The Vet’s Corner’. Here, our Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Ernie Ward will cover topics ranging from pet parenting, pet health and wellness, current events in pet news and stories from his time running a group of veterinary clinics. Aside from being Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Ward is also the founder of the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP).
Happy New Year, fellow animal advocates and pet parents! Each New Year we’re inundated with lists of resolutions to try, things to buy, and tips to become healthier and happier in the upcoming year. Many of us read these lists, make promises to ourselves, and then promptly forget it ever happened by February. While many (or most) of us set at least one goal for our own health, we often don’t include our pets. As you embark on your own wellness journey, here are some steps to take to help your pet live its best life.
Starting your Pet’s Wellness Journey
The first thing every pet parent needs to do is take an honest look at their pet’s current health and lifestyle. I know this can be intimidating, but in order to improve our pet’s health, we need to know where we need to begin.
Body Condition Score - Is my pet overweight?
“Is my pet overweight?” This is the most important question you must ask your veterinarian – and one your veterinarian may not be eager to answer. Believe it or not, many veterinarians are simply afraid to tell you if your pet is overweight or has obesity issues. This is primarily due to the fact your veterinarian doesn’t want to inadvertently offend you. Weight issues are tricky and loaded with perceived judgment, strong emotions, and social stigmas. All of this leads to many veterinary professionals simply choosing to ignore obesity to avoid potential confrontation. That’s not good enough for our pets.
The evidence is clear, pet obesity is the top health threat our pets face. This is so important to me that I founded the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) in 2005 and have written and co-authored several books and textbooks on the topic over the past two decades.
Obesity is a disease that not only shortens a pet’s life expectancy by at least 2.5 years, it also greatly reduces their quality of life. Arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney and liver disease, breathing disorders, and many forms of cancer are all related to pet obesity. The immeasurable suffering caused by obesity makes evaluating your pet’s body condition my top pet health priority.
As a concerned pet owner, you need to understand your pet’s body condition is one of the most influential factors of longevity, quality of life, and disease prevention. To determine your pet’s body condition, your veterinarian will likely conduct a couple of body measurements, evaluate your pet's current weight, and determine a Body Condition Score (BCS). To give you an idea of general BCS in dogs and cats, I’ve written a guide that can be found here.
Ask the question. Demand a thorough assessment. Don’t be offended if the answer isn’t what you expected. This isn’t personal; it’s your pet’s wellbeing.
Diet and Treats
The next step in your pet’s wellness journey is to analyze its diet. While there are almost as many diet and food recommendations for pets as people, the first questions we must ask are, “How many calories am I feeding my pet?” followed by, “How many calories does my pet need?” This requires extreme honesty (yes, that pizza crust counts) and a little effort. I typically ask clients to either jot down everything they feed or take pictures of each meal and snack for a week. Perform this exercise at home before visiting your veterinarian and arrive armed with your current caloric count. This will allow your veterinarian to immediately recommend any feeding adjustments and can accelerate your pet’s wellness journey.
You may be surprised how few calories most indoor, spayed or neutered pets actually require. I’ve created general daily caloric guidelines here that can serve as a starting point for proper feeding.
As a pet obesity expert, the number one question I’m asked is, “What’s the best diet for my pet?” The best diet is one your pet enjoys, supports its health, fortifies the immune system, and you feel good about feeding. In general terms, for adult pets that need to shed a few pounds or struggle to maintain a healthy weight, I typically recommend a high-protein, high-fiber formula. That’s why I designed our Wild Earth dog food as the world’s first high-protein plant-based dog food. I’m concerned most dogs don’t receive enough beneficial dietary fibers, just as most people don’t. Our unique blend of yeast proteins and fibers, especially beta-glucans, supports healthy digestion and enriches the gut microbiome. I’m also worried about the impact of meat-based pet foods on climate change, environmental damage, and animal welfare. I feel good knowing a plant-based diet is good for both my dogs’ health and the planet.
For treats, I recommend a low-calorie (less than 15 calories per treat) with some sort of functional aspect (i.e. helps gut or joint health). Treats should not exceed ten percent of the total daily calories, less for pets trying to lose weight. I helped create our koji-based dog treats to provide gut-healthy probiotics and fibers (in a low-calorie yummy). Dogs go wild for the savory umami flavor and you can feel good knowing it’s plant-based.
Exercise and Environmental Enrichment
Most pet parents think of walking their dog or exercising their cat as work or something to dread. The truth is these brief periods of outdoor excursions and interaction are often the highlight of our pet’s day. In addition to strengthening bones and ligaments, improving cardiac and respiratory function, and boosting immunity, exercise and play provide essential mental and behavioral stimulation for dogs and cats. Many pet behavioral problems are solved by increasing aerobic activities and environmental enrichment.
- Daily walking or structured play - Most dogs need at least 30 minutes each day of aerobic activity to stay physically and mentally healthy. Cats benefit from two to three 5-minute structured play periods. These sessions can be as simple as playing with a feather dancer or laser pointer, introducing a box, or (my favorite) feeding a few kibbles of food in tiny soy sauce bowls placed throughout a room in a game I call “Find the Food.” If you want to optimize the health benefits of your dog’s daily walk, I’ve written a book and article here. For cats, check out this article I wrote for The Catington Post.
- Food puzzles and interactive feeders - As I’ve written in “The Clean Pet Food Revolution: How Better Pet Food Will Change the World,” dogs evolved scavenging and foraging for food, while cats are designed to stalk, pounce, and prey upon smaller animals and insects. These instincts mean our pets view mealtime as an activity, not an indulgence. To make meals more mentally stimulating and engaging for your pets, I recommend using a food puzzle. These feeders can be as simple as a maze-like plate, mouse-like indoor hunting simulators (amazing!), or even complex puzzles with drawers and sliders (my dogs’ favorite).
- Rotate their toys - Research proves that dogs love new toys, but you can help make them “fresh and fun” again by this easy trick: Rotate their toys every week or two. Once a week (or two, depending on your dog’s attachment level and interest), put out of sight (and, if possible, smell) the current one or two playthings and replace them with a couple of “new” toys. This simple strategy works for cats, too!
- Dens, music, windows, noise, and DogTV - Whenever you’re away for extended periods of time (more than two hours), I recommend playing soothing music to help calm your pooch. We’ve known for the past 20 years that music can reduce stress and anxiety in dogs (and to a lesser extent cats), but recent research backs this up. If you want to take your dog’s downtime to the next level, check out DogTV, a scientifically-developed channel for dogs. If your dog is easily triggered by passing motion or outdoors noises, I encourage you to limit visual access and reduce noise pollution whenever they’re alone. This can be as simple as closing the blinds, playing soft music, or creating a safe space in an interior room.
Some dogs prefer to be in a den-like environment when alone. For dogs that enjoy crates or pens, make sure they have access to clean water during extended periods (over two hours), comfortable bedding, and that the interior is free of any potentially harmful surfaces or features. I’ve treated dogs whose collars were caught on a metal rod and sutured numerous feet from digging at a crate door. If the “den” is a source of stress or anxiety for your dog, do not force them into it. Period. If your dog or cat experiences separation anxiety, I encourage you to seek veterinary help at once. No pet should be sentenced to a life of mental suffering and fear. Treatment can be as easy as behavior modification or the use of safe and effective anxiolytic medications.
These are just a few of the first steps on your pet’s wellness journey. Before making any dietary changes or beginning an exercise program, be sure to check with your veterinarian first. Optimal health is a journey made up of small daily steps and thousands of tiny decisions. I hope this article helps you be a better informed pet parent and allows you to make more informed - and healthy - decisions for your pet. Feed well and live long!