This is part 3 in Dr. Ernie Ward’s 3 part series on pet obesity. Pet obesity is an epidemic that is severely hurting the quality of life of the pets we love. In 2005, Dr. Ward founded the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) with the goal of helping pets enjoy longer, happier, healthier lives. Dr. Ward wrote a 3 part series detailing the crisis and what you can do to ensure your pet lives their best life. Part 1 is on the risks of pet obesity, part 2 covers how to determine if your pet is overweight and part 3 details a weight loss strategy.
Obesity and excess weight in dogs and cats is one of the most commonly diagnosed medical disorders in veterinary practice. In the United States, an estimated 56% of dogs and 60% of cats are classified as overweight or obese, in the United Kingdom 46% of dogs, 34% of cats and 30% rabbits, and global estimates of overweight or obese pets range from 22% to 44%.
Veterinarians report that pet obesity is one of their primary health and welfare concerns for animals, with 98% of U.S. veterinary professionals considering pet obesity “a significant problem,” and 60% of U.K. veterinarians saying, “obesity is the biggest health and welfare concern for UK pets.” There is increasing evidence that obesity is beginning to affect dogs and cats in emerging countries, particularly Brazil and China. Obesity is also reported to increase in growing animals, with studies documenting 21% of dogs overweight by 6 months of age.
Despite increasing prevalence rates, global awareness campaigns, and advances in treatments, many pet owners fail to recognize the risks of pet obesity and veterinarians struggle to accurately diagnose, effectively communicate with pet owners, and successfully treat pets with obesity.
In the previous articles I discussed the severe risks associated with obesity as well as how to check whether your pet may be overweight. In this article, I cover my basic weight loss strategy.
Diet is a major factor is your pet’s weight
I’ve mentioned this throughout the series, but it’s important to reiterate: obesity is the number one health threat pets face, and the most important pet health decision pet parents make each day is what and how much they feed.
My passion for reducing the prevalence of pet obesity is one of the reasons I co-founded Wild Earth. I knew the past 20 years of veterinary nutritional research supported higher-protein, higher-fiber diets for both healthy weight maintenance and weight loss in dogs and cats.
Pet weight loss requires both art and science
When it comes to offering evidence-based nutritional advice, we need to accept that nutrition is as much art as science. Even though our understanding of canine and feline physiology is exponentially greater today than 50 years ago, we’re still unable to precisely tailor nutrition to an individual pet (or person). We apply general digestibility, metabolic, and biological tenets in a variety of combinations until we find the perfect food fit. Sometimes we get lucky and our first diet and activity plan strikes weight loss gold, and other times our dog is still accumulating adiposity six months later. This leads me to my first bit of pet weight loss advice: be patient, flexible, and creative.
Pet weight loss requires patience, flexibility, and creativity
If you make an adjustment to your pet’s diet, activity, or lifestyle, I teach veterinary professionals to “check for a change in 90 days.” That simple clinical mantra has successfully guided countless cases to success over the past 25 years. The first element of this treatment ethos is to give change time. Too often, veterinarians and pet parents are looking for instantaneous results. If a 22-lb. cat doesn’t lose two pounds in two weeks, or a 100-lb. Lab fails to shed five, we declare failure and switch approaches (or the pet parent gives up in frustration). That’s a mistake in most cases.
Begin by setting realistic weight loss expectations with your veterinarian. The mammalian body is a master of physiological adaptation. Cut calories or increase activity and the body responds with systemic shifts, metabolic plateaus, and behavioral outcries. Safe and successful weight loss is much more than eating less and exercising more. If it were that simple, we wouldn’t continue to diagnose so many pets and people with obesity.
Dog diets such as Wild Earth manipulate macronutrients (Fewer calories per cup! Higher protein! More soluble fibers!) and add nutrients such as l-carnitine shown to facilitate fat loss and preserve lean muscle mass. But you have to give a change time to work. And for weight loss, that’s about 90 days.
Ninety days is a realistic and reliable indicator of whether or not a weight loss strategy is working for most pets. If we check too soon, we may fail to allow a healthy adaptation to occur. If we check too late, we miss an opportunity to intervene. Unless a patient has a serious comorbidity or complication, the first veterinarian recheck at 90 days has worked well for me over the past 15 years (unless there are medical conditions such as heart, respiratory or joint disease, hypertension, etc.). We began this 90-day shift because I was frustrated with too many missed or canceled appointments and lack of much to say four weeks later (“Hooray! Sandy lost 0.3 pounds!”). My veterinary teams stuck with it because we saw higher compliance and better rationale for continuing or changing clinical course.
We conduct monthly weight checks with a team member in the clinic or the pet parent can weigh their pet at home, but the non-negotiable “doctor’s exam” can wait until 90 days. During the interim, we rely on weekly email, text, and phone contact to help guide the pet parent and address any problems. We ask about eating habits, activity levels, and behavior changes (did someone say “begging?”). The 90-day recheck is one for celebration (“She lost a pound!”) or change (“She gained a pound!”). So how do you change a pet weight loss approach? Well, you’ve got to be a bit flexible.
Flexibility in treatment is critical to pet weight loss success. I can’t tell you the number of patients I’ve seen on referral that had been feeding the same “prescription diet” for a year or more despite failing to lose weight. If it’s broke, fix it!
We treat individuals, not averages. This is why being “dogmatic” in a pet weight loss program is problematic. For successful weight loss, you often have to become creative and open-minded in your approach. I’ve seen many dogs and cats respond to low-calorie, higher protein, and fiber formulations that originally failed on a low-calorie, lower-protein, higher-fiber diets. Sometimes it’s added exercise, l-carnitine, or more precisely weighing each meal.
Of course, I have a preferred weight loss approach I initiate treatment with, and if it doesn’t yield positive results, I try whatever it takes to find the right solution for the individual. Sometimes I have to try two or three combinations of diet, exercise, and supplements before we see appreciable weight loss. And then we often have to change again as metabolic adaptations occur!
I think this “outcome uncertainty” is the most frustrating factor in treating obesity for many veterinarians and pet parents. We prefer absolutes, direct actions, and predictable effects. Rarely do these apply to pet nutrition and weight loss efforts. Biology can be a b!+ch! To overcome plateaus and poor results, always be willing to get creative and work closely with your veterinary healthcare team.
Here's a handy guide to Dr. Ernie's weight loss strategy below
My basic pet weight loss strategy for healthy dogs
Let’s start by calculating the calories your dog needs each day. You’ll first need to have your dog examined by your veterinarian and an ideal weight or BCS target calculated. Based on your pet’s degree of excess weight, you may choose a target weight higher than the ideal weight to start. My general guidelines for safe weight loss in dogs are 3-5% body weight loss per month. A basic formula for weight loss in dogs is:
The ideal or target weight in pounds divided by 2.2 gives you weight in kilograms (kg).
Calculate the Resting Energy Requirements (RER) based on this ideal or target weight:
RER in kcal/day = RER in kcal/day = (ideal or target weight in kg ^ 0.75) x 70
(ideal or target weight in kg) to the 3⁄4 power) x 70
30 x (body weight in kilograms) + 70
You can also find daily calorie charts and other pet weight loss resources at APOP here.
For weight loss in otherwise healthy dogs without any underlying secondary conditions, feeding the RER calories for the step-weight loss target weight (or ideal weight in some cases) should be adequate. In cases that fail to respond to this number of calories, the total will need to be reduced.
I also recommend daily 30-minute walks for dogs and three 5-min playtime periods for cats, but I firmly focus on feeding the correct number of calories during this initial weight loss phase. During the early phase of weight loss, food far exceeds exercise in shedding excess fat. If you want an easy way to remember it, weight loss in dogs (and people) is about 60-70% diet, 30-40% exercise. For cats, it’s about 90% what and how much you feed and only 10% activity. A healthy weight is won or lost at the pet food bowl.
The most common complaint is begging. Habits are hard to change, so we need to offer some solutions to these sorts of behaviors. I like automated feeders, especially those that prevent food stealing, set to dispense food four to six times a day (I’m looking at you, 2 a.m.).
Protein promotes satiety. Adding a high-protein “midnight snack” such as a small portion of Wild Earth at bedtime can delay nighttime pounces, howling, and whining in many pets, at least until 5 a.m.
In addition, whole, fresh, crunchy veggies such as baby carrots, cucumber and zucchini slices, and green beans for dogs work well as low-calorie snacks.
When it comes to doggie snacks, my most common tip is: “Dogs don’t do division. Take whatever treat you’re feeding and break into halves or thirds.” Dogs aren’t as good at math as they are at making pleas for more.
90 Day Check-in
At the 90-day veterinarian recheck, if we see positive results and the pet parent is satisfied, there’s no need to change for another 90 days. If we feel we can do better and the patient is healthy, I may further reduce the calories, but only slightly. We can’t risk creating nutritional deficiencies for the sake of cutting calories. If I can’t reduce calories, I often try to alter the dog food formulation as radically as possible. Higher-protein to higher-fiber, dry to wet, that sort of change.
If we’re encountering a weight loss plateau, especially common in dogs after six months or more, I emphasize adding more physical activity. Slow, aerobic activity such as walking is changed to several brief, anaerobic efforts such as playing fetch, running hills, “fast-and-slow” games (intervals or tempo work), or swimming (utilizing different muscle groups). Agility training, treadmills, and equipment that places a dog on uneven surfaces and encourages core strength are also excellent choices for stubborn weight loss cases or the “final 5 percent.”
Don’t chase a number on a scale. Focus on improving quality of life (“I think Chloe feels better!”), mobility and ability (“He can get in the car on his own!”), and the knowledge that you’re reducing your dog’s risk of disease and easing pain.
What are the activities you believe have lessened due to your dog’s weight gain? Have you observed any signs of pain or discomfort? What do you hope to accomplish by helping your dog attain a healthy weight? These are the most important metrics I use to initiate a plan and measure clinical success.
Patience, flexibility, and creativity are the cornerstones of a successful pet weight loss program. Treating a disease as complex as pet obesity is never easy, and that’s part of the challenge and appeal to me as a veterinarian and dog food company. My goal is to help veterinary professionals and pet parents shift their attitudes, opinions, and actions about nutrition and obesity toward understanding obesity is a disease, disease prevention strategies, and the impact of diet and lifestyle on quality of life and longevity. Your job as a pet parent is to continue caring for your beloved pets to the fullest of your ability, striving toward a state of optimal health. Working together, we can help you navigate the bewildering world of pet nutrition and provide the best evidence-based advice possible, one pet at a time - your pet.
Healthy is the new Healthy
Skinny isn’t the new healthy; healthy is the new healthy. Health isn’t about chasing a number on a scale; it’s about reaching an optimal state of wellness. It all starts by recognizing where you or your pet are today and creating a plan for tomorrow.
Talk with your veterinarian about specific strategies to keep your pet at a healthy weight. Your pets will be happier, have fewer medical problems, and you’ll enjoy more years together.
Written by Ernie Ward, DVM
Dr. Ernie Ward is an internationally recognized award-winning veterinarian and the author of five books, including 'The Clean Pet Food Revolution: How Better Pet Food Will Change the World’ and numerous textbook chapters and peer-reviewed articles. He also writes “The Vet Is In”, a monthly column for Dogster Magazine.
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