Last month, a 50-pound, four-foot-long rabbit named Darius officially became the world’s most humongous bunny. Each day Darius consumes a bowl of rabbit cereal, 12 carrots, two red apples, a half a cabbage, and he likes to snack on as much hay as he can eat. Guinness World Records has certified Darius’s record, which is based solely on his length. The record-keepers used to also list animals by weight, but dropped that measurement out of fear that people were overfeeding their pets to get them in the book. Darius’s owner insists her large lagomorph is not fat and she emphasizes that he’s healthy but just happens to be enormous. This may be the case for Darius, however, many pet owners have overweight animals, which can lead to their untimely death.
According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association 2009-10 National Pet Owners Survey, there are 77.5 million owned dogs and 93.6 million owned cats in the United States. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that of these dogs and cats, more than one out of three are overweight. Compare that with the early 1970s, when less than one out of eight had a weight problem. Obesity can lead to such diseases as osteoarthritis, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and many forms of cancer. Fat in the abdomen can cause labored breathing, which results in increased anesthetic complications. Activity can be difficult for very overweight pets and you will often see a decrease in heat tolerance and stamina. In addition, studies show that lean pets have an increased life span of up to two years.
The first step in controlling pet obesity is identifying that it exists in your pet. It is better to look at the appearance of each animal rather than at the weight of the animal. Dogs tend to carry their fat behind their front legs, along their back and at the base of their tail. Cats carry their fat along their lower abdomen. A body condition score is used as a classification. The scale ranges from 1 to 5. The pet is scored by looking at its build, the amount of fat overlying its ribs, and its “waist”. A score of 1 would be a very thin animal with prominent ribs and spine. A score of 2 is an underweight animal with minimal fat cover. A score of 3 is ideal. The ribs can be felt but not seen and there is a slight waist. Scores 4 and 5 signify overweight and obese, respectively. In these conditions the ribs are difficult to feel and no waist can be seen.
Why are pets overweight? The answer is the same for pets as well as for people: too many calories and not enough exercise. If you determine that your pet is overweight, your veterinarian can work with you to develop a weight loss plan for your pet. The first step is to eliminate table scraps and reduce treats. Low calorie treats are also available. Small amounts of boiled chicken can be given occasionally if someone in the house insists on giving your pet people food. A high-quality pet food is essential—be sure to read the ingredients! “By-products” are not as good as the real thing. Some experts believe a wet food only diet is the way to go as dry food has a higher fat and calorie content. As always, talk to your veterinarian before switching your pet’s food. And don’t forget about exercise! Exercise your pet 45 minutes daily for a dog or 20 minutes a day for a cat.
Tips on exercising your cat.
• Move the food bowl so it’s farther away from your cat’s normal hang-out spots.
• Get your cat to chase feather toys, ping-pong balls, or a balled up piece of wax paper.
• Buy a remote-controlled toy mouse and get your cat to chase it around the house.
• If you’ve never tried the “Go-cat” products, you must try the Go-cat mouse catcher. Cats love it. You can find it at most pet supply stores or on Amazon.
• If your cat is an only cat, consider adopting another kitty for companionship, and to keep your cat moving.
Tips on exercising your dog.
• Run, rollerblade, or skateboard with your dog.
• Play fetch or Frisbee in the park.
• Take your dog to the beach and let him swim.
• Buy a buster cube to feed your dog. You place your dog’s kibble inside the cube and your dog must roll the cube to get his food out. For more information, visit dogtoys.com/bustercube.
I must admit, as well as I can spew advice, I don’t always follow my own. I personally have a 15-pound cat who desperately needs to lose weight. I recently took him for a physical and my veterinarian recommended we run a blood pressure check. Unfortunately, his blood pressure was quite high. She recommended rechecking in a few months to see if his numbers are still elevated and if they are her advice was to put him on medication to control his blood pressure. The reason I mention this is because I never knew cats could have high blood pressure and the sad reality is that most owners don’t notice if their cat has high blood pressure until it’s too late—typically resulting in loss of eyesight due to a detached retina. My advice to you if you have an overweight pet is to get their blood pressure checked right away. Luckily this test is quite affordable ($30 at my veterinarian’s office).
When dealing with pet obesity, prevention is key. It can be hard to get pets to lose weight, especially if it is an arthritic pet that cannot exercise. Keeping animals at a steady weight is a much easier task, as the old adage expresses it: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.