05/30/2012 12:51 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2012

People and Pets Need Help With Weight Issues

The word "doctor" means "one who teaches," and we can tell how well we do this in our practices by simply looking in the waiting room. If doctors teach well, then people will understand their veterinary care and make wiser health choices, and that should translate into healthier patients. Caring, competent professionals want to make a difference in the health and longevity of their patients. They attend conferences, form special interest medical study groups and participate in research to find things that improve patient health and quality of life. Most veterinarians work hard to educate their clients so they can act intelligently and make choices that improve the health of their animal charges and make everyone's lives better.

A recent survey of the characteristics of aging pets and their owners highlights several issues that suggest a need for improved client and professional education.[1] In the survey, 14 percent of cats and 18 percent of dogs were overweight. In addition, 87 percent of cats and 49 percent of dogs were fed by leaving food down at all times, a practice known to increase chances of obesity.

According to the study, overweight cats and dogs were much more likely to be owned by people who were likewise affected, and the survey indicated that overweight owners and animals had poorer health. This was particularly true for elderly owners. These results suggest we need to do a better job in educating our clients about proper feeding, and it is highly likely that we could make major improvements in health by successfully educating clients about these factors. It also shows how veterinary health and human health are related.

Obesity is known to be a major health issue. Obesity is linked to over 150 billion dollars a year in added health costs for human medicine, and statistics suggest that as many as 300,000 people die prematurely from complications associated with being obese.[2] In human medicine we know that obesity is associated with the following health challenges:
  • High blood pressure.
  • Diabetes, type two.
  • Joint problems and arthritis.
  • Sleep apnea and difficulty sleeping.
  • Heart disease.
  • Cancer.

Recent studies suggest that we see similar risks from obesity in dogs and cats, although overweight dogs may not have increased risks of heart disease. We do know that animals are susceptible to increasing cancer rates and pain associated with arthritis from being overweight.[3]

Good health and recovery from disease are dependent upon proper nutrition and activity. Dogs and cats evolved to address their health needs through nutrition. They naturally seek out and ingest green materials that have powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and medicinal nutritional properties. The fiber in green foods also helps improve digestion and elimination in several ways as toxins bind to fiber, which carries it out of the body, and fiber also supports healthy bowel bacteria. Those probiotic bacteria create health in the bowel through improved immune status and assist in digestive system maintenance. They may even assist in prevention of allergic issues like asthma.[4],[5].[6] Proper nutrition also appears to affect brain development in juveniles.[7] Science is starting to appreciate the importance of nutrition and bacteria on the development of obesity.[8]

We humans can learn a thing or two from those behaviors.

We should not wait until our pets or our loved ones are overweight to begin eating healthier. The truth is that eating properly should begin at birth and continue through their lives. This is so important. The following rules will help you in this area:

  • Feed a diet that is made of quality ingredients. The less processed foods are, the simpler they will be to digest and utilize. Feeding some fresh food is desirable in most cases. Green foods contain chlorophyll which can be a potent antiinflammatory agent. It may even reduce cancer development. [9]
  • Feed appropriate calories for activity. Feeding a high-calorie diet to an inactive or aged pet is sure result in obesity. In most cases it is much better to feed dogs and cats twice daily and measure their food so that they receive the appropriate amount of calories and nutrition. Free-fed pets tend to develop weight problems. Generally, if your pet is overweight you need to restrict the amount fed by 20-50 percent. As their weight drops you can adjust their intake to stabilize weight. Caution should apply with cats as restricting their intake too severely can lead to liver stress and disease. Because of this it is a good idea to consult with your pet's veterinarian before embarking on a weight loss program.
  • Feed to maintain a lean body condition. Ask your veterinarian for assistance in determining the correct amount of food for your pet. A good general rule is to feed an amount of food that allows you to feel their ribs under the elbow area of the chest. The ribs should be palpable but not prominent. Please understand that the tables on pet food bags are notoriously inaccurate for determining the correct amount of food for your pet. Use them only as very rough guides.
  • For cats, feeding canned food is preferred over dry. Dry foods are often harder to digest, rob the body of needed water, contain too many cereal grains and may lead to unnecessary stress on their digestive and urinary systems. Some dry foods contain excellent ingredients but can contain extremely high calorie counts. These foods are so energy-dense that only a half-cup provides a cat's entire daily caloric requirements. Cats that are free-fed these diets likely ingest far too many calories each day, and have no choice but to store extra fat and develop obesity.
  • Get ample exercise and play each day. It is critical that your pet move and use the calories they ingest each day. The body does not want to accumulate fat. The fat cells immediately release chemicals that suppress appetite and stimulate movement so that their contents get used. But if we feed incorrectly, then fat accumulates and metabolism starts to favor high insulin levels, inflammation and even cancer.

It only takes a bit of common sense to make changes that improve health potential. As we learn more, we see the importance of these simple actions. Take a few minutes of your pet's annual veterinary visit to discuss these things with your doctor.

For more by Dr. Richard Palmquist, click here.

For more on pet health, click here.