Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Skinny On Pet Obesity

Following our first post, I asked what our fans to our Facebook page would like to hear about.  I got a few requests and we will get to them all over time, but thought one particular subject was more pressing, PET OBESITY.  With estimates as high as 70% of pets that fit this definition of malnutrition, it is truly one of the most common diseases we see in our profession.  Any given day, in any given exam room, there are two things I will likely need to discuss with owners, dental disease and/or obesity.  It's sad that one of the fewest compliments I can give my clients is how fit their pet is, and a pet with ideal body score becomes a subject to celebrate.

Just as in people, obesity in pets can be be associated with medical conditions such as diabetes, orthopedic conditions, and more.  With plenty of information on the risk of this form of malnutrition, and its effects on our pets circulating the internet, let us focus on a few key issues not so often mentioned.

Obesity Is a 100% Preventable Disease!!  There are few diseases we encounter that are 100% preventable, but we as pet owners create this disease.  For a multitude of reasons, we simply over feed our pets.  Those reasons can be broken down into three groups: owner guilt, a general lack of understanding, and then laziness.

Guilt plays one of the biggest roles in creating pet obesity.  Pet owners begin to feel guilty for any number of reasons, but most often it comes down to they believe they are not giving the pet the time and attention the owner thinks the pet deserves from them.  We equate how much we love our pet to some magical quantity of food.  The pet seems to enjoy the food, so we give it to them to fulfill our need to be sure the pet understands how much we care for them.  This guilt unfortunately leads to too many high caloric treats, us sharing our food, and over filling the food bowl, all key to creating an overweight pet as it takes in more calories than it burns, day after day after day.

A lack of understanding plays into this problem as well.  With so many recommendations hovering around, pet food and treat advertisements, and every so called "expert opinion," the voice of reason that many veterinarians try to give is often drowned out by all the noise.  I am always amazed at how many of my clients get their nutrition advice from the clerk at the pet store.  They will take the word of the 17 year old stocking the pet food aisle as "The Gospel of Pet Nutrition," and then I have to spend a good portion of my limited time with  clients debunking the myths and misinformation they received.  Even with my education and experience dealing with the issue, my advice often falls on deaf ears, as I fail to convince the owner my educated understanding in pet nutrition is more accurate than the kid that's been working at the pet store for 2 months.  Though pet nutrition is a complicated issue at times, it is really simple.  I will discuss that later.

Laziness, is what is left when we no longer feel guilty and we understand.  It is just too much work to give a measured amount of food once to twice daily.  Because of our busy lives, we don't have the time or willingness to exercise and play with our pets as much as we would like or should.  When we understand the how and why, yet our pet still gets overweight, it is simple laziness on our part to execute a plan of treatment or prevention.   A key difference between obesity in pets and people is choice.  There are many factors that effect people emotionally and physically that contribute to obesity, but with our pets they do not suffer those concerns.  The pet is driven by only the understanding it needs nutrition.  The majority of pets work on the general understanding that "I need food when offered because tomorrow it may not be there." In general, as I discuss obesity with my clients, I compare pets to other scavenging animals. They are always in search of nutrition--our pets are scavenging from us.  Because even a pack of Yorkies is not going be taking down any type of meaningful prey.  Our pets are not necessarily hungry when they clean their bowl, and beg at the table, rather they simply recognize the opportunity to eat.  Most pets do not understand the idea of moderation and that tomorrow they will get fed.   We, as owners, incorrectly perceive the good appetite as hunger, when it's nothing more than the animal instincts to locate and devour food stuff.  It is a normal cycle in the animal kingdom to bulk and fatten up during times of plenty in preparation for lean times.  For our pets though, the lean times never come, and obesity is created.  Our pets do not have the same ability to choose.  As pet owners, we have to make the effort to make wise choices for our pets.

Keeping them a 5 is easy!!

Veterinarians use body condition scores to describe a pets overall weight as it is compared to its size.  With such a wide variety of sizes in our pets, the weight really means very little to us veterinarians.  Keeping our pets in the middle of a 9 point score is a goal--which means a 5.  Click here to learn more about body condition scores.   The ideal way to feed our pets is in response to it's body condition.  Adjusting the amount of food we give, including treats, based on the condition of the dog.  When the pet is too thin we give more.  Then, if getting a little heavy give less--not that hard.  The misconception your pet must receive the same amount of food in its bowl every day must be abandoned.  Factors like your pets appetite, activity level, and the type of food being fed all must be considered.  If we simply pay attention to the pets body condition, making small adjustments, as needed, is really not that hard.

Let's consider an often repeated scenario.  You are planning a family event at your home.  You know your pet is extremely cute, and you family and friends find it difficult not to pass some extras to this adorable furry family member.  Your pet is likely going to consume the equivalent of several days calories as he/she works the party.  So the thing for us to do is to limit our pets intake.  We can be the doggy treat police, reprimanding our guest if they feed our pet, isolate the pet from the fun, or maybe we just skip the meal the night before, the morning of, and the night of the party.  When our pets consume extra, it's okay to skip a meal or two, or maybe even three.  Keep in mind the feeding schedule of most scavenging animals is sporadic based on the the availability of food.  To prevent obesity in or pets, their overall daily intake of calories must approximately equal how many they burn.

There are 10 points to consider in keeping your pets thin.
  1. Feed a quality diet.  There are a lot of good diets on the market.  The ideal situation is to feed one that has a statement of AFFCO feed trials.  These foods have been fed to pets that it is labeled for, and those pets have undergone a minimal amount of testing to ensure the diet was healthy and provided sufficient nutrition.  Click here for more information on AFFCO Guidelines.
  2. Loosely  follow the recommendations on the pet food bag.  The recommendations on the dog food label are just that.  They do not take into account the level of snacks, table food given, or the activity level of your pet.  They are a good starting point, but most of my obese patients have owners who were "just feeding what the bag told me to feed."  Another point of interest is that the recommendations on the pet food label are often figured for sexually intact pets.  Most of our pets are sexually altered.  These pets roughly need 25% less of the calories of intact pets.  So by following the label, it means you are already likely giving the average pet 25% more calories a day than it needs.  If your pet is very active, the label will likely be close to correct. However, if your pet is a bit more laid back, and spayed or neutered you must feed less than the label recommended amount.  Start with 25% less of the low end recommendation, and go up from there.  
  3. Do not free feed your pets, rather, feed controlled measured daily amounts.  The recommendation on the bag is usually daily intake, not per feeding.  So be sure to divide the daily ration amount by the number of times a day you feed your pet. The number of times you feed per day is a personal preference, key here is to not over feed the total daily ration of food.  If you have more than one pet, you must monitor this.  So often, a family finds they have a skinny pet and an overweight pet, as one dominates the food bowl(s).  The only time free feed is acceptable is in a single pet household, but no more should be offered in the food bowl than a single days ration.
  4. If your pet does not empty the bowl, don't worry.  Some pets stop when they are full, and it is likely not a sign of illness.  So often, owners start to freak out that the pet did not eat all the food they gave it,  and they start adding stuff on top of the food to entice the pet to eat.  This only adds to the unnecessary calories added to the diet.  It is okay to put a little something special on top, just remember not to use as much kibble if you're adding that little something extra.
  5. Watch the snacks.  Pet treats are extremely calorie rich. Just a few can be 1/2 to a full days caloric need.  In general, I recommend owners consider using fruits and vegetables for dog snacking. They are far more healthy, and no where near as rich in calories as most pet treats.  Plus, we can now share our food with our pet and not feel so guilty.
  6. Watch out for the scraps.  Feeding dinner scaps/people food to your pet is usually considered as unwise, but the truth is we all do it, so let's do it safely.  First is to provide people food in moderation.  Second, never while we eat--save it and prepare it to go with their ration or as snack.  Third, if it's a bunch, skip the daily ration of dog food to account for the added calories.  Lastly, if it was too gross for you to eat it, don't feed it to your dog. (This will help avoid and unintended illness.)
  7. Adjust the amount and type of food stuff based on the body condition of your pet.  Find a photo with a side profile of your pet when it was between 7-12 months old.  At this time your pet was likely nearly fully grown and in its ideal body condition.  Pace that picture on the refrigerator or another area you will look at every day.  Compare that daily to what your dog looks like.  The gradual weight gain of a pet, and the changes it makes in you pets appearance, is easily overlooked, so keeping a good picture to refer to can help you notice changes in your pets body condition before it gets too out of control.  
  8. Forget the fads.  Prior to the  production of commercial diets, nutritional imbalances were common. The majority of commercial foods are fine for pets, but there are so many fads and misinformation that they are best ignored until the veterinary profession weeds out the noise.  Diet fads such as no grains, or holistic, or no by-products (a whole lengthy subject on its own), etc. are used as marketing tools for you to buy one food over another, nothing more. 
  9. Listen to the advise of your veterinarian, not the pet store clerk.  Your veterinarians schooling has taught them the basics of nutrition and how the body uses that nutrition.  They are far more versed on the subject than the store clerk who likely has gotten no more than a few minutes of training on the subject.  Often the staff at the pet stores are being trained by the vendors who teach them the marketing jargon needed to sell their products, not the real science involved, if any.
  10. Exercise your pets.  It's inevitable that  in our society our pets are getting more to eat than they need, and regular exercise can help ensure those few extra calories don't hang around.  Getting out and walking our dogs, playing fetch, swimming, chasing a laser pointer around a room--whatever your pet enjoys has benefits beyond just burning calories. It also strengthens the bond you have with them.
To close, the one key word when preventing pet obesity is moderation.  Work with your pets doctor to keep them lean.  Research has shown that pets kept lean live longer, happier, healthier lives.