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Healthy pets: preventing obesity and the complications that come with it

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than 55 percent of dogs and cats in the United States are overweight or obese.

In light of that number and today’s observance of National Pet Obesity Awareness Day, Health Talk spoke with Julie Churchill, D.V.M., Ph.D., an associate clinical professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, to discuss strategies pet owners can use to keep their animals healthy.

When it comes to a dog or cat’s health, Churchill said that the best strategy is prevention. Not only is it harder for a pet to lose weight once it has been gained, but health risks also begin to pile up well before an animal becomes obese.

“The most important thing for the lifelong health of a pet is prevention of future problems by maintaining a healthy, lean body condition,” said Churchill. “Your veterinarian can help you understand the best way to go about creating a healthy lifestyle for your pet.”

Five strategies that Churchill recommends:

  1. Conduct a body condition score. Pets can be difficult to weigh at home because of their size and level of cooperation, and a home scale just isn’t that accurate. A body condition score allows pet owners to easily check if their animal’s weight is ideal without a scale. Follow the chart below for instructions on how your feline or canine’s ribs should feel.

  2. Exercise for one hour daily. Ideally, Churchill said that pets need one hour of activity each day in order to stay healthy. That doesn’t necessarily mean walking with a dog for a full hour each day, but you should play with them or allow them space to run around outside.

  1. Feed your cat creatively. Cats can be trickier to exercise, because many spend little to no time outside. However, there are ways to enrich their indoor environment and make it feel more like a natural habitat. Churchill recommends that pet owners use unique feeding techniques to utilize their natural ability as hunters. There are ways to feed cats creatively so that they have to search for their food like they would in the wild. Interactive feeding puzzles also give cats a chance to do some of their favorite things: climb, chase, hide, and most importantly — hunt.

  1. Adjust caloric consumption at the time of spaying and neutering. When pets are spayed or neutered, their metabolic rates decrease by roughly 25 percent. As a result, pet owners should lessen the amount of calories their animal eats each day to avoid weight gain. This can mean less calorically-dense food or simply less food. Talk with your veterinarian about the best change for your pet.

  1. Think about more than just weight. Churchill said that most of the obese animals she treats have a co-morbidity — two or more diseases that are exacerbated by obesity. When an animal becomes overweight, he or she is more at risk for arthritis, diabetes and hypertension. These secondary illnesses greatly reduce the lifespan of an animal.

“Even being 15 percent overweight as a dog can lessen a life by two full years,” Churchill said.

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