Fat Cats and Chubby Puppies

It is estimated that over 50% of the pets in America are overweight or obese. I can definitely attest to this based on the patients I see in my offices. Is obesity just a matter of "looks" or does it actually cause health problems?

Because obesity in pets and humans is such an overwhelming problem, scientists have started taking a hard look at the causes and consequences of obesity. Some of the facts are pretty shocking and should scare us enough to get us to sit up and pay attention.

Many veterinary studies have shown that obesity in dogs and cats increases the risk of health problems. These problems can include arthritis, cruciate ligament tears, and degenerative joint disease, diabetes mellitus, abnormalities in circulating lipid profiles (triglycerides, cholesterol), cardiac and respiratory diseases, urinary disorders, reproductive disorders (decreased fertility), cancer (mammary tumors and transitional cell carcinoma), dermatological diseases, and anesthetic complications. These conditions not only shorten the expected lifespan of the affected animals, but also decrease their quality of life, so obesity in cats and dogs has considerable potential to cause suffering for both the animals and their guardians.

Obesity may cause disease, but it may also be the result of disease. For example hypothyroidism decreases metabolism and activity levels, resulting in obesity. Cushing's disease causes weight gain due to a cortisol-driven increase in appetite. And while obesity predisposes pets to develop arthritis, it is likely that arthritis promotes the development of obesity due to the animal's decreased ability to exercise. Neutering may also play a role in obesity, as metabolism tends to decrease when hormones are reduced. Without careful attention to correct calorie intake, these pets often become overweight. Overuse of pharmaceutical drugs like steroids can also cause obesity. Certain breeds are more prone to obesity, including Labrador Retrievers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Scottish Terriers, Beagles, and Cocker Spaniels.

Fat cells are actually a necessity in the body. They are part of the endocrine, or hormonal, system in the body. They help regulate metabolism, energy intake, and fat storage. Fat cells secrete many proteins that control various metabolic functions. One hormone that is produced, called Leptin, regulates food intake. The hormones produced by these cells activate an enzyme that increases fat oxidation and reduces insulin resistance. This enzyme is also activated during exercise.

As pets become obese and their fat cells enlarge, fat tissue undergoes molecular and cellular alterations affecting systemic metabolism. These alterations include the release of pro-inflammatory proteins. This in turn leads to insulin resistance which leads to diabetes in human studies.

How do you know if your pet is obese? Most Americans, when surveyed, did not realize their pets were overweight. On the whole, we tend to keep our pets at an unhealthy weight. Your pet should have a "waist" behind the rib cage; the underline should not be a straight line from under the front legs to the back legs. You should be able to feel the ribs, with just a modest covering of muscle. There should not be an indentation over the spine; you should be able to feel the tops of each back bone with muscle along the back, not fat.

How do you get your pets to lose weight if they are carrying a few extra pounds? Many people really struggle with this. My first recommendation is to feed a species appropriate diet. Dry kibble filled with carbohydrates is not the ideal weight reducing diet. Kibble diets that are "low calorie" or made for weight loss are a waste of money - these kibbles are filled with undigestible fiber or cellulose (sawdust, basically). Add a high quality probiotic to the diet to keep the bowel healthy and improve digestion.

If your pet is acting hungry or sluggish, have a blood test run to rule out metabolic problems like hypothyroidism, Cushing's disease, or diabetes.

Get your pet to move more by walking, swimming, or playing. If your pet is arthritic, use low impact exercise. Swimming is best, but not all pets like to swim. Physical therapy using an underwater treadmill can be wonderful exercise. Homeopathic joint supplements can decrease pain and inflammation.

You can steam or cook vegetables like green beans, broccoli, or kale and add to the meals to make them feel like they are getting more to eat without adding calories. Use fresh fruits and vegetables or dehydrated pieces of liver or lean meat as treats. Don't hand out "cookies" made with carbohydrates that are high in calories.

By keeping your pets lean and well-muscled throughout life, you can help them avoid many problems that are commonly seen in senior animals. So grab the leash and head out for a walk. Kitty owners can use laser lights, wind up toys, or teach cats to play fetch. Exercise needs to be part of the daily routine for both of you.