OBESITY, DEFINED AS AN INCREASE IN BODY WEIGHT OF AT LEAST 15 PERCENT ABOVE WHAT WOULD BE NORMAL FOR THE SIZE OF THE PET, IS THE MOST COMMON NUTRITIONAL DISEASE IN PETS. As with people, obesity results from an excess caloric intake relative to the expenditure of energy.
Many owners question a link between spaying or neutering the pet and obesity. Reduction of the male and female hormones does not cause obesity per se. However, if the metabolic rate decreases as a result of neutering or spaying, and if the intake of calories is not adjusted, obesity can result.
Because diseases such as hypothyroidism and diabetes mellitus can be associated with obesity, obese pets should be screened for these disorders prior to treatment.
Principal Natural Treatments
Obesity is a severe and debilitating illness. Estimates suggest up to 45 percent of dogs and up to 13 percent of cats are obese. Many doctors think these estimates are quite low judging by the number of obese pets they see every day in practice. With rare exception (the presence of a disease like thyroid disease), obese pets are made that way, not born that way. In the wild, few, if any, animals are obese. They eat to meet their calorie needs, and are always moving, playing, fighting, mating, and hunting food…exercising.
How can you decide if your pet fits the definition of obese? Current medical opinion states that a pet is obese if it weighs 15 percent or more over its ideal weight. Pets that weigh one to 14 percent over their ideal weight are considered overweight, but not yet obese.
While pet owners often use the pet’s actual weight to gauge obesity, it is probably more accurate to use a body composition score. Body composition, measured by looking at the pet from the top and sides and feeling the areas over the ribs and spine more accurately reflects obesity than a certain magical number. It also gives us something more concrete to shoot for. For example, while most people who diet strive to achieve a certain numerical weight, a more accurate assessment would be to strive for a certain look. While losing ten pounds might be an admirable goal, being able to lose a few inches around the waist or fit into a smaller pair of pants is really the ultimate goal. This is not to suggest that you can’t have a target weight when designing a weight control program for your pet, only that this magic number is only a rough guideline of what your pet’s best weight might be to treat obesity. Many doctors prefer to use the look and feel of the pet to know when we have reached our ultimate goal.
Can pet owners prevent obesity? Keep in mind that most obese pets are made that way, not born that way. Many owners give their pets treats and snacks and feed them whenever the pet begs for food. In essence, these owners are setting their pets up for all of the medical problems that can occur with obesity. While many people who constantly reward these begging behaviors believe they are being kind and loving owners, they are actually killing their pets with that kindness.
Problems that are associated with obesity in pets and people are numerous and include orthopedic problems, including arthritis, ruptured ligaments, intervertebral disk disease, difficulty breathing, reduced capacity for exercise (and in severe cases any movement at all), heat intolerance, increased chance for complications due to drug therapy (it is difficult to accurately dose medications in obese pets), cardiac problems, hypertension, and cancer. When you keep in mind that the excess body fat occurs in the body cavities of the chest and abdomen (often deposited there first) as well as under the skin (what we see as “fat”), it is not surprising that so many medical problems can be associated with obesity.
The treatment of obesity requires a controlled low-calorie, low-fat diet with a sensible exercise program. Other natural treatments include nutritional supplements, which might help reduce weight in selected patients. Prior to starting a weight-reduction diet and exercise regimen, it is important that your pet receive a blood profile to rule out diseases previously discussed, such as diabetes or hypothyroidism, that may cause or contribute to obesity. Presence of these diseases would require treatment in addition to dietary therapy.
IF YOUR DOG OR CAT NEEDS TO LOSE WEIGHT, HE SHOULD BE ON A WEIGHT-REDUCTION DIET (IDEALLY A HOMEMADE, NATURAL DIET) RECOMMENDED BY YOUR VETERINARIAN. Store-bought “lite” foods are not designed for weight loss, but rather weight maintenance once weight loss has been achieved. Therefore, they are not usually recommended for pets requiring weight loss. Additionally, since most of these diets do not contain natural healthful ingredients, it is unlikely they would be recommended as part of a weight-loss program unless other diets could not be used.
There are several commercial weight-loss or obesity-reduction diets. While they are effective in reducing weight in many pets, they may also contain artificial ingredients and by-products. If these diets are used, it would be wise to switch to a homemade diet or a more wholesome (natural) processed “lite” or maintenance diet once weight reduction has been achieved.
Any food (including carbohydrates and proteins) can be converted to and stored as fat if not needed by the body for another metabolic process. Feeding fat is more likely to contribute to fat deposition in fat cells than feeding protein or carbohydrates. Therefore, lower fat diets are preferred for weight loss in pets.
Foods that increase metabolism, such as vegetables that are high in fiber, are included in weight-loss diets. Fiber, contained in vegetables, decreases fat and glucose absorption; fluctuating glucose levels cause greater insulin release. Since insulin is needed for fat storage, decreased or stable levels are preferred. Fiber also binds to fat in the intestinal tract and increases movement of the food in the intestines, which is of benefit to the obese pet.
Next month I will give you natural weight-control diets, with numerous variations, which you can prepare at home for your obese pet.
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Shawn Messonnier, DVM
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Shawn Messonnier DVM Past Supporting Member, Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians Author, the award-winning The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats, The Natural Vet’s Guide to Preventing and Treating Cancer in Dogs, and Breast Choices for the Best Chances: Your Breasts, Your Life, and How YOU Can Win The Battle!
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