Obesity and Weight Loss

Combating Cabin Fever

We all know the phrase "Cabin Fever," and how boredom can make us do things we may not normally do if we were otherwise pre-occupied or content. This is something our pets may feel all too well. Statistics show that boredom, or lack of enrichment, can lead to many behavior problems if not caught soon enough. Lack of mental stimulation or opportunities for our pets to satisfy their natural instincts and behaviors can cause them to act out in ways that we only understand as "bad behavior." In a perfect world, humans and domesticated animals would live together in perfect harmony while entertaining one another's instincts.

Because this world does not exist, we must find ways to satisfy our pets' needs that don't involve our dogs digging to China in our backyard or our cats knocking every single item off of every shelf in an attempt to see which one will play back with them. The idea of enrichment is to provide mental and physical stimulation for our pets to help them live more rewarding and full lives. In the long run, this will help avoid naughty behaviors that may eventually break down that bond you and your four legged child may have.

We all know that ideally dogs would love to walk miles and miles each day and sniff every single blade of grass along the way. Cats would love to chase butterflies in the sunshine for hours on end. Unfortunately, because of our busy lives, this is not always an option. This does not mean there is no hope for your dog or cat. There are many ways to help them achieve the mental stimulation they need. Many of these things can be accomplished with household items you may already have.

Tips to Combat Your Pet's Cabin Fever

Toys: A rule of thumb is that 3 toys should be provided per pet, per day. These items can be switched out and reintroduced every 5 days to help maintain novelty. Keep in mind that you should be cautious of your pet's normal chewing behavior to avoid ingesting any part of the toy. Examples for dogs are rope toys, tennis balls, squeaker toys, and Kongs. Some options for cats are toy mice, jingle balls, and feather toys.

Environmental: Animals naturally enjoy viewing their environment from different angles. This may be easier to accomplish for cats because they are more inclined to climb on counters, shelves, and basically anything in reach. If an option, it would be valuable to allow your cat to have an area, or several, that they are encouraged to climb up on. Empty shelves mounted on a wall that create a ladder effect work great but a standard cat tree is beneficial as well. An idea for dogs is to allow visual access through a window or door. Not all dogs are a good candidate for this especially if they are typically reactive to seeing other people or dogs outside. A good option for those dogs is to leave on the television or radio.

Exercise: This category is one of the most important ones. This is beneficial for overall health but can also have a major effect on naughty behavior such as separation anxiety and and other negative results of pent up energy. Routine walks for your dog are certainly beneficial but there are particular reward neurotransmitters (nerve messenger cells) that are not released unless your pet undergoes high intensity endurance running. Essentially, there are certain functions of your pet's brain that are not stimulated unless this type of exercise exists for them. If you are not typically a runner, dog parks, open fields that allow pets, and even your back yard are a great option to help them reach these needs. It wouldn't be recommended to harness your cat and take him on a 3 mile run, but they can get their daily workout with a little help from you. A cat will chase a feather string toy or laser light for hours. This is encouraged to help them burn energy but it also has a great effect on their self-confidence.

Brain Puzzles: With a little creativity, you would be surprised how many ways you can provide your pet with enrichment. Dogs and cats love new scents. Think of all the things there are to smell while they are on a walk or outside. By using a spray bottle and infusing scents like cinnamon, rosemary, lavender, or chamomile onto your pets favorite bedding or toys, you can provide them with a change to seek and explore. Toxicity potential should be evaluated before using any product. Alternating scents is the best way to keep this a fun adventure for your pet. Empty cardboard boxes with windows cut in them can provide a fun hideout for your cat to explore. Laundry baskets with or without fabric in them placed in various positions provide a new obstacle for your cat to conquer. Switching out different types of fabrics can create an opportunity for your pet to rub and roll for more tactile stimulation.

Fun with Food: Food puzzles are a wonderful opportunity for your pets to engage in their natural instinct to hunt for food. These puzzles can be purchased at most pet stores or made by using cardboard boxes and plastic containers. If you live in a single pet household, spreading his or her meal out in separate rooms gives your pet a great excuse to sniff and search to find the food. If your pet is food motivated, using food puzzles during stressful events like thunderstorms or separation can keep him or her occupied and help with counter conditioning. Using empty egg carton containers to feed your cat or small dog is an easy option. As a treat, you can fill a Kong with peanut butter or freeze a bowl of water mixed with treats or chicken broth to entertain them for a while.

The possibility for enrichment ideas are endless! As always, you must take your pet's individual needs and current health into consideration as not all of these options are suitable for every pet and household. For assistance or questions about anything in this article, don't hesitate to contact us!

Ring in 2012 with New Year's Resolutions for your Pet

As you are considering New Year's resolutions for yourself for 2012, make sure to include your pet! The most common resolutions we make seem to be centered around better physical and mental health so why not try and focus on these things for your pet as well!?

First Resolution: Measure food!

How about having the goal of helping your pet to achieve his or her ideal weight? Obesity is the one factor that can take away years of quality life from your pet faster than any other. One of the most common mistakes that we see is owners free feeding their pets. This is when the bowl is filled without regard to measuring quantity. Find out how much your pet should be eating (FYI your veterinarian can calculate a recommended caloric intake based on age, activity level and body condition) and adapt him/her to a scheduled, measured feeding routine! (Check out Dr. Rainwater's articles on dog and cat weight loss for more information.)

Second Resolution: No more table scraps!

I can't tell you how many times I hear owners confess the junk food that their pets get - ice cream, fast food hamburgers, chips, etc. There are also junk food pet treats such as Pupperoni and extra large Milk-Bones (read: king size Snickers bar) that are just as bad. Believe me; I understand how much joy it brings to see your pet indulging in a special treat! Instead of the "junk food" though, how about trying raw carrots, green beans, or homemade baked sweet potato slices to name a few healthy options?  My dogs still get their chew treats once or twice weekly, but we give vegetables as their daily rewards and my dogs LOVE them! They act just as excited for the vegetables as they did for the store bought treats! Give it a try!

Third Resolution: Exercise your pet more!

Not only will this resolution benefit your pet's physical health, but it will benefit their mental health as well. Take your dog on daily walks or runs depending on his/her ability. Play a daily game of fetch or Frisbee in the back yard! Try a new toy for your cat (ideas: remote control mouse, laser light, or feeding toy) and play with it daily. As you exercise your pet, you are helping their mental health as well. We see so many behavior problems that most likely stem from lack of mental stimulation!

Fourth Resolution: Train for life!

Adopt an attitude that training your pet is a lifelong goal: training is NEVER over for a pet! Have you resolved to put your dog away when strangers come over as opposed to teaching him/her good manners? Have you resolved to let your cat use the sofa as a scratching post because "the sofa's old and we want to get rid of it anyway"? Have you resolved to allow your dog to jump on you to demand attention? Pets thrive when they know what behaviors are expected of them and when they are positively rewarded for those behaviors. I recommend all new puppy owners adopt the philosophy: "nothing in life is free." This means, ask basic commands before rewards such as getting them to sit before they are fed, let outdoors, or before you pet them. Adult dogs and cats can also be taught these behaviors to help treat and/or prevent a few of the behavior problems that are common in adult pets. Try and teach your dog or cat better manners this year! Everyone will benefit!

Why there is no such thing as an “all stages” pet food

Have you ever wondered why dog and cat foods are labeled “growth” for puppies and kittens and “mature” for older dogs and cats?  There are very important reasons

  • Do we eat the same foods as a teenager and as a sixty year old? 
  • Do we eat the same way when pregnant and after turning fifty? 

Pets also need food that is formulated appropriately for their specific stage in life – to receive adequate, but not excessive, amounts of important nutrients.  Puppies, kittens and lactating mothers need more protein, vitamins, and minerals than adults to ensure proper growth.  Foods for adults and for senior pets should be formulated differently to meet the changing needs of dogs and cats as they age.

Why is “all stages” written on the label?

The pet food industry is regulated by AAFCO – the Association of American Feed Control Officials, a “voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies.”  AAFCO defines an all stages diet this way:  “The pet food has to be suitable for puppies, kittens or pregnant/lactating adults.”  http://www.petfood.aafco.org/ 

Here are some examples of how AAFCO standards for an "all stages" diet (to meet a puppy’s needs) match up to an adult dog’s daily nutritional needs:

  • Protein (% minimum) is 22% higher than recommended daily allowances
  • Crude Fat (% min) is 60% higher than recommended daily allowances
  • Sodium (% min) is 400% higher than recommended daily allowances

Daily recommendations for a senior dog are even lower, and the findings are similar in cats.  Overweight condition is the number one contributor to arthritis pain and mobility problems in dogs and cats.  Excess sodium is related to hypertension (elevated blood pressure) and heart disease.

Also from the AAFCO web site:

  • AAFCO has no statutory authority to regulate pet products.
  • AAFCO does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods in any way. 
  • AAFCO establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods, and it is the pet food company's responsibility to formulate their products according to the appropriate AAFCO standard.

It is the state feed control official's responsibility in regulating pet food to ensure that the laws and rules established for the protection of companion animals and their custodians are complied with so that only unadulterated, correctly and uniformly labeled pet food products are distributed in the marketplace and a structure for orderly commerce.  

It is up to the company to comply.  Some companies do an excellent job - by using science, doing food trials, employing veterinary nutritionists and other specialists, and formulating foods appropriate for the labeled use.  These companies spend money on food trials and nutritional testing that is not required to put their products on the market. 

These companies share their information with veterinarians so we can educate clients appropriately.  Two companies I trust – two companies from which I purchase foods for my own pets – are:

Some companies do not provide veterinarians with information, even when we ask for it.  Sometimes they do not even have information to provide – no food trials, no nutritional formulas.  They emphasize words that sell products:  “natural” “organic” and “grain free” are some examples of words which are unregulated and unimportant to your pet’s nutritional health.

These buzz words are for your sake – the consumer – because they appeal to you.  The “all stages” foods are marketed to pet owners who look for the convenience of one food for more than one pet.  But it just is not possible to meet their individual requirements at different stages of life with one formula.

These marketing techniques do not benefit our pets nutritionally.  Some of the premium diets sold at boutique pet stores can cause your pet problems.  Most are calorie dense, “filler free” foods without the fiber and carbohydrate our pets need to stay healthy.

Dogs and cats become ever more obese and pet owners find it ever harder to afford their care.  Don't spend money on the wrong things.  Who can help you sort this out?  Your veterinarian, who studied nutrition, physiology, medicine and disease – who spent eight years in college specializing in animal health and wellness, is equipped to help you prioritize your funds devoted to pet care.  We can help when they are sick- and we are the best source of information on how to keep them healthy.

Please don’t fall for marketing schemes and ask the advice of perhaps well-meaning, but untrained employees in the pet food and pet store industry!  They just don’t know.


Weight loss in Cats

It’s a long hard road, but it’s worth it!

If there are two things I see in otherwise healthy pets that jeopardize their long-term well-being, they are obesity and dental disease. Previously I talked about the obesity epidemic in dogs, and now it’s time to discuss managing your too big kitty. (Also read: Dr. Flood's article on dental health.)

Feline obesity increases the risk of skin disease, cardiovascular stress, respiratory stress, urinary obstruction (especially male cats), diabetes mellitus, joint disease and hepatic lipidosis to name a few problems.  Any of these will be much more expensive and stressful to treat than getting weight off your cat!

Realize that weight loss in cats is very different from dogs, and if done improperly, can kill them.  This is because if cats either lose weight too quickly or stop eating due to the stress of a diet change, they can mobilize too much fat at once which accumulates in the liver causing a dangerous condition called hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease). This condition often requires hospitalization and in some cases, surgical placement of a feeding tube.

If you are interested in starting a weight loss plan for your kitty, here is an algorithm to use in conjunction with regular monitoring.

  1. Start with a visit to the veterinarian to determine body condition, ideal weight and establish a weight loss plan. We recommend doing some routine bloodwork (serum biochemistry and complete red and white blood cell count) at this time to ensure that the liver and kidneys are healthy prior to starting the weight loss plan.  This bloodwork should be rechecked at least once during the weight loss process.  Your veterinarian will also calculate the number of calories the pet should be fed, advise you on diet options (see below) and give you an exact amount to feed daily.
  2. Buy a baby scale. These are readily available from online sources for about $50 or less. You can also use a postage scale (office supply stores sell these) or cooking scale, as long as it goes up to about 20 pounds.  You will use this to weigh your cat weekly, instituting a weight loss goal of approximately 0.5 – 2% body weight loss per week. In other words, a 15 pound cat with an ideal weight of 8 pounds needs to lose between 1.2 and 4.8 ounces per week (given 1 pound = 16 ounces).  This means that it will take this kitty at least 6 months to safely lose weight, so be patient.  If weight loss is too rapid, dietary intake will need to be increased. If too slow, then either intake or type of food may need to be adjusted.
  3. Decide on a diet.  There are many options for dietary weight loss in cats. Generally, if cats are healthy, a high protein diet (at least 40% dry matter) will be selected. Both prescription and over-the-counter options are available. Many feline practitioners also advocate a switch from dry to wet food, due to the higher protein and water content and lower carbohydrates. Be prepared to try more than one diet; some cats will be very picky about what they want to eat and you may have to try several types of before you find one that works well.  Always transition cats slowly to a new food over at least 5-7 days.
  4. Meal feeding. If your cat is free fed dry food, even a weight loss food, it is unlikely that he will lose weight.  It is important to get your cat on a feeding schedule. In very hungry cats, feeding small meals 3-4 times daily may work better than twice daily.  However, do not go above the daily calorie amount recommended by your veterinarian.
  5. Exercise.  Just like anyone else losing weight, your kitty needs more exercise. Commit to adding at least 15 minutes per day to their routine, which you can break up into 5 minute bouts if that works better.  Laser pointers, bird toys, making them “fetch” for low-calorie treats or pieces of kibble, feeding toys and providing vertical climbing space such as cat towers can all be helpful. Do not encourage jumping on or off furniture for overweight cats, as that can put them at risk of joint injury or bone fractures. Check out The Indoor Cat Initiative (through Ohio State University) for ideas on improving the life of your indoor cats.

As always, contact your veterinarian along the way with any questions or concerns!

Weight Loss for Dogs

Obesity is an epidemic in pets and people in the US.  Many of the same deleterious effects, including insulin resistance, arthritis, respiratory difficulty, inflammatory diseases and shortened life expectancy have been associated with obesity in dogs. The big difference between obese people and obese dogs is that we control how much our dogs eat, so it’s up to us to make the differences that will help our canine family members live long, healthy lives.

If you think your dog is overweight, it’s a good idea to start with a visit to the veterinarian. Have them do a full physical examination and give your pet a body condition score.  This ranges from 1 (emaciated) to 9 (grossly obese). Evaluating body condition will help you monitor your dog’s weight loss.  The optimal body condition score for a dog is between 4-5. Any dog that has arthritis or any other known orthopedic condition should be kept at a 4. That means you should be able to easily feel the ribs on either side when they are standing straight.

The hardest part about cutting back calories for most owners are the treats. It’s essential to eliminate all unnecessary treats from the diet to cut calories. Your average 50 pound dog has a resting energy requirement of only 800 calories per day. A milkbone contains about 30 calories, so if you give 3-4 daily you are adding a lot! Dieting doggies can get vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, squashes and green beans (low-sodium canned, fresh or frozen, raw or cooked) as treats instead. You can also put some of the base diet in a jar with a piece of beef jerky. The jerky will add a different smell to the diet and make it seem more “treat” like. Be sure to keep track of how many of those treats you give out and subtract them from the evening meal.

You will also most likely have to cut back their base diet by about 20-25%. Unfortunately, over the counter “light” foods often add carbohydrates and do not result in good weight loss. Vegetables can be used to add bulk to this meal and decrease hunger pangs (and subsequent whining and begging) between meals. Dividing the daily food into 3 meals daily may also help. In addition, just like in people, daily exercise is extremely important to meeting your dog’s weight loss goals. Commit to adding 15 more minutes daily. During the hot summer months, be sure to try walk pets in the early morning or late evening to avoid the peak heat and humidity, or try to increase swimming or other cooler temperature activities.

The most important component to weight management in pets is MONITORING! You need to weigh dogs at least once per month to ensure that you are making progress. Your goal is between 0.5 - 2% body weight loss per week. At DIAH we are happy to weigh your pets as often as you like at no charge and enter the weights in our computer so you can track your dog's weight. If you are implementing a consistent set of strategies but your pet is not losing weight, then you may need to pursue some medical diagnostics, such as a test for hypothyroidism, or perhaps obtain a prescription diet that is especially formulated for canine weight loss.

Come see us at the Get Fit Dog Walk, Saturday, August 14, 2010, at 7:00AM for more information!