A recent Chicago Tribune article focuses on the epidemic of overweight cats and dogs in the United States.
A 2011 survey, conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, found that more than half of the dogs and cats in the US are overweight or obese, which is defined as being at least 30% above normal body weight.
"It comes from the fact that they are beloved," says veterinarian Louise Murray, vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York, USA. "We see them as part of the family, and we feed them. (The obesity) comes from a good place because we love them. But we need to get it under control because it can cause health problems."
Many pet owners, however, do not see the problem of pet obesity. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention has a chart to help pet owners determine whether or not their pet is overweight, though a veterinarian visit is still recommended.
"There are medical conditions that can cause obesity and weight gain," says Thomas Graves, a professor of veterinary clinical medicine at the University of Illinois' College of Veterinary Medicine. "So any animal with a weight problem needs to be evaluated by a veterinarian. That way, a proper weight loss program can be designed by the veterinarian."
A good pet weight loss regiment usually involves a combination of diet and exercise. Graves does not recommend one brand over another, but advises consumers to select a premium-brand petfood, appropriate for the pet's lifestage, and check with a veterinarian for the appropriate feeding amount.
"The truth about petfood is that most pet foods are really good," Graves says. "The petfood companies spend lots of money researching proper nutrition. They want pets fed healthy food that keeps them alive a long time — and buying more food."
Murray says that most weight problems in dogs are the result of feeding too many leftovers, snacks and treats that are high in calories, not the dog's regular food.
In cats, Murray says weight problems come from a diet that is too high in carbohydrates. She recommends canned or moist cat foods.
"Cats are nature's pure carnivores," she says. "They were never meant to eat carbohydrates. Their bodies are not designed to handle them at all. Unfortunately, a lot of the cat foods on the market are high in carbs, especially dry foods. It's easy for us to leave a bowl out all day, but then they're snacking on carbohydrates all day."
Exercising your pet is another important part of keeping it at a healthy weight. For dogs, Murray suggests long walks, three or four times a day, or playing active games like fetch. For cats, she says exercise can consist of waving a simple toy around or getting the cat to chase a laser pointer.
"Any kind of exercise for them is good," Graves explains. "And it's really important that they get mental stimulation too. One way to keep dogs' brains in better shape as they age is to expose them to new things. Don't take them on the same route on the walk every day. Vary it. Go a different way. Let them use their brains more."