It is traditional at this time of year to make resolutions for ourselves. These often concern a healthier lifestyle, like exercising more, losing weight or giving up smoking. I know I make two out of those three every January, and if I was a smoker I would make all three. But we should also remember our pets’ wellbeing at this time.
It is estimated that 25-35% of dogs and slightly fewer cats in this country are overweight. A very small number of those will have a medical problem as the cause, such as hypothyroidism (which would be tested for by your vet if your dog is unable to lose weight or has other symptoms) but the vast majority are caused by us, the owners. Overfeeding and under-exercising are the main culprits, in other words, calorie intake is greater than energy used up.
It can be very difficult to notice that your own pet is putting on too much weight because when you see them every day, you do not notice a gradual change. It is important to have your pet weighed regularly and take advice from your vet or vet nurse about their weight. Many surgeries offer free clinics to help owners to manage their pet’s weight correctly. They will weigh him/her, discuss the best diet and the right amount, discuss exercise, set realistic targets etc. They may also assess your pet’s bodily condition by a system called body scoring. Some take photos so you can see progress, some offer prizes for slimmer of the month!
We all love to indulge our pets and it gives both pets and owners pleasure to give their animal a treat. But when a dog or cat becomes overweight it can lead to serious medical problems involving the heart, the joints, complications in diabetes, higher risks in surgical procedures and others. An obese animal, however well-loved, is not a well-cared for animal. In extreme cases obesity is a form of animal cruelty and animals have been removed from owners for their own welfare.
Prevention is much better than cure, as in all things, so feeding the right amount of an appropriate diet from a young age is important. If the dog or cat then gradually puts on weight over the years, it is up to the owner to modify their own behaviour. Dogs are scavengers by nature and will eat when the opportunity presents itself. If it presents itself frequently, most dogs will not say no thank you. Cats are often better than dogs at regulating their own intake, but there are exceptions and of course many cats are confined indoors which greatly reduces their exercise. As we are in control of the food supply, we need to make sure it is the right amount.
Unfortunately it can be difficult to accept that the obesity is the owner’s fault, not the pet’s fault. Seeking help with a good diet and exercise regime is the first step. Learning not to use tit-bits or treats as the main reward system or the main way of showing your pet affection is also crucial. Treats can be given but could be halved, or given half as frequently, or taken from the dog’s daily ration of food, or substituted with a healthier snack like a piece of carrot or something similar. Training yourself to offer praise and affection in place of tit-bits can be harder than training your dog.
If we were offered a new miracle treatment for our pets which would make them live longer and cost no money, we would probably be sceptical. But for a quarter of UK pet owners there really is such a thing, and it’s not only free but will actually save you money. Supervised weight loss and regular exercise for overweight pets will make them happier, healthier and help them to live longer. For dog owners, the exercise may also play a part in helping us to keep our own fitness resolutions.
Happy New Year!