Dogs and cats have the same risk of disease with obesity as we do. Vets are now saying we should rethink the way we feed them.
At breakfast time, does the family dog sit at your feet, looking longingly at that half slice of toast you left on your plate? And when you come home at the end of the day, does your cat wind herself around your legs, in the hope that you’ll produce her favourite fatty snack?
The trouble is, when we feed our pets, very few of us count the kilojoules. That half slice of leftover toast given to a 5kg dog, for instance, is equivalent to us popping an extra five slices of bread on our plate after we’ve finished our usual meal.
One in three Aussie cats and dogs are overweight, according to national studies. So, while millions of us are resolving to have a healthier life in 2017, we should also, say vets, review our pets’ daily diet.
Why worry about it? “They don’t live as long,” says Dr Richard Malik of the Centre for Veterinary Education, the University of Sydney. In fact, another study has found that being overweight can shave two years off your pet’s life.
Meanwhile, carrying excess weight puts animals at risk of the same lifestyle diseases as humans; a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease, for example, a lack of stamina, and joint problems.
Cats and dogs are capable of ‘ballistic movements’, explains Dr Malik. That is, they like to run and jump to great heights. “So, being overweight puts an enormous stress on the bones and joints.”
But how can you tell whether or not your pet has a weight problem? Here is a guide on what you should look out for.
Weigh it up at home
The ideal weight for a dog or cat depends on their breed, lifestyle, age and condition, medications they’re on or treatments they’ve had. When a dog or cat is de-sexed, for example, their metabolic rate decreases, so they’re much more likely to put on weight.
The first thing to check is your pet’s ‘body condition score’. You can do this yourself simply by looking at or touching your pet.
Signs that your dog is overweight
The ribs aren’t seen clearly and are hard to feel.
The waist isn’t easily visible behind their ribs when viewed from above.
You can feel fat over their spine and base of the tail.
The abdomen isn’t tucked up when seen from the side.
Signs that your cat is overweight
The ribs are hard to feel.
There is a moderate to thick layer of fat covering the bones that are near the surface.
There is a pendulous ‘skirt’ (bulge under the abdomen), with no waist.
If it is clear that your dog or cat is overweight, or if you’re not sure, visit your local vet to have your pet assessed.
What’s a good diet?
What constitutes a healthier diet for your dog or cat? “In my experience, most cats need 85g of meat or wet food, two times a day,” says Dr Malik. Dogs’ needs vary with their size, so check the back of the pack or tin where serving sizes are displayed according to a dog’s weight.
At the same time, Dr Malik also recommends ensuring that your dog or cat’s diet has a healthy portion of wet food or raw meat, which are higher in protein than dry pellets. Dried food tends to be based on carbohydrates such as wheat and corn.
“There’s a growing movement around the world saying a diet exclusively of dry pellets is wrong. Supplementing it with wet food or fresh meat is a good thing, especially if it comes on a bone which massages the gums,” says Dr Malik.
Keep tabs on treats
We often use treats to bond with and interact with our pets. It becomes a problem when pets expect this, and we give in to them. Try to keep treats to a minimum and switch to healthy snacks — just as we do when trying to lose weight.
Dr Malik suggests giving pets, “a little sliver of ham, a frankfurt cut into very thin slices, or even cheese cut into little pieces.” Just keep in mind that the size of a treat for a 60kg human will be extremely different in size for a 5kg dog.
Don’t forget daily walkies
Sitting curled up on the sofa or lying in bed all day is no better for pets than it is for you. Encourage your cat to go out. Make time to walk the dog each day — even a short walk around the block after dinner, as well as longer walks whenever you can. You’ll also benefit!
Increase exercise if they’ve eaten more than usual, as any significant weight gain will reduce your pet’s quality of life and make the exercise they need less enjoyable (due to lack of stamina). It also means they’ll suffer more in the summer heat than their slimmer friends.
“In the end, we want our pets to be really healthy and live a long life,” says Dr Malik.
Pets at party time
With all that festive food around at this time of year, it can be tempting to feed leftovers to our four-legged friends. And yet these ‘treats’ may be downright dangerous to them. Watch out for these:
Chocolate can lead to hyperactivity and heart attack.
Lilies are deadly to cats. Don’t put lilies in vases within their reach.
Onions and garlic can lead to anaemia in dogs.
Macadamia nuts can be poisonous.
Fatty foods like sausages or the fat from your steak can cause pancreatitis.
Grapes and sultanas may lead to kidney failure in dogs.
Cooked bones, including the ham bone, can splinter inside dogs.
Xylitol is an artificial sweetener used in mints, and can be deadly to dogs.
Kitchen rubbish, such as kebab skewers, string for tying meat and the pads in the plastic tray under meat, can all be lodged in your pet’s intestines if eaten.