Does My Pet Need to Go on a Diet?

As a veterinarian, obesity is one of the most common problems I see affecting our pet population today. Not only can excess weight cause your dog or cat to feel sluggish and less than his or her best, but it can contribute to a whole host of health problems: allergies, diabetes, organ diseases, arthritis and orthopedic issues(excess weight puts added stress on the joints).
Pets are members of the family—and we want them to live the same happy, energetic lives we desire for ourselves. Helping your pet maintain a healthy weight is central to that goal. Luckily, even if your pet earned a less-than-stellar report in the weight department during his last visit to the vet, there are plenty of things you can do to help him scale back safely.
How Do You Know if Your Pet Is Overweight?
The first step in a weight-management program is to assess your pet’s situation: Just how does he or she compare weight-wise? Studies show that parents have a hard time being objective about their child's weight, and it can be difficult to notice a weight problem in your pet because you see her every day. When judging body condition, I typically gauge pets on a scale of 1-5, where a 1 corresponds to being extremely thin (underweight) and a 5 is a pet that is considered morbidly obese. Ideally, you want your pet right in the middle: about a 2.5. At this level of healthy body weight, you should be able to: 
  • Feel but not see your animal's ribs
  • See a slight taper in at the waist when viewing your pet from above
  • See a noticeable tummy "tuck" from the side.
For a visual comparison of how your pet stacks up, you may wish to view this body condition score chart (PDF) courtesy of and Hill's Pet Nutrition.
If you’re worried your pet is looking a little rounded at the edges, it’s time to take action!

As is the case with humans, weight loss for your pet results from increasing activity or decreasing calories—or ideally, some combination of both. Recognize what’s really going on with your pet. If he or she truly eats a healthy amount of food but rarely goes for walks or plays, then the focus needs to be on exercise. In my experience, most cases of pet obesity are due to overfeeding, so that's what we'll focus on. For more tips to increase your pet's physical activity, check out the following stories:  Get Honest about Your Feeding Habits
The most important thing when it comes to weight loss for your pet is to be honest with yourself and your veterinarian about how much you’re really feeding your dog or cat. When I ask clients this question the most common answer I hear is "about a cup." Unfortunately, that simply isn’t a good answer. Are we talking about an actual measuring cup or a large coffee can? I’ve definitely heard clients apply the term "cup" to both ends of the spectrum and there’s a huge difference! Are you feeding once or twice daily, or does your dog or cat free feed from the bowl? Your vet needs to know precisely how much you’re feeding to make the best recommendations for your pet. Get our your measuring cups and measure how much you are really feeding your pet and how often.
How to Scale Back on Kibble
Once you have established how much you are currently feeding your pet, your veterinarian can devise a specific diet plan since caloric needs can vary greatly depending on your pet's condition, age, activity level and the caloric content of his or her food. This step is especially important for dogs or cats that have any medical issues. For otherwise healthy adult pets with minor weight issues, you can start by scaling back by 10-20% of their total daily calories. 

If your pet really seems to be missing the extra calories, there are some tricks you can use to help him or her feel full while still cutting back.

For dogs, simply replace the amount of kibble you are taking out of his or her diet with an equal amount of fresh green beans, which are low in calories but add volume and fiber that help keep pets satiated. If seasonally available, pureed pumpkin is a great option and can be used in place of green beans. My general recommendation is to replace every 1/4 cup of kibble that you scale back with 1 tablespoon of pumpkin. Just be sure to use plain pumpkin puree and not pumpkin pie filling, which contains sugar and other undesirable ingredients that could hinder your dog's weight-loss efforts.

Pumpkin puree generally appeals to most cats as well. However, for every 1/4 cup of kibble that is scaled back, offer only 1-2 teaspoons of pumpkin.
After a month or two of smaller portions, reassess your pet’s weight and scale back more, with your vet's guidance, if you need to.
Tame Treats and Extras
It’s important to remember that all the little extras you feed your pet throughout the day do add up! In fact, most commercially available treats are less nutritious and more calorie dense than your dog or cat’s regular food. If your pet loves to be rewarded with food (and let’s face it, whose doesn’t?), try replacing half of his or her regular treats with a healthier option. For dogs, baby carrots are my favorite. They’re crunchy (a bonus for teeth!), light in calories and most pups love them. If carrots just don’t cut it for your pooch and only milk bones will do, break them up and feed smaller amounts. Most of the time what your dog looks forward to is the act of receiving a treat and will be happy regardless of how much he or she actually gets.
For households in which pets are receiving treats from multiple family members throughout the day, portion them out ahead of time and place them in a plastic bag to ensure you aren’t exceeding your dog's or cat’s daily allotted amount. Low-calorie and diet treat options are also available for special circumstances or for cats in need of scaling back.
There really is no magic number when it comes to how many treats should be allotted per day, but I generally recommend that no more than 10% of your pet's daily calories come from outside his or her regular diet. Remember, just like with our own diets, extra calories from treats can add up quickly and really aren't a necessity. There are plenty of other healthy ways to reward pets for good behavior, such as extra walks or belly rubs, that won't interfere with weight-loss efforts.

In cases where you know that unplanned treats are going to be inevitable (such as scraps dropped from your toddler or sneaky treats from a well-intentioned family member), scale back on your pet’s regular meals in order to accommodate these extra calories. Of course, you want to make sure that the majority of your pet’s diet comes from a nutritionally complete, well-balanced source (such as pet kibble), but if you know you won’t be able to control everything that goes into his or her mouth, then you need to make adjustments where you can.
Consider a Diet Pet Food
Often, if a pet is already eating a high-quality, well-balanced diet, then scaling back on treats and table scraps is all that is required to achieve weight loss. However, many prescription diet foods are also available from your veterinarian and may be good option, particularly for pets who are severely obese or have other health considerations such as being at high risk for diabetes (this is especially important when it comes to our feline friends). If you do opt for a diet food, keep in mind that pets who free feed may still be prone to overeat in order to compensate for the lack of calories. Have a conversation with your veterinarian to decide the best option for your pet.

Get Your Pet Tested
If you have been diligent about following your vet’s recommendations and your pet is still not losing weight, blood tests may be a good idea to search for a possible underlying cause for the weight problem, such as thyroid disease. Depending on your pet’s history of symptoms, testing may be recommended right off the bat. It’s always best to defer to your veterinarian who has an established relationship with you and your pet when it comes deciding whether or not additional tests should be part of your dog or cat’s overall health assessment.

The number one problem I see when people's pets are overweight—and not losing weight—is a lack of compliance, not from the dog or cat, but from the humans taking care of them. Your veterinarian can design a fool-proof diet plan for your dog or cat but it won’t mean anything if you don’t follow through with the plan. As a pet owner myself, I know that it can be tough to avoid pleading stares at the dinner table, but remember, if you don’t take responsibility for your pet’s weight then no one else will. Just like with us, it’s important to realize that achieving and maintaining weight loss requires a lifestyle change—and consistentcy really matters. You can take your pet’s weight and health into your own hands and, trust me, she will thank you for it in the long run!