October is National Pet Obesity Month, an awareness event necessitated by a burgeoning epidemic that is impacting the lives of a majority of cats and dogs.
“The numbers are astonishingly high,” says Dr. Laura Weis, DVM, of Doylestown Veterinary Hospital. “The official stats say that 60% of cats and 55% of dogs are considered overweight or clinically obese.”
And while the public and pop culture have always had a soft spot for fat cats like Garfield, or chunky pugs popping up on social media platforms, the reality is that obesity can drastically affect our pets’ well-being and lead to chronic health issues.
For pet parents searching for the root cause of pet obesity – the answer is not quite as elusive as one may think. It’s the exact same problem that we humans face.
“It’s not just a single entity or lack of exercise that causes this problem,” says Dr. Weis. “Although most cats and dogs don’t get enough exercise, 80% of the problem is what goes in the front end. It’s what they’re eating.”
Yes, it is true that most house pets do not get the proper exercise. But equally true, says Dr. Weis, is that you cannot exercise your way out of a bad diet.
“When people chat with me about their pet’s weight and what they can do, they always say, ‘But we go for walks,’” she laughs. “And I always say, ‘that’s great – but your dog can eat more in about 30 seconds than he can work off in 30 minutes.”
But there is also a combination of elements to look at when considering a diet that contributes to obesity.
Introducing Kitty Keto
According to Dr. Weis, most cats and dogs do not follow what veterinarians call a “species-appropriate diet.”
“We don’t feed cats and dogs the way they’re supposed to be fed – and the way that they’ve evolved to eat.”
“Cats are carnivores,” she continues. “They are not meant to eat carbohydrates. They are what we call obligate carnivores, which means they must obtain certain nutrients from eating meat.”
The problem is that when you look closely at the ingredients found in a lion’s share of commercial cat foods, what you will see are lots of fillers – primarily carbohydrates – because they are far cheaper than quality proteins.
“Cats should be fed more of what we think of for people as a ketogenic diet,” says Dr. Weis. “They need relatively balanced amounts of fat and protein and almost zero carbohydrates.”
Most pet owners erroneously think that if the packaging reads “grain-free,” they are avoiding carbs. The message from Dr. Weis? Don’t believe everything you read.
“Those labels are very sneaky,” she says. “They sneak in carbs in the form of pea flour, tapioca starch, cellulose, other legumes – even potatoes and sweet potatoes. Fillers other than grains get into those commercial foods.”
Wolfing It Down the Right Way
Dogs face a similar problem to cats, says Dr. Weis, though it is not quite as drastic.
“Ancestrally, wolves ate a diet that was about 45% each of fat and protein, and about 10% carbohydrates,” she explains. “Feeding trials have shown that if you offer dogs equal access to food, most will eat a diet that is relatively similar to that ancestral composition.”
Even if dogs are offered bowls of kibble, for example – one that’s high in carbohydrates, one that’s high in protein, and one that’s high in fat – they tend to choose the kibble that is ancestrally compatible.
“We don’t think of our chihuahuas as little wolves,” Dr. Weis laughs. “But the only real changes, other than the way they look, regard a dog’s ability to digest food and the evolution of a couple of genes that help with starchy carbohydrates.”
In short: those chihuahuas can digest carbs a little bit better than their howling forefathers, but not by a lot.
Of course, that means the same problem occurs in commercial dog foods as it does in cat foods.
“Protein and good quality fats are very expensive,” says Dr. Weis. “Pet food companies are usually looking for ways to minimize cost, while still appealing to the pet parent.”
Not only that, but several commercially processed foods also include fats that are pro-inflammatory and actually contribute to a worsening obesity crisis, she says.
“It’s exactly like us humans,” Dr. Weis continues. “Dog owners should be avoiding any commercial foods that contain seed oils, like canola oil and sunflower oil or safflower oil. They’re cheap. They’re easy to put in. And they help manufacturers reach the numbers they want to hit on that label. But they’re really, really bad for not only a dog’s digestion, and lead to inflammation which is a precursor for many types of chronic disease.”
A Pound of Prevention
Surprise: dogs don’t need treats.
Sure, they like them. And we as pet parents like handing them out. But they don’t need them to survive and lead a healthy life.
“If you want to give your dog treats, you should be looking for single-source dehydrated protein treats. They’ll love those,” says Dr. Weis. “Everyone wants to give dogs biscuits and cookies and crackers, and things like that. But something crunchy like carrot stick is a great alternative.”
Including some fresh foods with your dog’s diet can make a huge difference, metabolically.
Again, Dr. Weis stresses, there’s that little caveat of consulting with your veterinarian to make sure that your proposed diet is compatible.
“But there are some great things you can include, such as eggs, sardines, and well-chopped vegetables,” she says. “Dogs can’t digest vegetables as well as humans can – so they have to be cooked or very finely chopped.”
High-quality proteins, such as animal proteins, are also phenomenal.
“Even just supplementing 10% of your dog’s diet with fresh foods has been shown to decrease rates of obesity as well as prevent the onset of a lot of chronic illnesses that go along with obesity and metabolic dysfunction,” Dr. Weis says.
How Many Meals is Appropriate?
Most dogs and cats prefer to eat twice a day, says Dr. Weis.
Some dogs do extremely well on a once-a-day feeding, she adds, or intermittent days of once-a-day feedings.
For cats, set that number of meals and stick to it.
“One of the worst things you can do is leave a bowl of food out for cats to graze all day,” she says.
Striking a balanced, species-appropriate diet may sound like a struggle, but with time, patience, and regular consultations with your family vet – your pet will eat healthier, be happier, and live longer.
“The reason we feed our pets too much is because we love them,” Dr. Weis says. “But obese pets live shorter lives and have more medical problems. The best way to love your dog and cat is to keep them at a healthy weight.”