Well, the mainstay of obesity management are weight loss programmes that alter diet and exercise. Other things can be done alongside, but diet is almost always the most important factor to address first.
Starting with diet, an obese pet must reduce its intake! Most will need a 50% reduction in calorific intake to start losing weight. Animals have a daily resting energy requirement (RER) in calories. If this is exceeded (which it often is) the animal gains weight. Consuming only the RER amount, or even dipping below this, will result in weight loss. Vets will be able to calculate the RER of your pet, work out an appropriate intake that will result in weight loss, and regularly check weight is going in the right direction.
Lowering the daily intake can be done via various methods. Reducing the size of your pet’s normal diet, feeding a special low calorie diet. Avoiding treats, feeding little and often, giving wet food and avoiding fatty foods. Slowing down eating via special feeders can also be useful. Giving additional water may also help distract them from hunger and fill them up.
Problems to watch out for:
For some very large pets, the reduction in calories can mean very small meals which often do not contain enough vitamins and minerals. This can be managed via the special diets mentioned above, or supplements.
New diets should be introduced very slowly, alongside regular food, to avoid reluctance to eat or even anorexia. Anorexia in an obese pet is very dangerous (especially in cats), as it can result in excess mobilisation of body fat and high blood fat levels.
Difficulties can occur in multi-pet households. Feed obese pets separately,. Do not leave uneaten food around (both so the obese pet does not eat too much, or a normal-weight pet does not eat a calorie deficient diet and starve).
Outdoor cats can be very hard to manage, as there is no guarantee they aren’t out and about snacking on fat rats! In extreme cases, it may be necessary to keep your cat indoors. Dogs should not be allowed to scavenge on walks either.
Moving on to exercise, generally, the more exercise your pet does, the more excess calories can be burnt off. Thus the less are converted and stored as fat. Intense exercise is better for this than gentle, so consider going for runs or cycles with your dog if their health allows it. Try playing lots of high intensity fetch. Swimming is another great exercise choice if you have a water-loving pup! You can also encourage exercise around the house by creating obstacle courses, putting kibble (not unhealthy treats!) into puzzle toys, allowing free access to the garden, and so on. Try and encourage exercise around feeding time by moving their food bowls upstairs, putting it in the aforementioned toys, or combining it with training.
For cats especially, as well as older obese pets or those with mobility issues, encouraging exercise can be difficult. Toys and food-related exercise mentioned above are very good options, as are cat climbing towers. Outdoor cats often get more exercise than indoor cats (though with the drawback of less diet control). So this might be something to consider as well. If intense exercise is really not an option, try and continue regular gentle exercise when you can. Any exercise is better than none, and when combined with the diet modification, weight loss can still be achieved.
As we mentioned above, obese pets often have a range of diseases connected with obesity. Furthermore, many obese pets are elderly and thus can have age-related diseases as well. This can mean that some of the above options for diet or exercise are not practical, or even impossible. Your vet will be aware of this, and can give plenty of advice. Usually, more serious diseases like diabetes, will take precedent, and calorie-restricted diets are not advised.
Research is being done into other ways that we could combat pet obesity. As with people, there have been trials of medicines designed to help lose weight. One that was in the news a few years ago was Slentrol for dogs, though this is now no longer available in the UK. In future, weight loss drugs will likely be licensed, but these should not replace diet and exercise control, but work alongside them. There have also been some weight-reduction surgeries attempted in pets, with some success. However, they are very specialist, not that well researched, and should also not be a replacement for good medical management.
Whatever the method of weight loss, regular rechecks are essential. Do these regularly at home by BCS or weighting your pet, and making a note of the numbers. Your vet will also advise you to re-visit them every few months or so, to ensure your pet’s weight is heading in the right direction. Many practices offer nurse weight loss clinics. These are are a great way for vets to monitor your pet’s progress, and give you new tips and tricks to keep weight loss on track. Of course, you are always welcome to ring your vet or pop in early if you have any questions or concerns with what you are doing.
It is rare to see quick changes with weight loss in obese pets. But stick with your programme and results will start to show. Although some damage due to obesity is permanent, the body can show a surprising ability to heal, and a slimmed down pet can go on to enjoy a very normal and happy life. The earlier obesity is spotted and treated, the better. Do remember though that every pet is different, and what works for one may not be appropriate for another. Check with your vet if you are worried about your pet’s weight, and want to know what you can do to get your obese pet starting their weight loss journey.