Got a fat cat or a plump pooch? Vet tells what you're doing wrong

Many Australians became pet owners in 2020 to combat lockdown loneliness, but with more people returning to the office, many of those pets may be becoming overweight. 

Pre-pandemic statistics showed that more than 50 per cent of pets were overweight and that 90 per cent of owners of an overweight pet didn’t realise they were overweight, according to Hill’s Pet Nutrition Australia. They analysed more than 4000 pet obesity-related Google search terms and asked consulting veterinarian Jessica Mills to provide expert advice on the most common questions. This is what she says.

Know your starting point
A healthy weight can vary between breeds and species, and you need to know what’s ideal for your pet type. Typically, you should weigh your dog or cat in kilos and keep this figure in your pet’s health file as a clear starting point.

Calculate exact calories
You need to know how many calories your dog or cat requires in order to maintain a healthy balance. Consider age, weight, activity level and breed type among other things. Feeding guides on food packages are just that, a guide. Your pet’s feeding amount may need to be adjusted to support their individual requirements.

Provide a good quality diet
A nutritious diet can make a huge difference to your pet’s lifelong health and happiness. Nutrition not only affects your pets’ weight, but also contributes to healthy digestion, strong bones and a beautiful coat. Precisely balanced nutrition is key to any pet’s weight management journey.

Make sure you measure meals
Many pet owners simply ‘guesstimate’ when it comes to feeding both dogs and cats. Weighing your pet’s food is the most accurate method, but using the measuring cup provided by the manufacturer can also keep you on the right track. The feeding guide on the pack will provide you with a good starting point. Alternatively, your veterinary healthcare team or the manufacturer’s helpline can help you determine the ideal amount to feed your pet.

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Free feeding your cat or dog, with owners constantly keeping the pet bowl full, can result in an ‘all-day buffet’. And while you may think you’re keeping your pet happy, you may be contributing to those extra kilos through too much readily available kibble.

Try to switch out ‘treats’
Don’t feed table scraps to your pet, especially if you want them to lose weight. It might seem like a little ‘here and there’, but for some pets, it can be the equivalent of a whole meal. In human calorie terms, 28g of cheddar cheese is the equivalent of 1.5 burgers for your 9kg dog or 3.5 burgers for your 4.5kg cat!

Instead, get into the habit of rewarding good behaviour with fun, not with food. Pay your pet extra attention and affection with more cuddles, walks or playtime.

Use food as a way to nourish body and mind
Many pets will overeat when they are bored. Puzzle feeders or treat balls can be used to help keep your pet mentally active and slow down their eating habits by making them work for their food.

Prioritise an exercise plan
For dogs, look at simple ways to increase their exercise. Maybe it’s possible to add a couple of extra walks a week or increase the length of your daily walk. Or maybe you can change the route so they are exercising more intensely – going up hills or stairs are great to burn calories. Another good option is to find games they like, such as fetch, so that you both enjoy these daily exercise sessions.

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For cats, simple games such as ‘hunting’ the light can encourage them to move more. Simply shine a torch on the floor and walls and the natural movement will encourage your pet to chase it. For cats that love their food, puzzle feeders and dividing the meal around the house can encourage more movement while they eat.

Make it a family affair
Ensure that everyone involved in your pet’s care is aware of any changes to diet, exercise or health regime. That way, it will be a lot easier for your pet to keep to the required plan and you will be more likely to stay on track as everyone can join together, to encourage a healthier lifestyle.

Know what’s normal
It is important to have a base understanding of what is normal when it comes to the weight and size of your pet, just like you would do with your own body. Make sure you are regularly performing health checks and you know signs to look out for. Unexpected or sudden weight loss or weight gain could be an indicator of underlying disease and a good reason to check in with your vet.

Take it slowly
At the end of the day, healthy weight management for your cat or dog is a lifestyle change. Remember there is no quick fix and that nothing happens overnight. But by looking at the diet and exercise regime of your pets, you can help keep them healthy and happy for many years to come.

Are you guilty of ‘guesstimating’ how much to feed your pet? Or do you ensure there is always something in the bowl? Add your advice in the comments section below.

Find full study findings and additional advice here.

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Written by Jessica Mills