Weighty matters: keeping your pets slim and healthy begins with you

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Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

How long can I go without doing an article about weight? Not terribly long. I was out with my dogs the other day, and someone exclaimed that they were WAY too skinny. Now, clearly I understand that people are used to a fatter standard, but whenever people say this to me (which happens several times a year) I have to think of how to respond. Since I am a vet, my dogs have the distinction of having a mom who weighs them fairly frequently and works to keep their BCS (body condition score) between 4-5. I am sure they wish they could eat treats all day, but I tell them it is for their own good. Truth be told, I aim for 4.5 because I like precision. Why and how do I do this?

The why is easy — I want my pets healthy. I work in a field where I deal with young, old, healthy, sick and dying animals every single day. I have a certain sense of the morbid that leads me to look at my dogs and contemplate which diseases they will get and which kind of cancer will eventually do them in. I told you, morbid. I know that there are certain things that I can do to prevent disease in my pets, and plenty of things that are out of my control. For these reasons, I like to control the things I can. These things are preventing diseases with vaccines, preventing fleas and ticks, and keeping my dogs exercised and at a good weight.

Unfortunately, we haven’t quite worked out a system as free from opinion as the human BMI system. However, the BCS system is a good start. This lets your vet (and you!) give your pet a body-condition score. This takes things like feeling the ribs and spine and waist tuck into account, so it doesn’t matter if your dog is 4 or 120 pounds, fluffy or naked. I score pets at their annual physicals, and often at in-between visits too. This helps give me a baseline. If you are wondering about your pet’s score and how we got it, just ask!

The first thing I always need to emphasize is that your pet isn’t less cute, nor do I love it less just because it is overweight. There is one reason and one reason only that I care about their weight, and that is to ensure that they live longer healthier lives. That is the purpose of my career, so a vet who doesn’t talk about ideal weight is doing the same disservice as a vet who doesn’t discuss rabies vaccination. I always tell my clients that if they never want to hear a weighted speech from me again, just tell me. As much as I love when clients take diet plans seriously and we make progress, if you don’t care and don’t want to do anything differently, just tell me to hush. I will. In fact, this will save me a lot of time and a lot of frustration in trying to figure out why our plan isn’t working.

Now that I have all that chatting out of the way, let’s talk about why. Pets that have a better body-condition score are less prone to diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, liver disease and cancer. They have an easier time breathing and an easier time cooling themselves in the heat. While all pets should be protected from the heat, pets that are leaner are more effective at keeping an appropriate core temperature. They pant less, breathe more easily, and have a better cardiovascular function, which provides better heat elimination. They have less stress on their joints, and muscles that are strong do a better job of supporting the skeletal structure. Extra fat itself becomes an inflammatory organ, and pets with more chronic inflammation are more prone to developing cancer.

That was a quick overview of why, and now I will do a quick overview on how. Fewer calories in and more calories out. So, less food and more exercise. It sounds so easy, right?! Typically, I find that if we cut out treats or change treats to veggies (100 percent, no marrow bones or milk bones or ice cream), we can get to our goal without changing a lot else. For those homes that don’t do a lot of treats, reduce their food to 75 percent of what they are currently eating. If food reduction and increased exercise aren’t doing the trick, your veterinarian needs to come on board and rule out medical causes. Ruling out medical causes first and coming up with a veterinarian-approved diet plan from the start is also a great idea. Once you get pets to an ideal weight, it is much easier to keep them there than to do weight loss. So, when your vet tells you that the weight is perfect, monitor them to keep them right there.

The hardest three things about pet weight loss are our own self-control, us, and ourselves. We give them treats to train them, but they end up training us. Truth? Our dogs don’t need a treat every time they come in from going to the bathroom. On those nights that we are too tired to walk them, giving them an extra meal is not the solution. If your dog doesn’t want their regular food, they don’t actually need pieces of filet or ham on top to entice them. At the end of the day, our dogs can’t go buy their own treats, they can’t (usually) get them out of the cupboard, and they don’t measure out their own portions. I know how hard these habits can be to break for both us and them, but it is the first and most important step in weight loss. If your dog doesn’t want a green bean or piece of carrot or ice cube as a treat; they aren’t really hungry. Just like I sometimes want a candy bar and think I’m hungry, but a salad doesn’t sound enticing. In those cases I’m not hungry, I just want a delicious treat. Our pets are in the same position.

Your veterinarian is there to guide you through a diet plan for your pet, so just ask us. We may not all be quite as excited as I am about healthy pets, but we all love making our patients healthier. It is why we went into this profession to start!

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher is a veterinarian at All Points Animal Care in Rutland. Have a question on this or any animal health topic? E-MAIL: petdocanna@gmail.com

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