Pet Connection: Keep your pet’s weight down to keep your pet alive

08/12/2013 6:02 PM

08/12/2013 6:03 PM

The No. 1 thing that will give your pet a better life while saving you money? Weight loss.

Whenever I write about veterinary medicine, no matter if it’s basic preventive care tests or cutting-edge specialty or emergency procedures, it’s inevitable that I’ll hear from readers who’ll use the topic as a reason to complain about the cost of care.

Although I understand why people feel that way, I think it’s often unfair. Veterinarians perform similar and often identical procedures to those of doctors, but at a fraction of the cost of human medicine. Yet I realize that pointing out that the $3,000 procedure that will save a pet’s life would be 10 times that cost in human medicine doesn’t help a bit if you don't have one-tenth of that amount available anyway.

I can’t fix that situation and neither can the veterinarians I know. They have to pay all the costs of doing business and they’ve struggled to get by right along with everyone else as the economy has staggered along. Pet health insurance can help, as can third-party credit plans — and I recommend looking into them both before you face hard decisions.

But what frustrates me — and so many veterinarians I know — is the way so many pet lovers overlook, downplay or completely ignore the No. 1 thing that will keep their pets healthier, longer-lived and out of veterinary offices. Even more astonishing, this not-so-secret way to save money on veterinary care can be absolutely free.

What is it?

Take excess weight off your pet.

There’s a better than 50 percent chance that if you’re reading this and have a pet, this topic concerns you and your pet. That’s because more than half of all pets in the United States are overweight — many of them desperately so. Veterinarians say that we have gotten so used to seeing fat pets that we have come to think it’s normal. We’re often not even able to recognize that our own pets are overweight.

If you cannot see a tuck in (from above) or up (from the side) behind your pet’s rib cage, and cannot see just a hint of rib under a little bit of padding, your pet is fat.

I’m not writing this that to make you feel guilty. I’m writing it as a nonjudgmental statement of fact.

I long ago came to terms with the idea that the subject of obesity in people is complicated and charged with emotions — but in pets, it shouldn’t be. Pets cannot feed themselves and they cannot overeat unless you overfeed them. Even if you and your pets lead sedentary lives, you can adjust your pets’ daily portions accordingly. They’ll even learn to stop begging if you stop rewarding that behavior.

Slow, steady weight loss is what you’re going for, especially for cats. That’s because crash diets in fat cats can trigger a deadly condition known as “fatty liver disease.” If you’re free-feeding, stop, and if you’re not measuring, start. You can buy a “diet” food or you can reduce portions and add “empty” bulk to the kibble you already use by adding green beans or pumpkin to smaller amounts. Wet food is another good strategy, since the water content makes pets feel more full. It’s an especially good strategy for cats, many of which are chronically dehydrated.

Your veterinarian can tailor a weight-loss plan, or you can use an app such as my friend Dr. Patty Khuly’s “The Fat Dog Diet” (free from thefatdogdiet.com), which shows you how to figure out if your dog is fat, by how much, and advises how much to feed to get results from almost every brand of kibble sold. (Pet food labels are often notoriously generous with their recommended portions.)

Do what you can, but do something, please. I see pets every day whose lives are miserable, and whose owners seem oblivious. If you do nothing else today, take an honest look at your pet and put your hands underneath that lovely coat. If you find it’s more fat than fluff, you need to make changes — the sooner, the better.

Here’s my bottom line: If you have an obese pet, you have no business complaining about the costs of treating conditions caused by or made worse by your pet’s weight.

Taking weight off will make everyone feel better: you, your veterinarian and especially your pet. There’s so much to lose and so much to gain by doing so.

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