Dr. Todd Towell has some simple advice for owners of fat cats and obese dogs: Don’t feed the oversized pet you see. Instead, portion out meals while visualizing the much-leaner animal deep inside.
“Think of it like those Russian nesting dolls,” says Towell, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, the senior manager of scientific communications at Hill’s Pet Nutrition. “You want to feed that core pet in the center, not the one on the outside with the layers of fat.”
When dealing with pet owners, Towell keeps her weight-loss message as basic and understandable as possible. But she acknowledges that for veterinarians seeking to craft a successful pound-dropping plan, things can get more complicated.
Truth is, the first step—determining a pet’s optimal weight—can be a doozy. That’s because research is exposing the conventional scoring systems for assessing body condition as the bearers of unreliable results, Towell says.
The commonly used five- and nine-point scales for assessing a dog or cat’s condition max out at 40 to 45 percent body fat. But these days it’s not uncommon for veterinarians to see patients with 60 to 70 percent body fat.Such animals quite literally are off the charts.
“When you start with an inaccurate number for an ideal body weight and then you start looking at feeding-chart recommendations, it undermines a successful weight-loss plan,” Towell says. “What we need are better tools for diagnosis.”
Those tools are on the way—“By next year, I would hope,” Towell says—thanks to research funded by Hill’s and being performed at the University of Tennessee. But until then, the doctor advises an approach that boils down to one as simple as any she preaches: Less is more.
Getting clients to understand the importance of portion control is a key challenge for veterinary practitioners, she says.
"As a society, we’re used to large portions for small prices,” Towell says. “Think about the portions served to you at the average chain restaurant. Most of those meals provide the total number of calories appropriate for a person for the entire day.”
That mindset influences many clients as they feed their pets, she notes. They see a portion size of one-fourth cup of kibble for a cat and say, “That can’t be enough.” In some cases, clients have been told to feed their dog one cup of food twice a day and they can’t figure out why their dog isn’t losing weight.
“We’re talking as if they know we mean an 8-ounce cup, but the clients’ vision of a cup is a 44-ounce fountain drink,” says Kara Burns, MS, MEd, LVT, a veterinary technician specialist for Hill’s. “It takes communication and follow-up to help pet owners understand the importance of keeping portions to predetermined sizes.”
So knowing that the scale for determining a pet’s target weight might be skewed, and that clients might be inclined to fudge on measured portions, what steps can a practitioner take to make a weight-loss program effective?
Towell has suggestions:
• When setting a target weight, don’t be afraid to go lower than your first inclination. “That 40-pound dog you think should be 20? You probably should make it 17 or 15. If you find that the dog is losing too fast, it’s always easier to adjust so things go slower.”
• Don’t set an intermediate goal because you’re worried the weight loss will be too dramatic. “It’s important to understand that for a weight-loss plan to be effective, you have to decrease the daily calorie intake so it’s 30 percent below what’s needed to maintain ideal body weight.”
• Use feeding bowls that are as small as the portions. “It’s a bit of a mind game,” Towell notes. “It looks like more if it fills up the bowl.”
• Abandon the concept that free-choice feeding is ever appropriate. “It just sets them up for obesity,” Towell says.
Setting up for success also means incorporating exercise into a weight-loss plan, Burns and Towell say. They have some ideas here, too.
For cats, why not tap into their hunting instincts? Place small bits of food in bowls all over the living space—upstairs and downstairs, on shelves and in bookcases—then let them hunt for their food all day long.
For dogs, try to get the whole family involved in walks. Then add a Frisbee and tennis ball to the mix. Or perhaps take an aquatic approach.
“With personal flotation devices becoming so available for dogs, swimming is much safer,” Burns says. “It’s as true for dogs as it is for people—swimming is a great form of exercise, and it’s easier on the joints.”
The Human Angle
Often the key factor for the most sedentary pets is to get their owners to take the first step. In the case of a pug that came under Burns’ care, climbing a single stair was the first goal. After awhile he was able to make it to the end of the driveway and back, then all the way around the block. Eventually his weight dropped from 35 pounds to a much healthier 24.
“With consistent support and monitoring, he’s maintained that weight,” Burns adds.
Again as with people, keeping the weight off can be a struggle. And losing weight in the first place is easier if you can turn fat storers into fat burners, Dr. Towell said.
Hill’s has reformulated its Hill’s Prescription Diet r/d Canine pet foods so that it now has a higher lysine-to-calorie ratio, “which is important for the building and maintenance of muscle,” and a new blend of soluble and insoluble fibers.
“The reformulated r/d has been shown to provide faster, more reliable weight loss,” Towell said.
“Gene expression is altered in dogs fed r/d such that once they are at their ideal weight, their gene-expression profiles more closely resemble those of reference lean dogs (the fat burners) than themselves at the start of the study, when they were overweight and their gene-expression profile more closely resembled the obese reference profile (fat storers).”
This Education Series story is underwritten by Hill’s Pet Nutrition of Topeka, Kan.