5 tips: How to keep your furry friend in top shape

Nov 11, 2009 at 12:03 p.m. ET

Americans aren't the only ones who could stand to shed a few pounds. Our feline friends and canine companions are also in dire need of a diet overhaul. According to a recent study from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than 44% of dogs and 57% of cats are overweight or obese.

Dog on scale

How to keep your pets in shape

Just as with humans, pet obesity can lead to health complications including heart disease, diabetes and arthritis, not to mention a shorter life span and costlier vet bills.

But let's face it, Fido isn't going to suddenly wake up one day and decide that his waistline could use some whittling. The responsibility lies on you, the owner. "If we can get pet owners to comply with weight-loss plans, usually we don't have any problem getting the animal's weight under control," says Dr Larry R Corry, an animal practitioner and president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 

So tighten that leash and follow these steps to fight your pet's battle of the bulge:

1. Consider your pet's unique nutritional needs

With the abundance of options out there, it can feel overwhelming to find the perfect food for your pet. However, it can be done -- by taking into account your pet's age, activity level, breed and individual health needs.

After all, many of the pet foods available are designed to meet the nutritional requirements of puppies or kittens. According to Dr Heidi Hulon, a small-animal practitioner and President of the Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association, "Feeding these diets to an older animal can result in excess fat, calories, protein and minerals contributing to diseases such as obesity, kidney failure and bladder stones."

Thus, it's wise to consult with your vet in regard to the best diet for your pet.

2. Pay attention to portion control

Once you have determined an appropriate food for your pet, make sure you serve the correct amount. Take your vet's recommended serving size literally, as opposed to loosely. "One must realize that 1 cup is 8 oz., not the Big Gulp cup," says Dr Hulon. Instead of eyeballing the amount, use a measuring cup or a scale.

3. Scrap those table scraps

Giving your pet leftovers from the dinner table may not seem like a big deal, but it can actually wreak havoc on the animal's diet.

Dr Corry says that feeding a cat a single potato chip is the equivalent of giving a person half of a cheeseburger, meanwhile, giving a dog a hot dog is akin to an adult human indulging in two cheeseburgers.

Even if you're not the one sneaking the food beneath the table, make sure you relay this message to family members and even guests.

4. Don't go overboard with treats

Sure, you may like to lavish your pet with treats when he or she finally stops scratching the couch, but consider this: Most commercial pet treats are loaded with calories and fat, with many large dog biscuits containing about 100 calories.

So what's a praise-loving pet owner to do? A good rule of thumb is to make sure that treats do not compromise more than 10% of your pet's diet. And the next time you are about to open up that can of treats, consider rewarding your pet in another way, whether it be with a belly rub or a special toy.

5. Get moving!

As with humans, exercise does a body good for animals. It's important to make physical activity an everyday priority for both cats and dogs. "A simple walk around the block for dogs or chasing a penlight beam for cats are easy exercises that can be done everyday," says Hulon.

Not only does exercise shed pounds, but it also leads to a happier and better-behaved pet. Should you need more incentive, consider that it will also enable you to develop a stronger bond with your best friend. Talk about a double whammy.

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Pet separation anxiety: 4 Tips to help cope
Bow wow chow: The essential dog food guide
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