Keeping pets slim: less food, more exercise

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Published 12/05/2015 | 00:00

Pete Wedderburn
Pete Wedderburn
Overweight and obese pets are increasingly common

Obesity in Ireland continues to hit the headlines.

Last week, there were shocking statistics suggesting that by 2030, most adult humans in Ireland will be obese. Sadly, the same can probably said about Irish pets: if current trends continue, most Irish animals will be as plump as their owners.

It's a strange paradox: people are feeling the economic pinch, yet an obvious money-saving measure (eat less food and feed your pets less) seems to be beyond people's ability. I guess that food is relatively cheap (compared to other life costs, such as petrol for the car, entry to entertainment venues etc) and so over-eating provides affordable comfort. And giving your pet short term satisfaction by feeding them more has a similar effect.

I have talked in previous columns about the main way to solve obesity in pets: choose a good quality food, feed a measured amount every day, and get your pet weighed regularly at your local vet. If their weight is going up, reduce the amount of food given. And if this does not work, talk to your vet about special weight reduction diets.

As far as "energy in" is concerned, it's as simple as that. But what about "energy out"? What should pet owners do about exercising their pets?

The doctor talking about human obesity on the radio last week stated that everyone should exercise for around an hour a day. This does not mean that we all need to be out running, cycling or swimming intensely for sixty minutes every morning. Rather, it means that we need to be "active" for sixty minutes, throughout the day. That could mean walking to work, going up stairs, or visiting the local shop on foot. We need to start seeing exercise as a necessary part of how we spend our time. Somebody said that we should "exercise on every day that we eat", and this seems to be a useful maxim. Food is fuel, and if we aren't burning fuel, we shouldn't be eating.

The same principles apply to pets and exercise: they should be exercised for around an hour, on every day that they eat. And since they should eat every day, that means that they should exercise every day. This is important for three reasons: first, to burn up energy so that they do not become obese. Second, to maintain general cardiovascular physical fitness. And third, for the sake of their mental health.

Cats tend to be good at exercising themselves, especially if they have access to the outdoors (as most Irish cats do). They run across gardens, socialise (or fight) with other cats in the neighbourhood, they chase prey (I often find dead rodents on my back door mat in the morning). Most cats keep themselves lean and fit, but an increasing minority are starting to have problems with obesity, partly because they stop being active. They laze around the house all day, spending most of their time sleeping. And as they gain weight, they feel even less like doing anything. If you have a cat like this, you need to take action to get them to be active. You can't easily take a cat for a walk in the same way as a dog, but there are ways to get them moving. Try a range of different toys, such as laser pens that shine a bright light on the ground: most cats enjoy chasing these. Feed them using "activity feeders" that force the cat to take action to eat the food (e.g. covered recesses that have to be opened). You can even just leave cat kibble in hard-to-reach places, such as at the top of the stairs, or on a shelf, so that the cat has to do a bit of work to reach the food. And as with dogs, a regular weigh-in at your vet is a good way of monitoring progress.

Dogs are useless at exercising themselves. Many people fool themselves into thinking that a dog is adequately exercised by being put out in the back garden every day. "He has a big garden to run around in" is a typical comment. But if you watch a dog in their own territory, after an initial brief run around when they are first let out, they don't do very much: they lounge around, close to the house. Most dogs need the encouragement of their owners to exercise. You could do this in your own garden (e.g. by throwing a ball) but most dogs prefer to be taken for a walk: as well as the physical stretching of the legs, they enjoy the change in environment, with different sights, sounds and smells. The daily "one hour of exercise" rule is a useful one to follow: ideally, this should be split up into two half hours, one in the morning and one at night. As well as keeping your dog fit, this will burn up mental energy, making them better behaved for the rest of the day. I know a "dog psychologist" who reckons that one of the simplest ways of curing many undesirable behaviours in dogs is just to start a regular, twice daily, half-hour of stimulating exercise.

For some people, dog walking seems to be difficult, and there is a new trend for "home gyms" for dogs. On Youtube, there are videos of dogs and pups running on treadmills. While this may be a good idea for someone living in a New York high rise apartment, it doesn't make any sense in Ireland. Dogs love running outside: why would anyone confine them to the boredom of staying in one room, with no changing scenery, no socialising and no variety of interesting odours?

Pete will be hosting a live question and answer session on exercise and nutrition on Wednesday 13th May at 7pm: visit the Pedigree Ireland Facebook page to join him

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