This time of year is perfect for setting goals and making resolutions. It is usually easier to stick to our goals when we have a partner, so this year, make your pet your partner in setting health and fitness goals. Did you know that between 25% and 50% of our pet cats and dogs are overweight? All the studies show that pets kept at an ideal weight live longer than overweight pets. We all want our pets to live as long as they can, so begin your pet’s journey to ideal weight by using this guide.

Assess Your Pet

As pet owners, it is easy to overlook the extra few pounds our pets are carrying around. When we compare our dogs or cats to those of our friends, family, and neighbors, they don’t seem to be too heavy. So, it is often a surprise to learn from your veterinarian that your pet is overweight! The first step to keeping your pet trim and looking their best is to learn what an ideal weight looks like.

The first place to look and feel is your pet’s ribcage; you should be able to run your fingers along your pet’s ribs and easily feel the bones but not see them. There should only be a very thin layer of skin and fat between your fingers and the ribs. If you have to press down to feel the ribs or you can’t feel them at all, your pet is carrying too much fat in this area. The next thing to do is look at your pet from above when they are standing. You should see a nice waist indentation in front of the hips. If the waist is not obvious, your pet is probably overweight. Finally, you should look at your pet from the side when they are standing. You should see a nice tuck up right in front of their hind legs. All three of these signs should be examined together to determine if your pet is ideal or overweight. If you have any questions or are unsure, check with your veterinarian. You can also use the body condition score charts to assess your pet available here: http://humanealliance.org/elearning/Body_Condition_Scale.pdf

Adjust the Diet

Once you determine your pet’s body condition, make a plan for weight loss or maintenance. Rarely, we see pets that need to gain weight; if you feel this is the case, please consult your veterinarian. Start by measuring the amount of food your pet eats per day including any kibble, wet food, treats, or table scraps. Use an actual measuring cup like you would for baking for best accuracy and compare the amount to the recommended amount of food.

Every food is different in the number of calories per cup or can, so make sure you are following the specific directions of the bag or can. If you are already feeding less than the recommended amount, contact your veterinarian for further instructions. If your goal is weight loss, and you are feeding the recommended amount or a little more, decrease to the minimum amount for your pet’s size.

Reduce treats and table scraps to less than 10% of your pet’s daily intake. Better yet, replace treats with pieces of kibble from the daily ration to use throughout the day.

If you have done all these things and your pet is still overweight, contact your veterinarian for guidance. Your veterinarian can perform a calculation for the number of calories your pet should consume each day and tailor the feeding plan to your pet and make recommendations for appropriate diet. Make sure to bring a complete list of everything you feed your pet with the amounts to your veterinary appointment; better yet, bring a photo or printout of the nutritional information of the current pet foods and treats! In some cases, there are medical causes for weight gain that require diagnostics and treatment, such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease.

Increase Exercise

Just like people, all our pets benefit from exercise. Physical activity helps maintain muscle mass and provides valuable enrichment to our pets’ lives. For many dogs, short 15 to 20 minutes of walking around the neighborhood are just a mild stroll and barely raise their heart rates. Hiking, running, fetch, and tug provide more physical value for weight loss and fitness. Longer walks of an hour at a brisk pace will give both you and your dog a good low impact healthful exercise. Aim for 3-4 days of increased activity to start, and slowly work up to the more intense options. Just like people, dogs need conditioning before going out and running long distances! If you would like to start running with your adult dog, a good place to start is using the Couch to 5K running plan and app. Soon you will both be in tip-top shape! We do not recommend running programs for young puppies, please ask your veterinarian if you have any concerns.

Cats are notoriously more difficult to exercise than dogs, but they also need physical exercise to maintain their health. Many cats play fetch or will chase toys dangling on a string. Make an effort to play interactive games with your cat every day. You can also feed your cat from food dispensing toys that require pouncing, batting and moving around to eat. This helps slow your cat’s eating and mimics the hunting activity they would get in the wild. Always supervise your pets when playing with new toys.

Monitor Progress

On a weekly basis, re-assess your pet’s body condition and weight. For smaller dogs and cats, you can use a bathroom scale to weigh yourself while holding your pet and subtracting your weight. Often pet stores have scales for you to weigh your larger dog. Any pet can be weighed in your veterinarian’s office at a quick visit just to use the scale; this is a nice option because your pet’s weight can be noted in the medical record for reference as well. If your pet’s weight is not moving in the right direction over the course of a month, re-evaluate and contact your veterinarian for more guidance in achieving a healthy weight.