This month I’ll be writing about issues facing senior pets. We’re going to start by tackling body condition, aka weight. If you have been weighed at your primary care doctor’s office recently, you were probably given a handout before you left discussing your Body Mass Index, or BMI. In people, this is calculated using your weight and height. The resulting number places you in one of four categories: underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese. Data for 2010 shows that 35% of adult Americans are obese and 69% of adult Americans are overweight or obese. Overweight and obese people are at greater risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, certain types of cancer, stroke, and osteoarthritis. These are shocking statistics, right?
It turns out we are seeing similar trends in our dogs and cats. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), an estimated 54% of dogs and cats in America are overweight or obese. Overweight dogs and cats suffer from many of the same disorders as do overweight people: diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, cancer, and shorter lives (up to 2.5 years). How do you know if your pet is overweight? The APOP website has many great tools to help you determine this, as well as tips for helping your pet lose weight.
Although the problem of obesity gets most of the press these days, there is also a percentage of senior pets that experience the opposite problem: they are thin, have very little body fat, and have loss of muscle mass. Senior pets may have a decrease in appetite, reduced smell or tasting abilities, or trouble picking up or chewing food. Certain chronic diseases can cause weight loss, and painful conditions (such as arthritis in the hips and knees) can lead to loss of muscle across the back and in the hind legs.
What is the parent of a senior pet to do? First, it’s important to assess the needs of your individual pet. Your vet needs to be a part of this assessment. By performing a thorough physical exam and labwork including blood and urine testing, your vet will determine if your pet has underlying metabolic disease and mouth/teeth issues, as well as grade your pet’s body condition. From there, a feeding plan should be part of the recommendations for your pet, in addition to addressing any disease or teeth issues. After all, we are what we eat! Keep in mind that a feeding plan for your senior pet will most likely involve changing what you have been feeding, and you will need to stick to your guns with your dog or cat, who might not immediately welcome these changes. Below are some guidelines to help you get started, based on whether your senior pet is overweight or tends to be thin and losing weight. For both categories, start with weighing your pet and measuring his/her girth behind his ribs. Repeat this one month after starting the new diet.
- If feeding commercial pet food, evaluate the calorie, carbohydrate, and fiber content. Typically we are feeding too many calories and carbs and not enough fiber. To lose weight, pets must eat fewer calories/carbs and exercise more.
- Don’t be sucked in by a label on the pet food bag that says “Senior” or “Weight Reducing.” Although it may be the right food for your pet, you simply can’t be sure without looking at the ingredients and calories.
- Take a look at the protein type and source you are feeding. Older pets especially need good quality protein.
- Reality check on the type and amount of treats you are feeding, which again may be loaded with calories and carbs. Check here to see calorie content of many commercially available treats.
- For both dogs and cats with food available all day long, transition them to portion-controlled meals.
- If your pet finishes his meal and is begging for more, spend some time playing or petting and offer a few more kibbles as treats.
- Look at protein type and source. High quality protein is extremely important for older, thin dogs and cats.
- Consider feeding smaller meals more frequently, such as three times daily. Sometimes digestion issues cause weight loss.
- Add moisture to the food to help with palatability and digestion and improve your pet’s hydration.
- Although it may seem to make sense to feed high calorie biscuits or other treats to help your pet gain weight, don’t do it. You are filling him up with empty calories at the expense of quality nutrition.
- Try warming the food to body temperature to encourage eating.
- If you have a multi-pet household, be sure there isn’t competition at the food bowl. Sometimes the older pets get shoved out of the way by the young whipper-snappers!
In future blogs, I will expand more on feeding and cooking for your pet, which can be extremely helpful for older pets. If you are interested in looking into this topic now, I highly recommend Dr. Ihor Basko’s website and his book. If you have an older pet in your family, what are two things you can do with food in the next week to improve his or her well-being? Share them in the comments!