Make This A Healthier Year For Your Pet

New Year’s resolutions often include vows to reach a healthier lifestyle. It is a proven fact that we feel better when we exercise, eat a well-balanced diet, and keep our weight at a healthy level. The same is true for animals! And while our pets cannot commit to resolutions this time of the year, their natural desire to please and bond with us can help facilitate success in a weight loss program.

dog and kidsThere are a million “excuses” humans use to avoid a good diet and regular exercise for themselves and their pets. As veterinarians, we often hear, “When I cut down on his food, he’s hungry!” Remember that dogs live to eat, and are programmed genetically to eat whenever and wherever the opportunity arises. Hence, they lick the floors for crumbs, sniff out the garbage, and circle under the table as often as possible. This does not mean they are hungry, it means they are opportunists.

Pet parents also resist diets for animals by explaining, “He looks at me with those big brown eyes and he begs for food!” This is a case of the pet training the owner. The pet knows when they act in a certain manner, such as standing by the treat cabinet and whining or looking with an intense stare, they will get a treat. The trick to eliminating this guilt-causing behavior is to switch the reward the pet receives after “begging.” Instead of a treat, grab a toy and play, strap on the collar and leash and go for a walk, or give your pet love and affection.

If your pet has annoying habits where feeding time is concerned, reconditioning the pet’s behavior can also work in this case. For example, if your dog or cat plays with their bowl when they want to be fed, remove the bowl after each feeding. If new begging behaviors then develop, respond with playtime, or provide a distraction (such as a non-edible or low calorie chew toy) until you are ready to feed the next meal.

The secret to the success of any diet plan is to make sure that the amount of calories taken in each day is less than the amount of calories being used. Here are a few tips to help you and your pet on the weight loss journey:

1) Feed a high-quality diet that features the proper amount of protein for the life-stage/activity level of the animal. Diets that are full of fillers will result in a faster digestive rate, which means the pet will feel hunger faster.

2) Consult your veterinarian about how much food is needed to help your pet maintain or lose weight. NEVER feed what is listed on the bag of food!

3) Count treats in the mix. Special occasions happen and we want to share them with our pets. The daily calorie count should include these special treats.

4) Do not feed table scraps to your pet. There are many risks associated with feeding pets human food, and these foods are often difficult to manage in the calorie budget.

Adding regular exercise to your pet’s daily routine will help to expend calories and increase the ability to lose weight. Besides the obvious physical benefits, exercise also helps to decrease anxiety, provide mental stimulation, and increase the ability to form strong bonds. Pets completely depend on us for their well-being. Make it your New Year’s resolution to make this your pet’s best year ever in terms of weight and exercise. It’s one resolution that will be good for you both.

Originally published January 2016 in the Lake Norman Citizen.

Dr. Gretchen Burke is a veterinarian with LakeCross Veterinary in Huntersville. The vets in the big yellow house have been treating pets like family for 20 years. For more information, call 704-948-6300.