It's been shown that one effective way for people to maintain a healthy weight is to keep track of the number of calories consumed each day.
It's simple math. You burn a certain number of calories each day. Your daily calories should balance out.
This is also true for cats and dogs, and just as there is a growing obesity problem among humans a growing percentage of pets are overweight or obese. And much like humans, carrying this extra weight can take a toll on your pet's health.
"Overweight animals also have certain health issues," said Susan Nelson, clinical associate professor and veterinarian at the Kansas State University Veterinary Health Center. "It can aggravate joint disease. It can lead to Type 2 diabetes. It can aggravate heart conditions, and it can lead to skin diseases as folds in the pet's skin get bigger. It can even shorten their life span."
Unlike controlling your own weight, controlling your pet's weight doesn't require willpower. You, after all, are the one handing out the food each day.
But Nelson said in almost every case of an overweight dog or cat, its owner is over-feeding it.
It starts with an accurate measurement of the pet's food. Nelson says it's important to define terms. For example, a recommendation of one 8-ounce cup of food is a precise measurement. It isn't the same as using a Big Gulp drink cup to dispense food.
Next, it's important to know how many calories are in that cup of food. The pet food company should list the number on the packaging. If it doesn't, contact the manufacturer to get this information.
The number of calories per cup can vary widely between different brands and types of food – the difference can easily be as much as 200 to 300 calories per cup. Adjust the amount accordingly or you could easily double the number of daily calories your pet consumes.
Also, Nelson says the feeding guides you find on the bags are broad guidelines. They may or may not be ideal for your pet.
"In the testing facilities, these animals are typically mandated to have a certain amount of exercise per day because they are research animals," Nelson said. "In reality, a lot of the pets that we own don't get as much exercise as those dogs and cats in the research facilities."
Exercise is critical
Exercise is the second part of a weight control plan for your dog or cat, just as it is for you. Nelson recommends at least 20 to 30 minutes of daily exercise for your dog or cat. This isn't always easy to do for indoor pets.
A dog or cat that lies around most of the day takes very few calories to meet its daily requirements, which makes it hard to lose weight. Exercise will increase its metabolic rate and burn more calories.
Most people often find it easier to exercise a dog than a cat. But if your cat is both an indoor and outdoor pet, making sure the cat spends as much time outside as possible will help it remain active and burn calories.
For indoor cats, Nelson has a few tricks up her sleeve to encourage exercise.
"You can try scattering the food around in small portions throughout the house so that they have to hunt for it and get more exercise that way or you can place the food in a location where the cat has to go up and down stairs," Nelson said. "There are also items call food puzzles that you fill with food and the pet needs to work at it to slowly retrieve the kibble."
In its annual survey for 2012, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) found the number of overweight cats in the U.S. had reached an all-time high. Veterinarians rated 52.5% of dogs and 58.3% of cats overweight or obese.
Insurance companies that write health policies for pets have noted this alarming trend.
“Diabetes, heart and lung diseases, bone and joint diseases, skin conditions and different types of cancer are more common in overweight animals, as is a shorter life expectancy,” VPI Pet Insurance, part of Nationwide, said in a recent statement.
In 2009, the company said its policyholders filed more than $17 million in claims for conditions and disease caused by excessive weight. The company suggests pet owners are adding to the problem by over-feeding their animals or feeding them the wrong types of food.
You may find it hard not give your pet any treats, but you can substitute attention for extra calories. If your pet can't go cold turkey, try switching to lower-calorie treats, such as veggies, and limit the total calories from treats to no more than 10 percent of you pet's daily allotted caloric intake.
"I think it's important to realize that food does not equal love," Nelson said. "It's hard to resist those big, brown eyes, but those extra calories can really add up."