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Helping pets get their ‘summer body’: weight loss clinics

With obesity becoming an increasing problem in pets, we see many patients coming through the clinic with associated conditions that need to lose weight to avoid exacerbating their existing conditions, or to simply improve their well-being and quality of life. A recent study conducted by Purina showed that pets who were maintained at ideal weight on a high quality diet, throughout their life lived on average two years longer than their overweight counterparts. TWO YEARS. Can you imagine what that extra time with your loved one means to your clients? It’s our job, as veterinary professionals to ensure that pets live the longest, happiest lives possible and reduce the chances of developing conditions associated with obesity that not only shorten their lifespan, but reduce their quality of life.

As we feed and exercise our pets, it’s our responsibility to be mindful of their weight and what we can do to help them maintain a healthy size for their overall well-being. However getting your pet to lose weight is not always as simple as cutting calories; it’s important to consider that some pets may naturally have a tendency to gain weight, have an underlying health concern or may be unable to exercise as effectively as others.

It’s our responsibility to keep our pets fit and healthy

One of the most common questions I get from vets, nurses and let parents is how to get a pet to lose weight, keep the owners accountable and actually maintain that healthy weight?


1. A recent blood test: to rule out any underlying health concerns that might be causing the weight gain, a recent blood test is a must. Not all weight gain is a result of overfeeding, some medical conditions can cause weight gain, or certain medications. Any dramatic, unintentional change in weight (gain or loss) over a short period of time should be investigated further by a veterinarian before commencing a weight loss program.

2. Assess the amount being fed: Realistically assess how much food the pet is getting including snacks, table scraps, treats, training rewards, etc. It might be a good idea to have the client keep a food diary for a few days to really keep a record of what the pet is getting fed.

3. Challenges with exercise: Take into account the pet’s condition – do they have joint issues? Recent surgery? Heart conditions? Can they realistically exercise enough to help them lose weight? And can the owner commit to regular walks or playtime? If the patient is able to exercise without boundaries, you may need to ask the client to keep an exercise diary or log to see how often they go for walks or play with their pet to get a good picture on where to start and where to increase. This also helps keep owners on track.

4. Assess the current diet: How low is low fat? Some clients have already tried switching to a low fat or “light” diet, and haven’t seen results but will insist on not changing the diet because they already feed “a low fat diet”. There could be a variety of reasons as to why the diet change hasn’t already helped shed some kilos, but more often than not, caloric restriction is simply making the pet feel hungry and are making up for the calories elsewhere. Most patients will benefit from changing to a high fibre, low to moderate carb and higher lean protein diet; fat restriction is rarely the answer on its own. See the Key Nutritional Factors below for more information on assessing diets.


Many veterinary professionals and clients make the mistake of looking for the lowest fat diet they can find, or dramatically cut down portion size; sometimes this is necessary, but on its own it usually isn’t effective to trigger weight loss. Often clients come to me when they’ve already tried cutting down the amount they feed, without success. Instead, it’s important to find a weight loss diet that fits the key nutritional factors for weight loss, we can determine an appropriate diet and weight loss regime for the pet.

For overweight cats, an alternative method for weight loss is used, where the focus is on controlling the metabolism. The key nutritional factors differ slightly as these diets are designed similar to a human low carb diet and tend to be more effective in cats trying to shift the weight. For dogs, they can see some improvement on a caloric restricted diet, so I would recommend trying this method first before trying metabolic methods.

The Key Nutritional Factors for weight loss on a caloric restricted diet in dogs are:
Energy density <3.4kcal/g
Fat less than <9%
Fibre 12-25%
Protein >25%
Lysine >1.7%
Carbohydrates <40%
L-carnitine >300ppm
Sodium 0.2-0.4%
Phosphorus 0.4-0.8%
– Vitamin E >400IU/kg
– Vitamin C >100mg/kg
– Selenium 0.5-1.3 mg/kg

The Key Nutritional Factors for metabolic controlled weight loss in cats are:
Carbohydrates <20%
Protein 47-55%
Fat <25%
Fibre >5%
L-carnitine >500ppm
Sodium 0.2-0.6%
Phosphorus 0.5-0.8%
– Vitamin E >500IU/kg
– Vitamin C 100-200mg/kg
– Selenium 0.5-1.3mg/kg

*All amounts are on a Dry Matter Basis. Sourced from Small Animal Clinical Nutrition.


Once you’ve selected a diet that fits this profile, begin the slow transition and gradually decrease food intake (if required) to the amount that is required. Never begin feeding at ideal weight immediately or reduced amounts on the original diet as begging usually ensues and it becomes difficult for the owner to manage, which leads to additional treating or feeding to curb the begging behaviour. This is usually where I see patients have weight gain or regain. If the patient is prone to begging or it is already a contributing factor in the pet’s current weight, I tend to go for a diet higher in fibre to help curb the pets cravings and help them feel fuller for longer, rather than caloric restriction alone. I also include any treats in the dietary plan; I like to provide owners with a measured amount of low calorie “acceptable” treats, I either provide them with prepared treats that are low calorie, or the client can use carrots, apples or another “safe” vegetable that isn’t toxic to pets. Always follow up with the client at the end of the transition period (usually one week) and then schedule weigh-ins at least once every three weeks until goal weight is achieved.


Wet diets: These generally contain less carbs than dry diets, and are more palatable for pets that are used to higher fat diets. So not only are they tastier for the pet, they also contain a lot more water than fat (if you’re buying a reasonable quality food that doesn’t use or add sugar) so will assist in making the pet think they are getting something extra when they aren’t particularly if the patient is being mixed fed; it can be helpful with fussy eaters as a way to “treat” the pet without added calories, or as a topper to enhance the flavour of the new food.

Accountability: owners will inevitably fall off the wagon if we don’t keep them accountable. Following up regularly is super important as it not only improves compliance, it helps keep them motivated – when they see their pet has lost weight at the weigh in, it’s a huge achievement and motivates clients to stay the course. If the pet has gained weight, see if you can explore the reasons why with the owner; they may have given a few extra treats, or maybe didn’t have time for an extra walk that week. Don’t make a big deal about it, you don’t want the client to be afraid to tell you if they had an off week or day, you need to know so you can better help them and their pet. Just be understanding that no plan is perfect, offer solutions and ask the client how else you can support them and if they need the plan tweaked to better suit their lifestyle.

Treats: Always include some form of treat in your plan and the pets daily caloric allowance. Not only is this usually where a lot of the extra calories come from, it’s also a habit that both the owner and pet have formed. Feeding a pet is an emotional act, and clients can feel cruel or heartless if they have to restrict food and stop giving treats all together, so allowing treats actually will increase client compliance as they feel good about the healthy choices they are making and don’t feel they are depriving their pet of joy. Essentially you want to replace whatever they were giving as treats with something that is less fatty but just as tasty – I have found fresh carrots slices and apples work well for dogs who like something crunchy, and cats quite like either their own kibble or a commercially available low calorie treat that has been carefully selected for the pet. Also include how many they are allowed per day, and advise owners to have them on hand when they usually offer treats; if the client normally gives table scraps, have a set amount of their new treats at the table with you, to give the pet instead. If the client gives treats on a walk or when training at the dog park, remind the client to bring their new treats with them on walks.

Enrichment: Make the pet work for it’s food. This is especially useful for cats who are a bit harder to encourage to exercise than dogs. For cat owners, get a puzzle feeder or build your own! Hide food in toilet rolls or on the top of the cat tower, use a wobbler where the cat has to kick or roll the toy to get to the kibble. If feeding a kibble diet, the best way to offer it is to put all the food in a toy, cats enjoy the stimulation and will need to actually work for their food, burning calories in the process – cats are natural hunters and are designed to work for small frequent meals so typically take to puzzle feeding quite well. Some puzzle bowls can also be filled with wet foods or vegetable pieces and frozen as a summery treat. As for dogs, there are so many products out there, that can be used in the same way both for weight loss as well as something to do when your client is not at home. By slowing down how long it takes the pet to eat, they are burning calories and stimulating their mind and body at the same time!

As always, every pet is individual – weight loss plans are no different. You may need to tweak and change the plan many times as the pets needs will be ever changing. Remember, weight management doesn’t end when goal weight is reached; reevaluate the plan for maintenance rather than weight loss and check in with your client every so often, ensuring any questions or problems that arise don’t go unresolved.

Have you ever had issues with your pet’s weight? Do you find weight clinics challenging? Have you got a success story to share? Post it in the comments below!

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