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Are You Overfeeding Your Pet?

Cats and dogs are getting fatter — and we have no one to blame but ourselves

En español | As a veterinarian, I've seen every breed of dog and cat plus all sorts of mixed breeds, too. Unfortunately, far too many of them display more waddle than wiggle and look more like hairy ottomans than fit Fidos and trim Tabbies.  

See also:  Your Dog: The Owner's Manual by Dr. Marty Becker

American kids aren't the only ones facing an obesity crisis: So are pets — and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

marty becker on fat pets, large cat in basket

Ineke Kamps/Getty Images

A fat cat (or dog) might seem content, but there are serious health risks for pets that are overweight.

There's no doubt we adore our dogs and cats, but we tend to overfeed or fail to serve them nutritionally balanced meals. The results could shorten their life spans and inflate our veterinary bills. Just like humans, our dogs and cats are at risk for weight-related conditions, including diabetes, arthritis and heart disease. The rate of overweight and obese pets has become so alarming that concerned veterinarians, led by Dr. Ernie Ward, created the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP).

What sounds like a simple solution — just feed less and feed better food — deceptively falls short. Pet food is a multibillion dollar, competitive business. It's easy to feel swallowed up when walking down the aisles in a pet supply store with bags, cans and pouches of pet food vying for your attention.

Don't shop based on price and don't be swayed by marketing terms such as "lite," "natural" and "gourmet." Pinpointing what is the right pet food in the right portion is best accomplished when people work closely with nutritionally credentialed veterinarians and factor in the pet's age, breed, health condition and activity level. For example, puppies and kittens require more proteins and fats than adult dogs and cats. Labrador retrievers are more susceptible to joint disease while schnauzers are prone to genetic kidney disease and diabetes.

Equally important is to unleash a few creative ideas designed to fortify your pet's physical and mental well-being while keeping him at a healthy weight. These five tips will help you keep your pet in healthy shape:

1. Ditch the food bowl. Curb your pet's chowhound tendencies by taking away the food bowl for at least one of the two meals a day and bringing out his natural hunting skills. Replace the food bowl with food puzzles designed to dole out small amounts of food when the pet makes the puzzle move or open in some way. These food puzzles are available in most pet supply stores and some of my favorites include the Kong Wobbler, Busy Buddy line and Nina Ottosson Dog Pyramid.

2. Fend off wolfing down food with stones. Some dogs and cats gobble down their food so quickly, you wonder if their taste buds have time to engage. Wolfing down food can pack on the extra pounds and cause an upset stomach, even vomiting. Slow down their eating by placing two or three washed, smooth stones in their food dish at meal time. They are forced to slow down to eat around these heavy stones.

3. Table the table scraps. Resist those begging eyes and never "treat" your pet to fatty meat scraps, gravy or other unhealthy food from your plate. These items not only pack on the pounds but put your pet at risk for pancreatitis. 

4. Dish up plenty of praise and provide neck-to-tail five-minute therapeutic massages. These options are calorie free and only serve to better connect with your pet.

5. Don't be wowed by brands. Forget thinking about brands and select based on food "formats." Look for commercial pet food that lists a real meat as its first ingredient and is deemed complete and balanced by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

How can you tell if you are making smarter nutritional choices for your pet? Easy. You've found the right food when your pet's coat is huggable and shiny, there's a renewed pep to his step and the size of his poop shrinks. After all, the higher quality the food, the less waste produced.

Be your pet's best healthy ally by not killing him with kindness by overfeeding him. Keeping your pet at a healthy weight and providing him with regular exercise is one of the best gifts you can give.

Dr. Marty Becker, "America's Veterinarian," is the resident veterinarian for Good Morning America and The Dr. Oz Show. His latest book, Your Dog: The Owner's Manual, became available this spring. Find him in the AARPPetPals forum of