It’s probably safe to assume that obesity is not as big a problem for unloved pets. But statistics say (and veterinarians agree) that we may actually be killing our beloved canine and feline friends – or at least shortening their lives – with our kindness.

Obesity causes serious health problems for dogs, cats and other household pets, in fact many of the same health problems that overweight people are prone to: diabetes (yes, dogs get diabetes), arthritis, respiratory problems, high blood pressure and heart problems, poor liver function and impaired immunity, increased risk of cancer, and an overall decrease in the quality of their lives and life expectancy. The list goes on.

Unfortunately, we have reached the point where it’s estimated that as many as 40 percent of American pets are overweight.

How to Tell if Your Pet is Overweight
In some cases it’s pretty clear that a pet is overweight (think Morris). It only takes two extra pounds in a cat or small dog, or as few as five pounds in a medium-sized dog to put them over their safe zone. But how many people weigh their pets at home? There are some visual guidelines that can help you gauge whether your pet is overpadded: You should be able to feel a healthy animal’s ribs without difficulty, and when looked at from the side, there should be a slight lift in the stomach toward the haunches. A dog should also have some narrowing of the waist between shoulders and hips when viewed from above.
If the warning signs are there, what’s the next step? If your pet hasn’t had recent or regular health checks from a veterinarian, you should have him or her checked for thyroid or heart problems, or other ailments that can cause weight gain.

The vet will have recommendations for your dog or cat based on the type of food you are feeding your pet, your pet’s individual metabolism, and how active the pet is. For pets as for people, exercise is an important part of maintaining health and condition, and your vet will likely talk to you about your exercise routines. But if your pet is overweight, increased exercise alone is not likely to solve the problem. Again, for pets just as for people, real weight loss requires calorie restrictions. Your pet needs to go on a diet.

Putting Your Pet on a Diet
Easier said than done.

Maybe it shouldn’t be so difficult. After all, pets can’t open those cans themselves (though granted quite a few do know how to chew through bags of food and find their way into the garbage). And a look at their canine and feline relatives in the wild suggests that they aren’t hunting and catching those extra calories. Wild cats and dogs do not experience obesity. The straight fact is, if our dogs and cats are fat, the fault is ours, not theirs. And we’re the only ones who can change it.

In an interesting 2006 study of “Human-Animal Relationship of Owners of Normal and Overweight Cats,” Kienzle and Bergler point out that “Epidemiological data indicate that only a small percentage of pets fed reducing diets actually lose weight. However, in controlled laboratory trials weight reduction has been achieved by food restriction, which indicates lack of compliance by owners of pets in weight reducing programs.”

Willpower and Information
To make our dog’s diet work, we need two things that can be hard to come by – willpower and information. Your pet has become accustomed to his 3-squares a day plus treats, and there is going to be some serious begging, whining, and annoying behavior that you will have to live with when you start to cut back on the frequency or size of meals. Resisting that kind of pressure takes a lot of willpower. And that’s not all.

In her DoLittler blog, veterinarian Patty Khuly advises her clients not only to measure portions but to “keep a diary of everything their fat dog eats in a week (and how much exercise they get)…Track it all. Write down honestly. Then we’ll figure out what you’re doing wrong – if anything.” It takes willpower and dedication to follow through on this kind of recordkeeping: how much and when you are feeding, measuring portions, and monitoring behavior – yours, your pet’s, and your family’s. “Sometimes you’ll try to put your pet on a diet, and then someone else living in the house will slip it treats,” warns vet Susan Nelson.

An assistant professor of clinical sciences at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Nelson recently released some guidelines to help pet owners with their second big need – information on how and what to feed our pets to attain and maintain their health.

Nelson points out that dog and cat food manufacturers are increasingly providing calorie as well as content information on their packaging. If all the information you need is not on the bag or can, you can often find out more by calling the company or looking online for details. It’s important to note that calories and nutrition are not the same from product to product. A cup of one brand of food may have very different caloric and nutritional values than another brand. “Generally, I tell people that unless your pet is overweight, go with the guidelines on the food bag,” she said. And “If the pet is a little overweight, you should feed it for its ideal weight and not for its current weight.”

Nelson notes that many people don’t realize how many calories they are giving their pets through “treats” and scraps from the table. Vets Nelson and Khuly both stress that those little cat treats and dog snacks can really sabotage your pet’s diet too. If you’ve got a small child who drops food on the floor, your dog could be vacuuming up a lot of calories that way, too.

If you love your pet, the best way to prove it is to summon up the willpower and seek out whatever help and information you need to make that diet work. Your dog or cat cannot do it alone – and neither can you. As Susan Nelson notes, “You should talk with the whole family when putting your pet on a diet. Tell them the diet is necessary to keep the pet at a good weight, which in turn will make it healthier and can help it live a longer life.”