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How to keep your pet in tip-top shape

How to keep your pet in tip-top shape

In Britain, around two-thirds of us are classified as either overweight or obese and now, it seems, half of our pets are overweight too.

While breed, age and gender can all have an influence on your pet’s tendency to put on weight, the RSPCA says that the main reason for this obesity crisis is that the food they eat contains more energy than they use up. ‘The figures are alarming,’ says Michael Bellingham, Chief Executive of the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA), ‘and the problem won’t go away without a fundamental shift in owners’ attitude to feeding their pets.’ According to the PFMA, around one in five pet owners use trial and error, rather than manufacturers’ guidelines when feeding their pets. Titbits, too, are taking their toll. A survey, reported in The Observer, indicated that a 10 per cent surge in the number of overweight pets in the previous year alone was due to owners misguidedly giving them too many high-calorie treats.

And it seems that love is blind when it comes to realising that our pets are piling on the pounds. Another survey by the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) found that while eight out of 10 owners believed their pet was the right weight, only 33 per cent of dog owners and 23 per cent of cat owners chose the ‘normal’ weight picture from a series as the one that looked most like their pet. So it seems that many of us are unaware what ‘normal weight’ looks like for our pets, and only a quarter of those surveyed said they had sought advice on whether their pets were overweight. If you are unsure whether your pet is overweight, have a look at the quick weight checks below or consult your vet.

The PFMA survey also revealed that even when owners could see that their pets were overweight, the majority believed that there was little, or nothing, they could do about it. But while we may be killing our pets with kindness, there is lots we can do in terms of good nutrition and exercise to get them in the best possible shape for a long, healthy and happy life. Read on to find out more...

When feeding your pet, it’s vital to ensure that you are providing a diet appropriate for his age, breed and lifestyle.

Nottinghamshire-based dog trainer Wendy Hill says: ‘Don’t just follow the pet food manufacturer’s guidelines. Dogs, like people, have different metabolisms.’ So monitor your dog’s weight and judge if you need to adjust his portions – if in doubt, consult your vet. If your pet is obese, your vet will devise a weight-loss and exercise plan that will need careful monitoring. Remember it can be dangerous for animals to lose weight too quickly. Once your pet has reached his target weight, he may then need to go onto a ‘light’ food diet.

Different people in the household feeding a pet can also be a problem. Wendy says: ‘One family member may be carefully keeping the dog on a diet, while another slips him treats.’ Encourage your children to spend time playing with their pet rather than feeding them titbits.

Indulging dogs when they beg at the table is another bad habit to break. ‘Put your dog in another room when you eat – or ignore him,’ suggests Wendy. ‘After several days of getting absolutely nothing, he’ll learn not to beg!’ Remember that what seems like a ‘small treat’ to us is considerably bigger for our pet. Every crisp is more like the equivalent of half a packet, because every excess gram is a greater percentage of his overall weight.

The key to your pet keeping a stable, healthy weight is a combination of a balanced diet and regular exercise.

Dogs love to run and have fun with their owners. Besides keeping you both fit and trim, the more you interact, the deeper the bond between you. Top dog trainer Paddy Driscoll says: ‘Dogs need to warm up and cool down to avoid injury – so maybe walk to the park instead of getting there in the car. Playing games on walks will keep your dog mentally stimulated and give him extra exercise. Teach your dog to fetch a ball, but throw it into the undergrowth so he has to search for it and doesn’t risk injuring himself jumping to catch it in mid-air.’ Paddy adds, ‘If you’re out with family or friends, get someone to hide with your dog’s favourite toy so he has to use his scent-tracking skills to find them. If you have several dogs, line them up and command ‘Stay’, then walk away and call them to you, rewarding the one to reach you first with the ball.

‘I use a lot of food rewards when I’m training,’ explains Paddy, who has six dogs. ‘I give small pieces of cheese and sausage – the size of my little finger nail for small dogs, bigger for large dogs – but I always subtract it from their daily food allowance and throw it as far as possible to make them run a lot! Even a dog with arthritis or joint problems needs some low-level exercise. Lob a cup of dried food into the garden so he has to forage,’ she adds.

If you’re serious about getting your dog fit, there are lots of sporting activities you can enjoy together at various levels, from your local club to training weekends and full-blown competitions. However, overweight dogs will need to lose weight before they can join in and ensure your dog has no physical problems that could give him pain. If in doubt, check with your vet.

Easy exercises for you and your dog


    Dogs negotiate a course of jumps, poles and tunnels as quickly as possible, with the minimum number of mistakes.


    SUITABLE FOR:A good workout for dogs over a year, less so for big dogs whose joints aren’t geared to jumping.


    Two teams of dogs race, jump hurdles and trigger a pedal on a Flyball boxto retrieve a ball.


    SUITABLE FOR: All dogs and owners who like to exert themselves!


    This civilian equivalent of police dog work includes obedience, control, agility and fitness.


    SUITABLE FOR: Fit owners and dogs – this exercise is physically demanding!


    Owners devise fun and creative routines to perform with their pooch.


    SUITABLE FOR: Good for weight loss but physically demanding and difficult for overweight dogs.


    The doggie equivalent of ‘dressage’ that requires them to perform feats of obedience for their owners, from the simple ‘sit’ to scent work and recalls.


    SUITABLE FOR: Fit dogs of all breeds.

Quick weight checks

To monitor your pet’s weight, carry out these RSPCA-recommended checks regularly:

  • Can you see and feel the outline of your pet’s ribs without excess fat covering?

  • Can you see and feel your pet’s waist, and is it clearly visible when viewed from above?
  • Does your pet’s belly look ‘tucked up’ when viewed from the side?

If your pet doesn't pass these weight checks or you have concerns about your pet’s weight, it’s always best to consult your vet.

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