Fit or Fluffy, Fluffy or Fat?
Dr. Beth Flickinger
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are over 54 million cats and dogs in the United States that are overweight. What is worse, many pet owners are in denial thinking….”Oh no, not my pet, it just has big bones or is just a little fluffy.” February has been designated the first ever “National Canine Weight Check” month. This is the perfect time for pet owners to determine if their pet is really fit or flabby, fluffy or fat.
My guest today is Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger of Iams Pet Care. Dr. Beth has a Ph.D. in nutritional sciences and is a registered dietician. She is currently a senior scientist at Proctor and Gamble, with a primary research focus on obesity and obesity related conditions in dogs and cats.
Questions or comments? Email Dr. Cruz at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dr. Bernadine Cruz: According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are over 54 million cats and dogs in the United States that are overweight. What’s worse, many pet owners are in a state of denial, thinking, “Oh no, not my pet. It just has big bones.” Or, “It’s just a little fluffy.”
Well, February has been designated the first-ever National Canine Weight Check Month. And this is the perfect time for pet owners to determine if their pet is really fit or flabby, fluffy or fat. My guest today is Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger of Iams Pet Care. Dr. Beth has a PhD in Nutritional Sciences and is also a Registered Dietician. She is currently a senior scientist at Proctor & Gamble, with primary research on obesity and obesity related conditions in dogs and cats.
We’ll be right back with Dr. Flickinger after this short message break.
Announcer: Please have a seat in the waiting room. The doctor will be with you shortly. Right after these messages.
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Welcome back to The Pet Doctor on Pet Life Radio, with Dr. Bernadine Cruz. The doctor is in, and will see you now.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: Dr. Beth, thank you so much for being with us. First of all, can you define what is obesity?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: You’re welcome, Dr. Bernadine. I’m so excited to get to talk about one of my favorite topics.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: I’m sure people don’t like having you at dinner parties. They’re going, “Oh, no. She’s going to know that my pet’s overweight and I’m overweight.
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: You know, it can be a really touchy topic. And just like people don’t like to talk about their weight very much, they don’t like to talk about their pet’s weight either.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: It’s embarrassing. You were saying, what is obesity?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Obesity is simply when a pet is too heavy for its frame size. And it can range in severity from being a little bit overweight to being very, very obese.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: If you had an 8-pound cat, for instance, what would be considered obese? A kitty is supposed to weigh 8 pounds. What would be considered obese for that 8-pound cat?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Usually if their weight is more than 20% over what they’re supposed to weigh, so if that kitty was weighing more like 9-1/2 to 10 pounds instead. So it’s a very small amount weight-wise, that can actually put a pet into the overweight or obese category.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: So you think, gee you have a 10 extra pounds that you and I put on—well, you would never do it, you’re a dietician—putting on those 10 extra pounds over the holidays. Well, OK you’re kind of fitting into those skinny jeans not so skinny anymore. But that 10 pounds for a 40 pound dog, that would be huge.
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Exactly. As a matter of fact, if it was a cat, if you’re going to put on just 3 extra pounds, for a person—to make that more real to us—that’s like 40 pounds on a person.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: Wow. So why is this problem so widespread? Why are so many people being spread, and so are our pets.
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Well there are a lot of factors that can contribute to this. And we do know that there is an association, as people tend to get more overweight, our pets are tending to get more overweight. Some of the factors that play into this include just plain old eating too much of tasty food. There’s such a variety of good-tasting pet foods available these days, and just like with human foods, we can tend to overindulge. Other factors are, just like we as humans tend to be less active, our pets these days are less active than their predecessors were.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: Well, it seems like we have a really hard time of it, Dr. Beth. Because, you’re working, you’re putting in your hours at Procter & Gamble, and you come back and you have a son to take care of, and family, and all those other things. How are you supposed to find time to get that pet out to exercise? And getting a cat to exercise is almost impossible.
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Well, I think if you can, and will help, that is great. And also, besides trying to get your family members if you can, don’t try and bite off too much all at once. Gradual, slow changes are the best.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: So “gradual” meaning I’m not supposed to get my pet to lose 10 pounds in a week?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: As a mater of fact, that’s correct. That’s really unhealthy. It’s tempting to want to fix a problem right away with a magic pill or potion, but really, that weight didn’t appear overnight and it’s not going to safely, in a healthy way, go away overnight. You really want to target more like a 1% or 2% weight loss per week. A very slow, gradual weight loss.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: I know that eating too many tasty treats can put the weight on, and I agree with you. You go down a pet food aisle at some of these large pet stores, or you go to your grocery store, and treats, and snacks, and these goodies, and these yummies, and it’s supposed to help the teeth. So besides the treats that are out there, are there some other reasons why our pets tend to pack on those pounds?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Absolutely. We have pets that are more commonly living in multi-pet households, and sometimes they can be competitive with their fellow pets for food. And sometimes they can eat the food that was meant for some other pet. We see that happening a lot these days. And also, because pets live longer healthier lives, as they age their metabolism slows down, just like it does in people. And so as pets age they tend to be more at risk for overweight.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: And you know that’s a real problem. You know, in my youth I could just eat and not have to think about it, and now it’s like, you just look at the desert tray and, poof, there goes the pounds.
Besides the advancing age, I know one of the things that people think is a problem is neutering a pet; that if you get a cat or a dog spayed, or you get it castrated, that for sure it’s going to put on weight. Does it really make that much of a difference when you get them spayed or neutered?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Certainly there’s an association there. But I would say that the benefits of spaying and neutering far outweigh any risks. A lot of times we blame it on spaying and neutering because that tends to happen at an age where the animal’s growth slows down anyway. And, as we all know, if you keep eating like you did when you were a growing teenager, when you’re a full-grown adult, it’s not a good thing. So I think it has more to do with that they’re just becoming more of a mature adult and still eating like they were little teenagers.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: And we keep feeding them as though they’re growing up, and all they’re doing is growing out. You’re exactly right.
Are there some breeds that seem to be more genetically prone to putting on weight? I know everyone would love to have that breed where, “Really it’s not my fault, it’s the genes.”
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: [laughs] Yes. That’s a common excuse. And actually there are some breeds that are more prone to overweight. And they’re some of our favorite breeds, which compounds the growing epidemic of pet obesity. Labs, for example, are very food oriented and food motivated, and so if you match that up with an owner that showers them with food rewards, they’re going to become overweight very quickly. Beagles fall into the same category.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: I know, I had a black Lab, and for a period of time I had a roommate. And we literally would have to write each other notes, because sometime one would come home and feed the pet, and then take off. And you’d come home, and the dog would look at you like, “Oh, no, I haven’t eaten for three days.” And you’d go ahead and feed it, going, “Huh, I wonder why this pet’s getting overweight?” And then realizing, “Oh yes, everyone’s feeding the dog, that’s why.”
Now, are there some medications that can also be responsible for pets packing on those extra fluffy pounds?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Certainly, and it’s always a good idea to ask your veterinarian when your pet’s starting a medication if it might affect their weight. And things like steroids can cause pets to gain weight, but they are necessary. There’s a reason your vet prescribed them, so you don’t want to stop taking those. Just talk with your vet about how you can work with that medication.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: And the steroids you’re mentioning, Prednisolone is a name that people might be more familiar with. Sometimes it’s for itchy skin, and there are other indications also. And I’ll usually tell my clients, “When your pet is on this medication it will want to drink water like it’s going out of style, that it will urinate like that proverbial racehorse, and it will want to eat everything that’s not nailed down. Don’t believe them. It’s an artificially increased appetite, so continue feeding the way that they’re supposed to be eating.”
So, Dr. Beth, we’re talking about pets being overweight, it’s so easy to do. How can a person tell if their own personal pet is overweight? What can they do? What can they touch, or see, or feel?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Probably the easiest way is going to be to look at them, and then also to touch them. What you want to do is look at your pet when you’re standing above them. Look down over the top, and you should be able to see a natural waistline right behind the rib cage.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: Where we’re supposed to have ours. [laughs]
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Exactly. Just where ours is supposed to be. And you can also view them from the side. And their abdomen should tuck up by their back legs, it shouldn’t be flat or hanging down.
The next thing you want to do is feel your pet, just gently as you’re brushing them, or as you’re petting them. You should be able to feel their ribs as you move your hands along their middle. If you can’t feel their ribs at all, and if they’ve lost their waist somewhere, your pet is probably overweight.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: So it’s really not fluffy. So even those fluffy animals, when you put your hand on the side, you shouldn’t be pinching an inch, yes.
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: That’s right.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: But as you were saying, you know, you have that Labrador that just loves to have the treat, and you give it that extra little treat, and then it starts getting plumper and plumper. But it’s a happy dog. What’s really the problem of having kind of a chunky happy pet?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: You know, that’s one of the most common misperceptions out there, that a fat pet is a happy pet. A lot of us associate food with love, and we like to show our pets affection with the food that we give them. But it’s actually very harmful to their health for a pet to be overweight. It increases their risk of different diseases, and it can even shorten their life span.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: What are some of the diseases that can be exacerbated—made worse—by being overweight?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Well definitely osteoarthritis, where their joints will get very ill, and they won’t move around as well. It also can increase their risk for getting diabetes, it can increase their risk of different skin diseases, and it can even affect how they respond to different medications.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: So fluffy is not necessarily happy.
We’ve been talking with Dr. Beth Flickinger, from Iams Pet Care and Procter & Gamble. We’ve learned some ways to tell whether or not your pet is overweight. We’re going to take a short break, and when we come back she’s going to tell us ways that we can get that weight—now that we’ve determined that it really is a little on the flabby side—how can we get our pets to lose some weight. We’ll be right back after this short message.
Announcer: Please have a seat in the waiting room. The doctor will be with you shortly, right after these messages.
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Announcer: Welcome back to The Pet Doctor, on Pet Life Radio, with Dr. Bernadine Cruz. The doctor is in, and will see you now.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: Dr. Beth, OK. So now I am looking at my pet and saying, “Yup, it’s overweight. I’m overweight, it’s overweight, it just has fat friends. How can I get my pet to lose the weight? I look at all of these diet foods that are on the market, and if there are all these great diet foods, why do I have fat pets all over the place?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: That’s a great question. And you know, you can get too much of a good thing. If you eat too much diet food you’re not going to lose weight. And the same goes with your pet. If you give it too much, even if it’s a weight control food, they’re not going to lose that extra weight.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: So 20 pounds of food per week for the 2-pound poodlette is probably not a good idea. Clients are always saying, “Oh, but I only give it the best food, how can my pet be overweight?” Well, too much of that good thing.
When is the best time, Dr. Beth, to start a pet towards healthy weight?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Well, the best time to start is before they get overweight.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: Good idea.
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: But it’s never too later.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: [laughs] OK.
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: It’s never too late if you’ve gone past that point. It’s never too late to get them moving towards a more healthy weight.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: And you were talking about cats, and cats have a very unique little metabolism. I know we’ve been talking mostly about dogs right now—but cats; what’s the problem with putting a cat on a very strict, very acute, sudden diet?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Well, if your cat does not get enough calories—and this is a very, very restricted amount, it would be basically, not eating for a couple of days, or eating just very tiny—a few kibble—amounts for a few days.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: So offering it a food it doesn’t like, for instance.
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Correct, correct.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: OK.
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: It can actually cause them to have a disease called fatty liver, and it’s a very serious health complication. And so whenever you’re switching foods with a cat or a dog, you want to do it gradually. You want to offer it mostly its old food for the first day, and then maybe about 25% of the new food. And then you gradually increase the amount of the new food, and decrease the amount of the old food, until they get switched over. And that will also help prevent any stomach upset that they might get during changing over the food.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: That heartbreak of diarrhea, it’s tough.
So, OK, let’s talk about dogs. I have a chunky dog and I need it to lose weight. What should I feed it to lose weight? Is there that special food? You look at all these diet foods, and you look at the labels, going, “Oh, I don’t understand this.” For instance Dr. Beth, why do they even have fat in food if fat is bad for you?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Ah. Well, it’s not that fat is bad, it’s just that too much fat is bad. And so in a weight-control food it’s going to have some fat because the body needs that for healthy skin, and healthy organs, and healthy muscle. But you just don’t want an overabundance of fat. So a good weight-control diet is going to have some fat, just not too much of it.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: And what would be the cut-off point that somebody should look for, saying, “Oops, this is too much fat,” in a diet food?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: I would say you don’t want more than about 13% fat in a diet food. Most maintenance foods are going to be 13% and above, and that’s not an unhealthy amount of fat at all, it’s just that the amount of vitamins and minerals in that food is at a certain ratio to the fat. So if you feed a maintenance food, or a regular dog or cat food, you want to feed that for the purpose of maintaining their weight. If you use a regular dog or cat adult maintenance food for weight loss there’s a danger that your pet won’t get enough vitamins, and minerals, and amino acids that they need. So you definitely only want to use a weight-control food when you’re trying to help your pet lose weight.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: OK. And looking at that pet food label, oftentimes I know, for instance, if I’m trying to watch my weight, I’m going to eat a lot more fiber—salads, things like that to kind of fill me up, not out. And looking at pet food labels I notice there are all sorts of different fibers that are in it. What are the benefits of fibers? What do they do in a pet’s diet?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Well, fiber can help them have a healthy intestinal tract, and it can also help them feel more full. Just like it does in people, it helps dilute calories, so that you can eat a little bit more volume without packing on the pounds. You do want to be careful. Some pet foods really have a lot of fiber. Even, if you were going to equate that to a human diet it would be like eating nothing but fiber most of the day. And so you want to look for more moderate fiber levels, not too much, but some in there to help keep their intestines healthy and help cut the calories.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: And we’ve all heard, you know, fiber, being a carbohydrate; we’ve heard of the Atkins diet for people—you know, lots and lots of protein, and really watching those carbs. Is an Atkins type diet good for pets?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Actually, while pets need protein—good high quality animal proteins are great for pets—they really don’t need an Atkins type diet. That’s not a really healthy long-term approach for pets. And it actually can put a lot of metabolic stress on the body, so we don’t recommend that. We really recommend a nice, balanced, moderate diet like Iams Weight Control or Eukanuba Reduced Fat.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: And one of the other things, I’m always trying to watch my weight, and any time I see a commercial where there’s a new vitamin, or there’s a new supplement, I look at it with a little bit of a jaded eye. But I know that some pet foods actually will have Carnitine in them, and that Iams does. How does Carnitine help a pet lose weight?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Carnitine is a great high-tech way to help your pet burn more fat. It helps the body move fat inside the cells where it can be turned into energy, instead of being stored. And so what that does is help your pet burn fat and keep their muscle.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: Now I’m asking the Registered Dietitian in you. [laughs]
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: [laughs] Actually, it’s a pretty popular human supplement, too.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: So it’s not going to hurt me if I take it.
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: You can find it at most health food stores.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: Oh, OK. I like that.
So, is there anything in particular that I should really watch out for as I’m trying to start—we’ll talk about a dog—I’m trying to start my dog on a weight loss program. Any words of wisdom?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Sure. One would be patience, and the other would be stick to it. You need to keep track. Often we think it should be an easy thing to lose weight, and sometimes it’s not. It’s important to really think about it, and to be honest with yourself about why this is important for your pet, to help their health. It’s going to take a little bit of effort on your part to make sure that you’re not caving in when they look at you with those big puppy dog eyes.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: [laughs]
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: And also to communicate with other people who might be feeding you pet, to make sure that you’re all on the same page and working together, and not against each other.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: I would also say, see your veterinarian. Go on in, get a good health check-up. Maybe there is a huge tumor in your pet’s belly, and that’s put on the weight and causing it to have that pendulous abdomen. Hopefully nothing that drastic would be going on. But you know, I would always laugh whenever they’d say, “Before you start that weight loss program, see your doctor.” Well, the same thing holds true with your pet cat or dog. You want to make sure that it’s in good health.
I’ll always say bring your pet in at least twice a year for just a good wellness check-up, since one of our years is about 7 pet years. And many times one of the pet owners will be bringing it in—the whole family doesn’t come in most of the time for an exam—and I’ll say go ahead and make me the bad person. Just go home and say, “The doctor was so upset, and so insensitive. This dog, or this kitty, had put on 3 pounds since our last exam. And she just read me the riot act.” I don’t mind being the bad person. So then they don’t seem like the bad one when they go home saying, “Really, we can’t feed it as much. We really need to get this pet on a diet.”
You were mentioning Dr. Beth, something that’s so true. And I had that black Lab who would sit at the dinner table and look at you with those cute little eyes. What can people do so they don’t cave in, and don’t give those treats from the table, or as you’re sitting there having your late-night snack. How can you keep from giving your pet just that one little extra yummy from your plate?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Well, one thing to realize is that your pet has trained you how to respond to that.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: [laughs]
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: And so your pet has learned; they’re very smart, they know what they need to do to make sure that you give them what they want. And so realize that your pet isn’t always communicating that they’re hungry, they’ve just learned how to act in order to get that special treat.
And the second thing is to start retraining them, and yourself, to respond in a different way. When your pet looks at you with those sad eyes, instead of giving them food, give them affection. Give them pats, give them praise, give them a toy and go play together. And then you have the bonus of growing closer to your pet and doing something that’s healthy for them.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: Are there some safe treats that we can give. I mean, when you’re just feeling, “OK. I have to give something. I’m going to walk out the door and if I don’t give a treat, this dog is going to destroy the house; or this kitty is going to poop on my pillow. What can I do?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Well certainly you could give them a few kibbles of their weight control food. But there are also weight control treats out there, low fat biscuits. There are even some that your veterinarian carries that are extra low in calories, like Restricted Calorie Rewards. So you could also break up and just give them a little part of a biscuit, or a little part of their food.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: So it’s more of the thought that counts, instead of the quantity that you’re giving them.
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Absolutely. And if you’re looking for more ideas, I couldn’t agree with you more; I think people would be so much more successful with their pet’s weight loss if they enlisted the help of their veterinarian.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: Speaking of that, one of the great things they have going on in the month of February, if you go to www.stopcanineobestity.com, it’s a weight awareness program going on between the veterinarians throughout the United States, Pfizer Animal Health, and also the American Kennel Club. And this is a way to find out if your pet is really fit or flabby, is it fluffy or fat? And they can give you some ideas for your pet to lose some weight, which is great. It is also a way for you to help keep track—they also have what’s known as the “Dog Owner’s Guide To Healthy Weight.”
Some of the things, Dr. Beth, that you mentioned. You know, which breeds are more prone. You can take this little questionnaire, which breeds are more prone to having problems? What if you have a multi-dog household, is that going to set you up for some problems? Is your pet having some difficulty standing, or jumping off the couch? What are the risk factors? So you can go to some of these sites. And, Dr. Beth, are there some sites that you can mention also that people can go to if they have questions about health, nutrition, and obesity?
Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger: Sure. If you go to www.iams.com or eukanuba.com, there’s tons of resources imbedded in those sites. There’s a product selector so you can see all kinds of good food choices, and there’s also tips on how to help your pet through the weight loss process there. And also for your other pets who might not be overweight—good healthy things to do with them.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz: Great ideas.
Well, I’m Dr. Bernadine Cruz, and you’ve been listening to The Pet Doctor on PetLifeRadio.com. My guest today has been Dr. Elizabeth Flickinger of Iams Pet Care, Procter & Gamble. She’s given us some great ideas so you can tell whether or not your pet is fit or flabby, ways that you can get your pet to lose weight, and keep it at a healthy weight. So if you ever have questions about what’s going on with your pet, always the best person to ask is your veterinarian. Because it’s your pet, health matters.
Come back next week and we’ll have some more interesting things to keep the furry members of your family nice and healthy. Thanks for listening.
Announcer: Pets can be a wonderful addition to your life. Because they’re a member of the family, keeping them healthy and happy is important. Pet Life Radio presents The Pet Doctor, with veterinary media consultant and veterinarian, Dr. Bernadine Cruz. Whether you have a dog, cat, reptile, or rabbit, you’ll find answers for your pets straight from the vets. On demand every week, only on PetLifeRadio.com.