Maintaining Weight Loss in Dogs and Cats

By Canadian Academy of Veterinary Nutrition (CAVN), Sarah K. Abood, DVM, PhD

How do I help my pet keep their lost weight from coming back?

Weight-loss programs and therapeutic restricted-calorie diets help dogs and cats lose weight. They work especially well when all human members of the family support the weight loss program and do not disrupt or overthrow it.

A significant challenge for many pet parents, however, is preventing rebound weight gain. Once a pet has reached a new, lower body weight and body condition score, it is important to carefully maintain an appropriate calorie intake and daily activity level for the pet, in order to keep the lost weight off for good.

To help pets maintain their weight loss, pet parents should learn how to assign a body condition score. Body condition scoring is easy (it involves petting the animal) and you can learn the skill in a few minutes from your family veterinarian. It helps you recognize, by touch, whether your pet is slimming down or getting heavier. When you feel and see changes that you don’t think should be happening, take your pet to see your family veterinarian so they can perform a complete physical examination. See the “Body Condition Score” handout for further information.

"The most important behavioral change for pet parents is sticking to 
a specific number of Calories (kcals) each day for their pet."

Successful weight-loss programs require one or more behavioral changes on the part of human family members. Some behavior changes are easier to begin and maintain than others. It is a good idea for everyone in the home to regularly talk about what works well and what does not, so that adjustments can be made, and progress can be recorded.

The most important behavioral change for pet parents is sticking to a specific number of Calories (kcals) each day for their pet. Consult your family veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist to determine appropriate calorie intake for the pet’s body weight - both during the weight loss program and afterward, when the goal is to maintain the lost weight.

Other behavioral changes for pet parents involve finding effective ways to gradually increase the pet’s activity level, which helps to burn calories, and finding ways to engage the pet and keep it mentally stimulated without using food and treats.

It is strongly recommended that you use a gram scale to measure the pet’s daily food portion, because it reduces the chance of feeding excess Calories.

What’s the best way to feed my dog or cat once they’ve lost weight?

Under the care of the family veterinarian, guided weight loss programs usually take anywhere from 2-3 months to 12-18 months for overweight pets to shed unwanted pounds. If an overweight pet has only a few pounds to lose (e.g., 1-5 pounds), they may not need a special diet or a long period of time; adjusting the feeding management regimen and focusing on low-calorie treats might achieve success.

However, dogs that need to lose 20 pounds or more need a veterinary therapeutic diet, a focused feeding management plan, and 6-12 months to reach their new body weight goal.

The best way to feed your pet after they’ve lost weight will vary. Helping pets keep their lost weight off means talking with your family vet about what worked best in your household during the weight loss program. You may have stopped bad habits and formed good habits that could be continued to help keep the pet’s weight at a stable level. For example, if you fed your pet three small meals per day and they got used to that routine, then it would make sense to continue it. Or if food puzzles/toys were used for some of the pet’s meals each week, it would be a good idea to continue using those puzzles.

When can my pet stop eating their “low calorie” diet food?

Some pets can slowly transition back to their previous food or to a new brand after having reached their goal weight, but other pets must stay on the veterinary therapeutic diet. This is an important conversation to have with your family veterinarian. Discuss whether your pet is a slow eater or an “inhaler” who always acts hungry; this information can help the family vet find a balanced product with an appropriate calorie content (or energy density) for your pet’s needs.

Can my pet have the treats they have always loved?

If your pet’s favorite treats are “low calorie”, with fewer than 5 Calories per piece, then the answer is yes! However, if the treats have more than 10 Calories per piece, feeding more than two per day could be too much.

Most commercial cat treats are about the size of your smallest fingernail, and tend to be similar in calories: between 1 and 4 Calories per treat. A small number of cat treats, spread over the course of a day, is fine for most pets. Dog treats are different because they vary widely in size and calorie content. Low-calorie commercial dog treats contain fewer than 10-15 Calories per piece. There are plenty of low-calorie options to choose from.

Most fruits and vegetables that are served fresh, frozen, or plainly cooked (no butter, no salt, no condiments,  no cheese on top) provide few calories and make good treats when offered in moderation.

All treats, snacks, and "people foods should be carefully monitored. A general guideline for all pets is that no more than 10% of the animal’s total daily calories should come from treats, snacks, or people foods.

It’s important to understand that “treating” your pet doesn’t need to be associated with food. Our pets want our attention, and that can be provided in many forms, including petting, grooming, training, playing catch, going for a walk, or even watching a TV show together.

Do I have to exercise my pet?

No, you don’t have to force your pet to “exercise”, but you should help your pet stay active for a few minutes every day. Physical activity is defined as moving the body (a little or a lot) and spending energy to do it. Exercise is defined as structured or planned activity with the goal of improving stamina or physical health. Whenever you can get your pet to move a little more than they normally would, you are helping them to spend energy (or burn calories).

There are many dog breeds that are known to be high energy and very active. These breeds benefit from exercise such as long walks, 30-minute runs, or regular agility training. Alternatively, there are many small dog breeds, and most cats, that won’t exercise. These pets should still maintain some daily activity by walking up and down stairs, jumping, running a short distance after a toy, or moving from one end of the home to the other.

"Whenever you can get your pet to move a little more than they normally would, you are helping them to spend energy (or burn calories)."

Establishing play time or “movement” time for a few minutes, two or three times a day, is a good start, especially for animals who are not active. Mealtimes are often the easiest time to encourage a dog or cat to move around for a few minutes. Food puzzles/toys can be used to deliver the meal, or food can be tossed up/down a staircase or across a room. Change the method regularly so the pet doesn’t get too used to the routine.

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