Weight Management for Pets with Activity Restriction

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

How can I help my pet lose weight if their activity is restricted?


Overweight pets with restricted activity should eat a veterinary therapeutic diet designed specifically for weight loss. These types of diets have been shown to work when the overweight pet is fed an appropriate amount for weight loss.

However, a special diet alone is not always the “magic bullet”. Talk to your family veterinarian about the therapeutic diets they have had the most success with. Once your pet’s target goal weight has been reached, it may be possible to switch to an over-the-counter weight management diet.


Talk to your veterinarian if you have any concerns around your pet’s ability to be active (or exercise) while you’re starting them on a weight-loss program. Your veterinary healthcare team may have helpful suggestions that other pet parents have found to work.

Consider ideas for exercise and develop a plan to introduce some movement into your pet’s daily routine. If the first thing you try doesn’t go well, don’t rule it out forever; set it aside for a week or two and try it again later. More than one approach will be needed, so be patient with your pet and persistent in exploring different ideas. One idea to investigate is canine rehabilitation therapy and/or underwater treadmill therapy. See below for more information about these treatments.

"More than one approach will be needed, so be patient with your pet 
and persistent in exploring different ideas."

Look around your home and consider how your pet could burn off extra calories by simply doing more of its usual behaviors. If your dog or cat can move from room to room, then place their food and water bowls in different rooms every other day, farther away than where your pet would usually walk. If your pet can use stairs, place the food bowl at the top of a staircase and place the water bowl at the bottom.

Feeding Approaches

Consider using an automatic feeder, which releases a controlled amount of food at specific times each day. Your veterinarian can calculate the total calories your pet needs and help you figure out the volume of food to be released for each meal. Automatic feeders range in price from about US$55 to US$300.

A challenging food puzzle can keep your pet engaged while slowing their pace of eating. Some pet parents use food puzzles every day, instead of placing food in a bowl, but puzzles can also be used just two to three times per week. Your pet must learn how to work the puzzle to remove the food, so it requires some patience. Some dogs and cats enjoy certain puzzles more than others, so read reviews of the products and consider investing in more than one. Commercial food puzzles range between US$10 and US$50. A number of online sites provide instructions for making your own.

What is animal rehabilitation therapy and how can it help my pet?

Animal rehabilitation therapy is similar to physical therapy for humans. When a dog or cat first visits a rehabilitation clinic, trained and certified veterinary technicians or veterinarians conduct an assessment and offer one or more types of therapy tailored for the pet. For overweight pets with restricted activity, therapy might include controlled and gentle movements for stretching; massage therapy to reduce joint pain; weight-bearing actions such as slow walking on a land treadmill; or non-weight-bearing actions such as swimming in a warm-water pool or walking on an underwater treadmill.

Animal rehabilitation therapy helps overweight pets by improving their mobility, reducing joint pain, and improving overall fitness. The cost of treatment varies by the type of therapy prescribed, practitioner, and location. Many clinics offer a “package” of visits, like a gym membership, which is typically more economical than paying for individual sessions. Ask your veterinarian where you can find a certified therapist.

How can I help my pet lose weight if my own activity is restricted?

If you can’t be directly involved in your pet’s daily activity, talk to family members, friends, and neighbors to see if any of them can help with pet care. You could also consider hiring a local student at a high school, community college, or university near your home. Alternatively, your veterinary health care team might be able to recommend a reliable pet sitter or dog walker in the community. Recruiting and hiring helpers may take some time, so it is important to plan ahead and carefully consider what kinds of help you’ll need for your pet.

Can my pet still have treats?

Yes, low-calorie treats are acceptable. Low-calorie treats for dogs have fewer than 10 Calories per piece, while low-calorie treats for cats have fewer than 5 Calories each.

Treats, snacks, and “people foods” should be carefully monitored, because they may unbalance the pet’s diet. A general guideline is that no more than 10% of any pet’s total daily calories should come from treats, snacks, or "people foods".

It’s important to read treat labels for “Calories per piece,” so you can be sure it is a low-calorie option. Most commercial cat treats are about the size of your smallest fingernail and typically have between 1 and 4 Calories per treat. However, dog treats can vary widely in size, shape, and number of calories – some have more than 50 or 100 Calories per treat.

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

Remember that “treating” your pet doesn’t need to be associated with food. Our furry friends want our attention, and it can be given in many forms, including petting, grooming, training, playing catch, going for a walk, or even watching a TV show together.

How can I tell if my pet is losing weight? How do I know if we’re making progress?

Weight loss doesn’t happen quickly and reaching your pet’s goal weight will take several weeks or months. The most successful weight loss programs include some type of reporting or accountability; stay connected with your veterinary health care team to report your pet’s progress and get support at every step.


Regular monitoring of your pet’s body weight and body condition score is important. Early on, your veterinary healthcare team might suggest check-ins once every two weeks, and then change to once every month, or once every six weeks. Many veterinary clinics allow their clients to bring the pet in weekly to get weighed and assigned a body condition score. Make sure that these numbers are written in your pet’s medical record to document progress.

Expect “bumps in the road” as well as “plateaus” in which your pet stops losing weight. At these times, talk to your veterinarian – they may have a suggestion or may want to see the pet and do a physical examination.


Take “before”, “during”, and “after” pictures of your pet to document their weight-loss journey. It can be helpful to see the progress made. Take these photos either once weekly or once every 14 days. Each time, take photos that show two perspectives: a side (lateral) view and an aerial (top-down) view. The side view is taken from beside the pet, and shows its full length, from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail. The aerial view is taken from above the pet’s back and shows the outline of the dog from head to tail.

Keep a food diary for your pet. Work with your veterinary health care team to determine the number of Calories your pet should be eating to lose a safe amount of weight each week. Talk with the team, and others in your home, about how those Calories will get divided into small meals and treats. Then, each day, record the time you offer food or treats, the amount you offer, and how you offer it (e.g., food bowl, food puzzle, by hand).

Keep an activity diary for your pet. Start slowly and increase the activity of an overweight pet by just two to three minutes each day. It will be easier in some weeks than others. When you are unsure if you’re making progress, review what you wrote in the activity diary and see if there are things you can revisit or try again.

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