Cats and dogs need to be given enough food to maintain a healthy weight and shape; however, overfeeding often plays a part in their weight gain. The PFMA Pet Obesity: Five Years On report established that 75 percent of pet owners understand that overfeeding and giving extras contributes to a pet’s weight gain.
Understanding the owners’ current feeding practices is an important step in implementing a weight management programme; the owners are often required to make fundamental changes to their pet’s lifestyle and their own behavioural relationship with their pet, as well as feeding practices. Use of a food diary can assist in building a full picture of what is currently being fed in terms of volume, any treats, extras and human food that may be given alongside the pet’s daily food allocation.
Owners’ motivations for feeding extras vary, and spending time understanding their reasons and motivations for giving treats or extras helps to create a tailored plan for the pet in question. The PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report (2012) concluded that owners giving treats to pets are often driven by human emotions rather than nutritional need. Almost half (48 percent) of owners provided pets with treats because they believed it made their pet happy, while 29 percent claimed that it made them happy and 14 percent expressed that it was due to their pet’s incessant begging.
Ensuring a non-judgemental approach to understanding this situation can be instrumental in building good client relationships.
Begging behaviours are often misunderstood
While the percentage of owners feeding extras as a result of begging may appear low to those in practice, unpublished data from Royal Canin’s Satiety Consumer Study showed that three out of five pet owners state that their pet begs all the time or often.
These results indicate that owners may be misinterpreting their pets begging as a need for food/sign of hunger. The role of vets and nurses in practices is therefore to help the owners recognise what else their pet might be asking for, and what they can offer instead of food.
The Satiety Consumer Study found that 58 percent of dog owners believe their dog is begging for human food, while 51 percent believe their dog is begging for attention and only 37 percent felt that their dog was begging for pet treats (Figure 1). Whereas for cats, 60 percent of owners
believed their cat was begging for attention as opposed to 43 percent who believed it was for pet treats and 37 percent believed it was for cat food (Figure 2).
The role of vets and nurses is therefore to respectfully challenge the owners’ beliefs about their pet’s begging and start to make long-term, sustainable changes to their behaviour. Consider changing one of the treats to an additional walk or play session or grooming their pet when they get home from work instead of providing additional food. The ability to tailor the weight management approach to the individual will also help improve the outcome.
While discussing treats/ extras with the owner, there may be occasions where including treats as part of a weight management programme is the best approach. There is no association between the prior feeding of treats and overall weight loss, but it is worth noting that dietary energy intake during weight loss will need to be even less in order to compensate for this, which will in turn impact the overall feeding volume.
Energy restriction is required for patients to lose weight, but this presents its own challenges. Increased hunger, increased begging behaviour and rapid consumption of food are concerns often expressed by owners (Serisier et al., 2014).
One way to slow down food consumption is to use interactive feeders, though this is not the only benefit of using them as part of a weight management programme. Interactive feeders were originally designed to provide enrichment for captive zoo and laboratory animals, but were also found to improve body condition score and increase exploratory behaviour (Dantas, 2016).
Dantas’s 2016 paper, “Food puzzles for cats: feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing”, provides an example of an eight-year-old cat that lost 20 percent of its bodyweight in 12 months through use of an interactive feeder. It is worth bearing in mind though that while interactive feeders can be beneficial in helping pets lose weight, a calorie-restricted diet is also necessary, especially one that is designed to reduce begging behaviour.
Consider changing one of the treats to an additional walk or play session or grooming their pet when they get home from work instead of providing additional food
Weight management diets
Many vets and nurses already recommend weight management diets that are specifically formulated to induce safe weight loss through restricted calories, while providing all the micronutrients a patient needs. However, formulation and kibble design can be further altered to match the needs of an owner and a patient on a weight management programme.
Evidence in human studies shows that some foods are more effective than others in reducing hunger: foods high in protein, fibre, carbohydrates or water are the most satiating (Weber et al., 2007). Results from the trial performed by Weber et al. indicated that a diet high in protein and fibre had a greater satiating effect than protein or fibre alone. In a series of studies, Serisier et al. (2014) demonstrated that using air to increase the volume of dry dog food decreases energy intake and increases meal duration in ad libitum fed dogs. The exact reason for this was not fully understood, but the suggestion was that an increased meal volume resulted in a longer meal duration, allowing a greater time for release and effect of gastrointestinal hormones. The benefits of this approach for a weight management case is clear, and they also suggested that adding water may have a similar effect.
Practices sometimes avoid recommending wet food due to its effect on a pet’s oral health. However, it has been reported that dry food and canned food perform similarly in the degree of plaque and calculus accumulation in dogs.
Recent evidence has demonstrated the benefits of introducing a mixed feeding regime as part of a weight management programme. Most cat owners (86 percent) who usually fed dry food only found that a combination of wet and dry food made the weight loss programme more interesting, and 50 percent felt less guilty about the food restriction necessary (Flanagan et al., 2017).
While there are many challenges in weight management programmes, helping the owner to understand their pet’s begging behaviour and implementing a strategy to help them cope is vital. Slow-down bowls and interactive feeders may help to slow food consumption. A specifically formulated weight management diet, particularly a mixed feeding regime, will also help address the owners concerns about feeding volume and begging behaviours, ultimately increasing owner compliance and the success rate.