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Shea Cox
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Weight Management Made Simple
Advice for counting calories and dealing with “the look”

Like so many pet owners, I am in the constant back-and-forth battle with “dimple butt” in my dogs, and there are many things that make a weight loss (or weight maintenance) program difficult. For me, it’s “thaaaat looook.” Yes, you know which one I’m talking about, and I just can’t seem to say no to those big, pleading (and I’m sure starving) eyes. As a guilt-stricken result, I end up sharing a portion of whatever it is I’m enjoying, contributing to that Dobie derriere.

There are countless recommendations, formulations and opinions with regards to which approach works best for weight loss. With all the options out there, I have found this “rough-edged” approach to work for our dogs and for our lifestyle. It is straightforward, it does not require a change in their normal food and allows for tasty “treats” to reduce their feelings of hunger. It may be a slightly less scientific approach, but it is one I have found to actually work each time I have recommended it.

Let’s break it down. I’ll start by teaching you how to determine your pets’ daily caloric needs and how to adjust their nutrition to meet weight-loss goals. Finally, I’ll offer some tips on how to make them feel less miserable in the process (after all, who doesn’t hate dieting?).

How many calories should my pet have each day?

Knowing how many calories your pet needs each day is the first thing you need to determine when approaching a weight-loss program. Food “guess-timations” are frequently incorrect because we often judge how much to feed based on how hungry our dogs appear to us. This is not the best indicator of caloric needs because many of our pets will eat whatever is placed in front of them. Animals also have a basic instinctual drive to look at us whenever we are eating, which we often interpret as hunger, leading to overfeeding.

There are many formulas for determining your pets’ daily caloric needs, which are known as Resting Energy Requirements (RER), but I find this one to be the easiest to “plug and chug”:

Daily calorie needs = 30 x (your pet’s weight in kilograms) + 70

For example, if your pet weighs 15 kg: (30 x 15) + 70 = 520 calories per day

To get your pet’s weight in kilograms, divide the number in pounds by 2.2

For example, a 33-pound dog weighs 15 kg. Here’s the math: 33 divided by 2.2 = 15

Next, look at your pet food bag to find how many calories are present. If you are having difficulty finding the calories per serving of your pet food, let me know the brand and I’ll see what I can do to find out for you.

If you home-cook for your pet, determining calories can be a little more complicated as you need to consider the individual elements that make up their diet. However, the concept remains the same, and an excellent resource for the caloric content of individual foods used in home-cooked diets can be found at Stombeck's Home-Prepared Diets for Dogs and Cats.

How to start a weight loss diet

I prefer the “low and slow” approach to weight loss (after all, it is unlikely that our pets are wanting to get into that little black dress by next month). For weight loss, simply feeding the calculated RER calories alone should be adequate for reducing weight over time with no further “diet modifications” needed. With this approach, most pets will typically loose 1 to 2 pounds per month, achieving their ideal weight in 6 to 8 months. The best thing about this approach is that you don’t have to change the diet or buy an expensive prescription weight loss formula.

Continue to weigh your pet every month until an ideal body weight is achieved. If there is no significant weight loss after 1 to 2 months on their calculated RER, then I recommend cutting back their total calories by 10 percent (most veterinary nutritionists recommend a 10–20 percent calorie cutback).

Continue to reweigh your pet every four weeks and continue to decrease the total calorie intake by an additional 10 percent until your pet’s ideal body weight is reached.

When they have finally reached their ideal body weight, simply continue to feed that amount of dog food daily, as long as they continue to maintain this ideal weight (meaning, no further weight loss or gain).

Two tips to ease the pain

  1. If it is possible with your schedule, divide the total daily calories into three feedings instead of two. You will basically be introducing a lunch into their breakfast and dinner schedule, helping to reduce feelings of hunger between feedings.
  2. What I have personally found to work best in our household was offering “psychological treats.” These are low-calorie treats that you can offer every time they try “that look” on you. For us, we purchase restaurant-sized cans of green beans from Costco (it is always fun to watch the check out person look at you when you roll up with a cart containing 40 cans of green beans and nothing else). 

When our babies are acting extra hungry, we give them a cupful of green beans, giving them a feeling of fullness and the joy of having been offered a treat, without adding many calories. This trick also works great if or when you need to decrease the food amount by 10 percent—just add in a big scoop of the green beans as “filler” each time you cut back the food. And because the calories are so minimal, you can get away with not having to calculate them into the daily caloric needs, which makes life easy. It’s kind of like Weight Watchers where you can eat all the salad you want for no points.

Here is a working example:

Month 1:

  • I have a 33-pound dog, which equates to 520 calories per day. I will continue to feed this amount for one month and reweigh at that time.
  • I offer as many low-calorie treats as needed (a scoop of green beans in the food, a carrot treat, etc.)
  • If I wanted to be “technical,” I could subtract the low-calorie treat amount from the total daily calories, adjusting how much dog food you are feeding; for me, this is such a negligible amount in my dogs that I don’t bother.

Month 2:

  • My pet has lost 1.5 pounds!
  • Next step: Do nothing more, I’m on the right track. Continue with 520 calories per day.

Month 3:

  • No further weight loss is noted, and I have not yet reached my pet’s ideal weight.
  • Next step: Reduce the calories by 10 percent, feeding 52 calories less per day for a total of 468 calories. Continue this for a month.

Month 4:

  • My pet lost 2 pounds!
  • Next step: Continue at 486 calories and reweigh in one month.

One final note: These recommendations assume that you have a healthy dog. If you have an older dog, I recommend you have a physical exam performed by your veterinarian as well as blood work to ensure that there are no underlying metabolic problems such as hypothyroid disease or Cushing’s disease, which can be the source of weight gain or an inability to lose weight. 

I hope this approach to weight loss and management offers easy guidelines to help your pet reach its ideal, healthy body weight. Please feel free to ask questions if I can help in any way.

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Veterinarian Shea Cox has enjoyed an indirect path through her professional life, initially obtaining degrees in fine arts and nursing. She later obtained her veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine solely since that time. In 2006, she joined the ER staff at PETS Referral Center in Berkeley and cannot imagine a more rewarding and fulfilling place to spend her working hours. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb, cook up a storm and sail. Her days are shared with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman children that curiously occupy opposite ends of the personality spectrum.

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Submitted by Anonymous | September 7 2011 |

don't forget to up the exercise too (as long as its cleared by your vet). more walking, swimming or fetch helps burn calories! teach your dogs tricks to help their core strength and try looking at balance ball exercises.

Submitted by Donna | June 11 2012 |

This is the first time that I have looked on line to try and get my
dog who should weigh about 4 lbs from weighing 9 lbs. I have her regularly to her annual check ups. And the last time, I asked my vet what I should do to get her weight down. She may need more excerise, very possibly, but I have had her on Science Diet for several months and buy a variety of canned diet dog foods also. She does not get table scraps at all. I give she and her sister(same breed)great weight and one year older than the one I have the weight problem with "Lestee". Kellee and Lestee are both chihuahuas, Kellee is taller and slim and Lestee is short and well my daughter calls her sausage. I have had her thyroid checked and normal was the result...She is not a breakfast eater at all. She gets one Milkbone small treat a day and dry food and canned food mixed in the evening. Thanx for being here! I will try your suggestion and figure the calorie intake. Sometimes it is alittle tough, as both my dogs eat at the same time. Different canned dog food, but same dry
Science Diet. I feel helpless for her and hope this will help with her weight problem. Thanx again, Donna

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