The festive season is upon us and, for most, this is a busy time for celebration with family and friends. As we all know, this time of year presents many opportunities for overindulgence. Popular culture dictates that we use food as a means of celebration, but this becomes especially problematic at Christmas when the festive period can last over a month.
This presents a challenge, not only to our waistlines but also to those of our furry friends.
The UK is a nation of animal lovers, with nearly half of us owning at least one pet, and it is common for us to show them our love through food. That desire, coupled with the abundance of tasty treats during the festive period is a tricky combination. Indeed, in a recent survey, nearly two thirds of dog owners will give their dogs some cooked Christmas dinner, whilst one in five plan to cook their pooch their very own Christmas meal.
This increases the risk of unwanted weight gain and, with approximately half of all pet dogs and cats in the UK considered to be overweight, the impact of overeating at Christmas should not be ignored.
What evidence is there that of a possible “Christmas effect” on the health of our pets? Research shows that even the owners of overweight dogs on formal weight loss programmes, break the rules during the Christmas period to give extra food, and the rate of weight loss slows down at this time.
Of course, it might not be the owner’s fault; increased food availability could present opportunities for dogs to steal the food themselves. Added to that, there seem to be an increasing number of tempting treats for our pets, from Advent calendars and hampers to doggy wine.
Of course, unwanted weight gain might not be the only health consequence; the risk of dogs consuming potentially toxic foods is greater. As a result, it is perhaps not surprising that cases of chocolate poisoning are more common during this time.
Returning to the issue of pet obesity, I run the Royal Canin Weight Management Clinic, at the University of Liverpool, a specialist weight loss centre for dogs and cats with obesity and related illnesses.
I have become increasingly concerned by the number of pets presenting to us with ‘extreme’ obesity.
The pet equivalent of a body mass index (BMI) measurement is a 9-point scale called a “body condition score”, with a 9 out of 9 being reserved for dogs and cats that are at least 40% above their ideal weight.
We are definitely seeing many more patients in this 9/9 category.
At the University of Liverpool, we also use a technique called dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (or DEXA) to measure body fat, which is more precise than body condition scoring. With this technique we are finding that more and more cases are beyond 9/9, that is well beyond the 40% mark. In fact, some of our patients are >100% above their ideal weight, i.e. more than twice the weight they should be.
For these pets, their obesity is a serious life-limiting disease. Not only is it associated with other diseases like diabetes and arthritis, it can reduce overall quality of life.
So what can you do?
The solution is a controlled weight management plan, using a specially formulated diet and a programme of increasing activity. We know that achieving long-term weight loss is hard and, as in people, many pets never reach their goal. We also know that those with extreme obesity are the ones least likely to succeed. In short, whilst it can be tempting to give your pet the odd food treat, not least during the Christmas period, these can quickly add up. Given the challenges we face in treating obesity, and especially extreme obesity, it is far simpler to avoid giving them in the first place. Keeping your pet at a healthy weight will increase the chance that they will life a long and healthy life. Surely, that is a far better present for them.
How can you keep your pet healthy this holiday season?
I am a realist and know that it is inevitable that most if not all owners will give extra food whatever I say about the risks. However, if you plan carefully, you can still do that without the associated weight gain. Here are a few tips to help you prepare:
- Work out as accurately as possible what you currently feed your pet. If you know how much food your dog or cats currently gets, you can then plan and adjustment to facilitate something special at Christmas. So, the first step is to measure your food portions accurately. This is best done using electronic weigh scales; although measuring cups are quick and easy, they can be imprecise and can lead to overfeeding.
- Decide what you would like to feed and work out its calorie content. Next decide on the form that the treat will take. Believe it or not, the enjoyment from any treat is the act of receiving the treat rather than what the treat is. Therefore, the simplest treat to give would be a portion of your pet’s normal food. If, however, you would prefer for them to receive something different, check the pack for the calorie content. As a typical guide, a treat should be no more than 10% of your pet’s normal daily intake.
- Adjust your regular portioning. Once you have settled on what the treat will be, and how many calories is contains, adjust the amount of normal food accordingly. If you would like, you could do this over a couple of days either side of the big day to limit the impact (e.g. reducing the amount you give by a small amount in the 2 days before and afterwards).
- Indulge your pet in other ways. Whilst food is our favourite reward, remember that there are many other ways for rewarding your pet, for example playing with them or grooming them. Why not use the Christmas period to provide other acts of love beyond the usual food treats.
- Make the enjoyment last. Most dogs consume food portions very quickly; making the feeding process last as long as possible will dramatically increase the enjoyment. Why not take one treat and break it into many small portions? You might be able to get 10 or more rewards from a single treat; that’s ten times the love! Why not by your pet a puzzle feeder for Christmas. These toys slow food intake while they work out how to access their reward. This keeps your pet entertained and occupied for much longer than food fed from a bowl. The distraction helps prevent begging and allows your pet to feel more satisfied with its amount of food.
- Be conscious to avoid all the extra opportunities for your pets to steal food, including from additional family members who may be around.
- Ensure you have enough appropriate food so you can avoid running out while your veterinary clinic or shops are closed.
- Don’t forget the exercise. We all sometimes feel like getting out of the house – and what better excuse than walking your dog which helps you both walk off some calories.
With a little bit of pre-planning, you can ensure that your pet navigates this festive season in the healthiest way possible.