A healthy balance of proper diet and regular exercise can help cats and dogs alike.

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About 35 percent of the total pet population is overweight or obese, and it takes just a few pounds of extra weight for an animal to fall into such a category. Five extra pounds on a dog the size of a beagle is equal to nearly 25 pounds on an average woman, and four extra pounds on an average-size cat is equivalent to nearly 45 pounds on an average woman.

According to Dr. Adam Christman, resident veterinarian at Paw.com, obesity (in pets and humans) is one of the few reversible diseases. "Similar to people, obesity in pets has some genetic predispositions associated with it. In other words, some pets have more of a challenging time in getting those ounces or pounds off of them than others." An example of this would be the popular family dog breed, the Labrador Retriever. This extra weight can lead to all sorts of health problems, so Dr. Christman shares the following advice to keep your pets healthy.

Make an appointment with your veterinarian.

It's simple to determine if your pet needs to lose some weight. You should be able to feel the backbone and palpate the ribs in an animal of healthy weight. Also, you should see a noticeable "waist" between the back of the rib cage and the hips when looking at your pet from above. From the side, there should be a "tuck" in the tummy—the abdomen should go up from the bottom of the rib cage to inside the thighs.

Whether you recently adopted an overweight animal or your pet has gained weight, the first step is to consult with your veterinarian. Before creating a weight loss plan, your vet will run tests to rule out any potential medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism. After the initial physical exam, the vet can establish a body condition score. Dr. Christman shares that this is a subjective scale from one to five with "three" being ideal, "four" being overweight, and "five" being obese. "Obesity in pets is defined when their body weight is greater than 20 percent of its optimal body weight," he says. "Weight loss is a multimodal approach."

overweight orange cat on rug
Credit: Maria Fedotova / Getty Images

Regulate their diet.

Next, create a weight loss plan alongside your vet or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. Dr. Christman recommends the website Balanceit.com for pet owners interested in homemade pet-friendly meal plans and nutritional information. Check their current food: The order of ingredients on a nutrition label is so important, because whatever is listed first is the most prominent ingredient. The serving size your pet should get might be far different from the recommended amount on the bag or can.

Above all, limit treats. Many people question whether wet food is better than dry food. It generally takes more processing of the food to get it into a bag than into a can. Processing destroys the vitamins, enzymes, and natural integrity of the food—so generally, wet food is healthier.

Implement an exercise regimen.

As is true in humans, exercise is a huge part of maintaining a healthy weight in animals. "Exercise is vital," says Dr. Christman. "Even for the obese dogs, look into swimming, hydrotherapy at canine rehabilitation centers, doggy daycare, dog walkers, and lots of play times." Aside from daily walks, puzzle toys can stimulate your pet's weight loss, too. "The hunting feeding system in cats is a great way for cats to acquire their hunting instincts," he adds, "and they can successfully find and play with their food while burning calories at the same time!"

While games and a balanced diet all work in tandem, the best weight loss program is the one that works best for the pet and for the pet parent. Dogs and cats can't do it on their own. They need our help, support, and, of course, undying affection.

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