University of Minnesota Alumni Association

About Campus

Ask a Professor: How to Slim Those Portly Pets

Six quick questions for veterinary nutritionist Julie Churchill

Today, 60 percent of cats in the U.S. and 56 percent of dogs are overweight or obese. Julie Churchill, D.V.M. (Ph.D. ’01), associate professor in the U’s Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, is on a mission to help pet parents understand what they can do to help their furry companions live healthier lives. 

Pet obesity isn’t on our radar in the way that human obesity is. Any thoughts about why?

We don’t know what a healthy pet weight looks like anymore. When you look in the media, all those beautiful pictures of cats and puppies are usually of overweight animals. Our perception is that a roly-poly puppy is a healthy puppy.

Why should pet owners worry about how much their dogs and cats weigh?

Pets who are overweight have shorter lives; a lean dog will live an average of 18 months longer than a dog who is as little as 15 percent overweight. But there are also chronic health prob-lems, including respiratory challenges, heart problems, kidney function issues, and some types of cancers. Overweight cats are also at a higher risk for diabetes. Up to 77 percent of 8-year-old overweight Labradors have arthritis in more than two joints. But only 10 percent of healthy-weight Labradors of the same age have arthritis. Maintaining a healthy body condition will help pets prosper.

What can pet owners do?

I’d love for veterinary health care teams to teach every pet owner how to perform a simple method of deter-mining pet fitness, known as a body condition score. When you move your hand over your pet’s ribs, it should feel as though you are rubbing over the bones on the back of your hand when your hand is flat—you should be able to count the bones but not see them. If it feels like it does when rubbing over your knuckles when you’ve made a fist, that’s too lean. If it feels like you have turned your hand palm up, that’s too heavy. Also, when seen from above, the rib cage should be the widest part of the body. Dogs and cats should have waistlines.

There are so many kinds of pet food on the market. Any tips on what is best?

I recommend that pet owners talk to their veterinarians for nutritional advice. Remember that after a dog or cat is spayed or neutered, they need 25-30 percent fewer calories to account for the changes in their metabolism after they’ve had their gonads removed. This is an ideal time for a change in food to better meet their needs.

And exercise?

Ideally, dogs should exercise 30-60 minutes each day. Exercise can be challenging when we live in a place with cold winters and hot summers, so if your pet is more active in one sea-son and prone to weight gain in the “off season,” be mindful to help your pet maintain her healthy weight and body condition throughout the year. If you can’t—I don’t want my older pet owners walking on the ice—you may need to change your pet’s caloric intake for the season. 

What about when your pet begs for food and gives you that sad, hungry look? 

Feeding pets is an important way we love and care for them. But begging for food can also be asking for a way to interact with you. Food can be a good training tool, but once a behavior is formed, pets shouldn’t need a treat every time they do what you ask them to do. We don’t give our children a bag of M&Ms every time they go to the bathroom. Look for other ways, in addition to healthy foods and treats, to express your love—including your attention, toys, and activities you do together. 

Read More