Due to the national obesity epidemic, it is widely recognized that the risk for disease in obese animals is exponentially greater than in patients with more lean muscle mass. Of course, a sedentary lifestyle leads to weight gain, but it also leads to a decrease in muscle mass, range of motion, and cardiovascular health. This weight gain causes increased stress on the periarticular structures, increasing the risk for afflictions such as cruciate ligament rupture, hip dysplasia, and disc, spinal, and soft tissue injuries of all kinds. Without question, the best way to combat obesity and restore health is to combine diet change with increased exercise. However, increasing exercise in patients who have been sedentary for a long time or who have current or previous injuries or are predisposed to certain injuries or disease is a special kind of challenge. The doctors and staff of Charlotte Street Animal Hospital recommend that obese patients be enrolled in both the Physical Rehabilitation program as well as the Healthy Weight Program.
Upon enrolling in the Healthy Weight Program, clients complete a thorough diet history questionnaire which will provide us information regarding the current feeding environment and habits. Most commonly, issues arise from free feeding or offering too many treats on a regular basis. Our trained technicians are happy to calculate the amount of calories and food your pet should eat daily. For weight loss, we use the following calculation: (Ideal body wt in kg ^0.75) x 56. Once ideal body weight is achieved, we advise clients to increase their calorie intake by 10% and reweigh every 2 weeks until weight stabilizes. We typically recommend that overweight or obese animals lose weight at the rate of 1-2% of body weight per week. Patients who are morbidly obese, injured, or at risk for certain disease are encouraged to lose weight at 2% per week. Our Healthy Weight Program involves coaching owners on how to transition to timed feedings and pre-measure food. We ask owners to pre-measure their food at the start of the day. If any treats are to be given, they must be pieces of kibble that come out of the pre-measured amount. We teach owners how and why to increase mental stimulation, which is a very important part of the weight loss process. Increasing mental stimulation decreases food-seeking behaviors by shifting the pet’s focus to games, training, and exercise. Because increasing mental stimulation requires attention from owners, it also serves to lessen the guilt that many owners feel when decreasing their pet’s food. Once they know to expect food seeking behavior and are given the proper tools to redirect it in a productive manner, most owners feel empowered. Owner guilt is the most significant contributing factor for why pet weight loss programs are often unsuccessful. By addressing both the physical and mental aspects of the pet’s environment, we end up with a happier pet and more educated and empowered client.
To maximize the results and prevent injury, we concurrently recommend our obese patients participate in underwater treadmill therapy sessions. Exercising in the aquatic treadmill is a safe and effective form of physical and mental stimulation. Most of the time owners report that their pet goes home feeling tired and more relaxed because of their work-out session in the aquatic treadmill. I think anyone who has had the privilege of living with a dog knows the saying “A tired dog is a good dog” to be true. The underwater treadmill proves to be so effective because the buoyancy of the water removes stress placed on the joints from excess weight, while the exercise through water resistance helps increase cardiovascular health and burn calories and fat. As the patient’s health improves, we carefully increase the level of difficulty by increasing speed, time and adding jets for resistance. We usually recommend 30 minute sessions once to twice weekly for these special patients. Also, we often prescribe certain strength building home exercises to increase muscle mass and endurance. To avoid excess calories but allow for reward, we ask owners to bring their pet’s pre-measured amount of a meal so we can use pieces of their kibble to engage and reward the patient while in the water. In the beginning, we get them used to the treadmill slowly by running at a lower speed, then increasing as they get more comfortable with the movement of the belt. We run the treadmill in interval sessions; several minutes on, then several minutes off to start. We then incrementally increase the time walking as the cardiovascular health of the patient increases and weight decreases.
Using multimodal methods to fight obesity proves very successful. Pet owners report that they enjoy the changes in their pet’s personality as pounds are shed. Typically, patients become more energetic and increasingly engaged in every day activities. Seeing these results is generally all the positive reinforcement an owner needs to keep up with the program. There will always be patients whose progress lapses, but we are ready to support both patient and client through these setbacks until we achieve our goals for health. Most importantly, we want to educate owners about how effective and fun a positive lifestyle change can be.
Dr. Beth Rhyne, DVM, CCRP oversees all patients in the Physical Rehabilitation Program at Charlotte Street Animal Hospital, including patients who are in the Healthy Weight Program and come to the clinic for exercise in the underwater treadmill.
Article authored by:
Crystal Coffie, RVT
Client Education Coordinator, creator and manager of the Healthy Weight Program at CSAH
Charlotte Street Animal Hospital
208 Charlotte Street
Asheville, NC 28801
*To learn more about canine rehabilitation or for information on becoming a CCRP, visit www.utcaninerehab.com.