How Much Do I Feed My “Fat and Hungry” Pet?

Dr. Patty Khuly

Fat and hungry pets

Got a fat pet? If so, chances are, he’s also what you might consider a “hungry” pet. No matter how much you feed him, he always seems to want more.

Which should come as no surprise. After all, our pets seem to be well aware that squeaky wheels get greased. And since “food is love” in so many U.S. households, the trend towards feeding pets as much as they’re keen to consume shows no signs of abating. (“But she’s hungry!”)

But here’s the thing: She isn’t actually hungry. She simply enjoys her food and would happily eat as much as you’re willing to shovel into her bowl. It’s a common problem which begs the question: If a pet isn’t capable of self-regulating the amount of food she takes in, how are you supposed to know how much to feed?

This is a tough question… a really tough one for most of my clients who claim to keep bottomless pits for pets. But it’s really not rocket science. So here’s my simple prescription for owners of young, healthy animals who face this frustrating dilemma:

If your pet is overweight, reduce the amount you feed her by a teensy bit every week until you can see the pounds start coming off. There’s no need to switch diets or add in any fancy supplements. All you have to do is start feeding a set portion of food and reduce the amount just a bit at a time.

(So you know, this gradual approach is especially crucial for cats. Cats can get very sick if they lose too much weight too quickly.)

Once you start to see the weight come off, maintain this food volume until she’s reached the weight your veterinarian has recommended as her target. Once there, you might find that giving a little more is perfectly fine. With just a little trial and error, you’ve got yourself a bona fide vet-approved weight loss plan.

Now all you have to do is add in the exercise. Which is pretty easy for most pets.

Some pets require more exercise, some less. Some demand extra attention to detail (fat cats, for example, can be hard to motivate). But all healthy pets –– without exception –– have the capacity to attain normal weights on this simple calorie-restricted regimen.

Makes sense, right? And yet it’s not so intuitive. Why? Because nothing rational stands up to this common utterance: “But she’s so hungry!”

At this point, it’s my role to calmly explain that the notion of “hunger” is something they should probably re-examine. After all, being “hungry” is a very different thing from wanting food.

We can all glean these basics from our own personal experience: Food tastes good, so we eat more. And we “overdo it” a lot (take, for example, Thanksgiving). We even experience severe, life-threatening effects related to our overindulgence. Yet, we continue to eat more.

From the medical point of view, we’ve also come to the understanding that a barrage of hormones are released when we’re hungry, when we smell food, and then when we eat it –– all of which affects our total caloric intake. But, if we eat too fast, our hormones don’t get the chance to deliver the memo in time. So we keep eating. And it seems that the memo can be similarly delayed when we consume certain kinds of food. So we keep eating… until the message gets through.

In the absence of clear directives, I’ll admit it can all be a bit confusing. Yet the upshot should be obvious: As a culture, we Americans are a whole lot less “hungry” than we think we are –– which really should help inform how we treat our pets. And yet, we clearly share a collective interpretation of our pets' hunger. Otherwise they wouldn’t be tipping the scales as they are at increasingly alarming rates.

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