Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Healthy Habits for Healthy Pets

Pet Column for the week of December 26, 2005

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

Inactivity and overeating has led to an epidemic of preventable diseases in humans. Unfortunately, a sedentary lifestyle for pets can also translate into health problems for them as well. A fat cat or a chubby dog may be cute and cuddly; however, inactive, overweight pets are more prone to conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, liver disease and arthritis.

Dr. Marcella Ridgway, veterinary internal medicine specialist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, explains that just as for humans, regular exercise can improve a pet's health and mental well-being. Healthy activities for pets can also improve a pet owner's health by default.

Cats are active hunters by nature, but often don't get the physical activity they need from an indoor life. "Pet cats are kept indoors where they will be safe from dangers such as coyotes and cars," says Dr. Ridgway. "It's not as easy to encourage cats to exercise, and because they are less likely to be taken out for walks and played with, indoor cats can become very sedentary."

Since, by nature, cats like to hunt, chase and play, a cat that doesn't get playtime can get bored. When this happens, cats will often acquire eating as a hobby. "If food is always available to them and they have nothing else to do, cats can develop the habit of eating when they're not hungry." The combination of inactivity and extra calories ultimately leads to an overweight cat.

Boredom can be stressful for animals that naturally want to run and play, and this stress can contribute to weight gain. Cortisol and other hormones associated with stress can change a person or pet's metabolism, affecting how calories are burned.

To keep cats from getting bored, Dr. Ridgway suggests regular playtime. Not only will playing burn calories, but it can also improve the mental health of both cat and owner. A laser pointer, catnip ball or a feather or fuzzy toy dangling from a stick can exercise a cat's chasing instincts and provide entertainment and enjoyment for owners.

Dogs' overeating problems can be a little different from that of cats. "Because we are so bonded with our pets, treats can be a problem, especially for dogs," says Ridgway. "When we are sitting down to a meal and our dogs are around, we naturally want to share our food with them, because sharing is natural and important part of a relationship."

This type of sharing can lead to problems because owners aren't aware how many extra calories go into repeated treats and dinner scraps, and dogs aren't going to refuse scraps, even if they are full.

"The thing about dogs and cats," explains Ridgway, "is that they don't make a conscious choice to overeat--people choose this for them; we control the food. Therefore, it's easier for them to stop if we give them something else to enjoy."

A pet can be just as happy playing with a new toy as getting an extra treat; playing with new toy together provides interaction, giving the pet and the owner something to share. This also provides physical and mental activity, and doesn't add any unnecessary calories.

Outdoor exercise can also give people and pets something to share. Keeping a pet healthy can give a pet owner a reason to get regular fresh air. "I find it easier to do something for my pet rather than for myself," says Dr. Ridgway, "but when I take my dogs for a long walk, I think I'm doing it for them when I'm probably the one who needs the walk."

Dr. Ridgway also recommends that people consider their activity level and lifestyle when choosing a pet. "Different types of pets require different levels of activity, and if you are not an active person, you may encounter problems if you get an active breed of dog." She recommends matching the pets' needs with the space and activity you can provide.

"Even an active toy breed can get plenty of exercise playing in house, whereas a larger breed will likely need outdoor space to get adequate exercise."

For more information about exercise, obesity, and pets, consult your veterinarian.