A roly-poly pup can be an adorable little chonker, but if your pet is big enough that the vet says it’s time to lose weight, it can be hard to figure out exactly how to put them on a diet. Here are some tips to follow through on your plan, without ruining their diet every night when they start making puppy-dog eyes at your pizza.
First, work out a plan with your vet
Just like there’s no best diet for people, there are many approaches that could work for your pet—but it’s hard to stick to a plan if you don’t actually have one. If “just feed them less” hasn’t worked so far, you might want some specific guidelines on what and how much to feed your pet, and what to do in place of their usual treats.
Fortunately, if it’s a vet who tells you that your pet needs to slim down, that’s exactly the person who can help you formulate a plan. Make sure they nail down some specifics you can work with or refer you to someone who can. The American Animal Hospital Association’s guidelines (AAHA) say that an appropriate plan should include:
- A realistic goal weight for your pet
- How to reduce their calories
- What kinds of foods and treats they should be eating
- A plan for how much food and how much exercise they should be getting
- Scheduling a follow-up visit to check in on how things are going
If you noticed on your own that your pet could stand to lose some weight, ask about that next time you’re at the vet’s—both to make sure your assessment is correct, and to get a solid plan in place.
It’s important to make sure that everyone who takes care of your pet is on board with the plan and that you communicate well. You don’t want to feed your doggo dinner and then have your partner feed them a second dinner an hour later.
Measure to keep track of how much your dog is eating
Especially if your pet is small, you’ll have to be precise in how much food you’re feeding them. Your vet’s plan should have included an amount of calories per day; break that up into their usual number of meals, plus an allowance for treats (the AAHA suggests 10% for treats).
It may turn out that a full can of cat food is too many calories for a single feeding, so you may need to weigh out the correct amount of food and store the rest in the fridge until the next meal. Annoying, but worth it to be able to stick to the plan.
How much exercise does a dog need?
It’s the same in pets as in humans that diet is more important than exercise when it comes to losing or maintaining weight, but exercise is still good for us no matter what. Of course, the right amount of exercise depends on the dog, so your plan should include some idea of how to get the right amount of exercise for your pet. Dogs are easy: Start with a few short walks, and work them up to more, longer walks. If they love to run at the dog park, visit the dog park more often.
For cats, exercise will come mainly in the form of play and “enrichment”—in other words, making their home more interesting. If they love to chase a laser pointer or run into boxes, give them more opportunities to do that.
Find ways to avoid saying no
A hungry pet will beg for food. A bored pet may beg for food, too. If you’re comfortable being a hardass and just saying no—congratulations, this will be easy for you. But most of us aren’t, and that’s normal. We love them. They’re hungry. They whine. We reach for the treats.
As Deborah Linder writes at the Conversation, food treats are one way we show love for our pets. But there are other ways to express love, or to answer begging. Among them:
- Reward or entertain your pet with things that aren’t food—throwing a ball, for example. Often begging is more about wanting to play with you than the food itself.
- Use food puzzles to slow down the pet’s eating and entertain them.
- Feed the pet as you play games with them, so they “earn” their food by doing tricks (they’re just getting food and attention at the same time, so it’s not really work if they’re having fun).
- Find low calorie treats that you can give your pet without ruining their diet.
- Time feedings so that if there’s a certain time they tend to beg, they’ll already be well fed. Cats in particular like to eat at night, so you can set timed feeders to go off while you’re sleeping.
And if your pet begs while you’re eating, it may be easiest to keep them out of the kitchen at mealtimes so the food is out of sight and out of mind.
This story was originally published in 2019 and was updated to meet Lifehacker style guidelines.