If you’ve been reading the papers over the past year or so, you know that we’re becoming a nation of fat people. Obesity is linked to many human conditions including diabetes, arthritis and cardiovascular disease. Sadly, veterinarians are also observing the same trend in their patients: increasing numbers of overweight pets — which ultimately translates to more fat-related diseases. Obesity in both people and pets has become such a huge problem that health practitioners worry it may soon become the foremost disease condition of our time.
Animal obesity is also one of the most frustrating diseases for veterinarians to treat. Obesity is insidious in its onset, and it tends to be a stone-rolling-downhill disease; once an animal puts on some extra weight, it’s harder to get him to exercise, so he puts on more weight and so on. In addition, preventing obesity can almost seem to be “anti-love” therapy. When our pet whines or cries for more food, we feel we should be nice and feed her, no matter how much she weighs. (Tough love is my answer to this. We truly show our love by keeping our pets fit and trim.) Finally, when we’re dealing with obesity, there’s almost too much information out there, making it nearly impossible to decide which of the hundreds of weight-reduction programs is the best.
Putting together a workable weight-reduction program for your pet can be a challenge, but the benefits far outweigh the efforts. I developed my general protocol by taking the best of the commonalities from dozens of available programs. However, when I’m treating obesity, I always realize this general program may need some fine-tuning to fit the individual. Finally, I consider herbs an integral part of any weight-loss program — not necessarily as “pound peelers,” but rather as mind/body enhancers, medicines that make our pets feel better so they have the vitality to increase their metabolic rates.
A Familiar Theme: Diet and Exercise
The cornerstones of any weight-loss program are exercise and a proper diet. Excess calories consumed or too few calories expended results in added body fat. It’s a simple equation.
In addition to consuming calories, exercise is vital because it builds muscle mass. Muscles burn calories, but more importantly, a strong sheath of hip muscles protects hip joints that may be prone to dysplasia, and exercise has been shown to help prevent the onset of arthritis and to slow its progress once started. The circle comes around: Help prevent arthritis and hip dysplasia, and we give our pets more years to exercise without pain, further aiding the prevention of arthritis and hip dysplasia, and so on.
For overweight critters (two- or four-legged) start out with little chunks of exercise — perhaps a stroll around the block once or twice a day. Then gradually, perhaps over several months if your pet is really out of shape, increase the time spent walking to a total of 20 to 30 minutes daily, five or six times a week.
Consider these three factors when creating a weight-loss diet for obese pets: dietary restriction, increased fiber and decreased fat.
The most important of these elements is simply to cut back on the amount of calories consumed. Research shows that simple dietary restriction can actually increase a pet’s life span as well as improve his quality of life. Increasing fiber content is easy — simply add some oats in the form of cooked oatmeal. Oats (Avena sativa) are also a mild nervine, which helps keep pets calm while undergoing a weight-reduction program.
The reason fat content is kept high in commercial pet food products is that it increases palatability. Pets like the fatty food, and pets’ caretakers think the food must therefore be better. Consider a lowfat diet, and ask your vet to prescribe one for your pet. (The reason commercial foods are low in fiber is that fiber increases the amount of feces produced, and many people like foods that don’t create a big mess in the yard or the litter box.)
Concentrate on helping your pet lose 10 percent of its excess body weight first, then 10 percent more and so on until your pet has reached its ideal weight. The best approach to dieting is to take off little bits of weight at a time, and the addition of herbs can make the whole process much easier.
Herbal Remedies for Overweight Pets
Digestive herbs. When we improve digestion, we often help get our pet’s feet moving as well as its bowels, and many of the digestive herbs offer additional benefits for the overweight critter.
Cayenne (Capsicum annuum) is at the top of my list of fat-fighting herbs. It improves digestion and circulation and has a thermogenic action (produces body heat). In addition, taken internally it relieves the pain of arthritis, and it’s a full-body stimulant that’s also high in antioxidants. Start with a tiny sprinkle atop your pet’s food — some pets enjoy the spicy taste!
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is another example of a digestive herb with multiple activities. It stimulates the peripheral circulation, is thermogenic and helps eliminate gassy bowels.
Liver-helper herbs. I consider the liver an important component of the digestive system, and in addition, I think many obese animals need to detoxify as they’re losing weight.
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) is a liver-supportive herb as well as a diuretic. Hence we get the benefit of the herb’s digestive support, and it enhances two systems vital in detoxification — the liver and the kidney.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa). In addition to supporting liver function, turmeric has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, and it has shown promise in treating some tumors.
Body stimulants. Sometimes what a pet needs is a little boost to his system to get off the couch and start moving about. Cayenne and ginger are good herbs to consider here.
I also might prescribe Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) or eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), also known as Siberian ginseng. These herbs are whole-body tonics and act as stimulants (especially the Asian ginseng). I would thus use Asian ginseng only for the debilitated, energy-deficient, cold patient. It should not be used for any disease where there is inflammation or a high fever. Eleuthero, on the other hand, can be used for almost any patient, and it’s often better suited for the younger, still-active obese patient.
Thyroid helpers. Remember that the thyroid is the master gland for metabolism. Anything we can do to help keep it in balance will ultimately help in weight reduction. To support thyroidal function (and also to add a bulk source of fiber), I like to add one or more of the seaweeds, such as bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus), kelp (Laminaria spp.) or Irish moss (Chondrus crispus).
Anti-pain herbs. An arthritic pet may have so much pain that any movement is difficult. I recommend acupuncture along with herbal helpers for these patients. Willow bark (Salix spp.) and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) both contain naturally occurring aspirin, and thus provide mild pain relief.
I like to think of herbs for the dieting pet as gentle helpers; I don’t try to find a magic bullet that will magically peel off the pounds. The true weight reducers are exercise and proper diet. To enhance these dietary keystones, I recommend adding bulk, fresh herbs to your pet’s diet, sprinkled lightly over her food.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for 10 years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri.
Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.