“Your food makes your mood.” Most of us clearly connect food and fitness with how we feel. Feast on fast food crashed out on the couch, and you end up feeling stuffed and sullen. Sip a fruit-and-veggie smoothie after a run, and you’re refreshed and recharged. What we often forget is that diet and health also affects how our pets feel and behave. Pet parents need to understand the connection between behavioral issues, diet and pet obesity and how they can keep their dog or cat happy and healthy.

Is my pet overweight?

“Studies show many pets can be helped by simply increasing physical activity, reducing the number of calories fed and enriching their environment.”

According to the latest estimates by the non-profit Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, over half the nation’s pets, 56.5 percent, are diagnosed as overweight or obese. That equals over 90 million dogs and cats at risk of obesity-related diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, kidney and heart disease and many forms of cancer. If your pet has a sagging stomach, if it looks more like a blimp than an hourglass when viewed from above or you can’t easily feel the ribs, it’s probably too heavy. Ask your veterinarian to conduct a Body Condition Score and calculate your pet’s ideal weight and daily caloric needs. Chances are your pet’s doctor will also recommend a weight loss program and check for any underlying medical conditions that may be contributing to weight gain (thyroid disease in dogs is more common than you’d think). While physical disorders pose the biggest danger of obesity, many behavioral issues are caused or worsened by excess weight and poor nutrition.

Am I seeing bad behaviors?

Separation anxiety affects an estimated 15-20 percent of all dogs. Untold millions of dogs excessively bark, jump up on guests and destructively chew furniture and household objects , straining the human-animal bond. Inappropriate elimination in cats (“accidents” outside the litter box) are the number one reason for feline behavioral consultations and often leads to relinquishment. Studies show many pets can be helped by simply increasing physical activity, reducing the number of calories fed and enriching their environment. The link between activity and behavior is clear: active pets are well-behaved pets.

What can I do?

If your pet is dealing with a common behavioral problem, the first thing to examine is diet and exercise. Ask your veterinarian to calculate how much food (and treats) your pet needs each day, strive for 30-minutes of walking or playing with your dog and three five-minute play periods with your cat (try feather dancers, laser pointers and empty boxes) each day to boost mood and focus. Feeding dogs and cats from a food puzzle can tap into their hunter-gatherer instincts. Inquire about increasing protein content and lower-sugar and carbohydrate pet foods. Many treats are loaded with hidden sugars; offer wholesome alternatives, such as crunchy veggies like baby carrots, zucchini, cucumbers or celery. Every morsel we give our pets impacts their overall mental and physical well-being; make every bite count.

We share the link between food, fitness and feelings with our dogs and cats. By paying close attention to our pets’ weight, activity and nutrition, we can extend and enhance the quality of life for our animal loved ones. Feed well and live long!