Dr. Justin Shmalberg, board-certified veterinary nutritionist and Chief Nutrition Officer for Nom Nom (previously known as NomNomNow). He guides Nom Nom in all recipe formulation and advises on pet nutrition to ensure that Nom Nom delivers the absolute best food to the dogs and cats they serve.
Also, Dr. Shmalberg is a practicing vet and a clinical associate professor of integrative veterinary medicine at a leading University. He has published numerous scientific papers in veterinary medicine, frequently lectures on nutritional topics to veterinarians and pet owners, and is one of less than 100 board-certified specialists in small animal clinical nutrition in the country. Dr. Shmalberg is a firm believer in the benefits of natural, wholesome food for pets.
So when we learned that The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) published a 2017 report stating that 56% of dogs and 60% of cats in the U.S. are overweight, an increase from 2016’s data, we interviewed Dr. Shmalberg on why this negative trend is continuing and what pet owners can do to make sure their furry friends stay healthy and happy.
Tell us about your path to becoming Chief Veterinary Nutritionist at Nom Nom.
I’ve been involved with Nom Nom’s founders since they first started the company. Our mutual goal has always been to provide the best balance of scientific nutrition and high quality, fresh ingredients. I actually develop custom meal plans for dog and cat parents as a veterinary nutritionist at vet school, but the reality is that it’s quite labor-intensive for pet parents and its very difficult to get the calories, nutrients, and proportions right. So I was excited when Nom Nom created their fresh food delivery service for pet parents who need a convenient and consistent alternative to making the food themselves.
What do you think has led to an increase in dog and cat obesity?
Several factors have contributed to increased pet obesity including: calorie-dense foods and treats, feeding guidelines on pet food packaging that doesn’t match our pets’ real-world activity levels, inconsistent feedback to parents at veterinary visits about weight, overfeeding, and a normalization of what pet parents view as a healthy weight. As a result of these factors working in tandem, we’re seeing record numbers of overweight dogs and cats. Pet parents need help understanding what a truly healthy weight is, and how to best achieve and maintain it.
How much does DNA play into obesity vs. controllable factors (exercise, diet, etc.)?
Genetics absolutely play a role, and some dog breeds are known to have lower calorie needs than others (Newfoundlands, for example). We’re still in the infancy of understanding which dog and cat genes can influence obesity, but as with people, there are likely inherited differences in metabolism, hormones, appetite-regulating signals, and other critical pathways.
That said, genetic predispositions can be overcome by matching a pet’s metabolism to the right diet and the appropriate number of calories. Exercise is important (for a variety of reasons!), but exercise alone is often not enough when pets are overfed. Indoor cats are especially vulnerable, as they often get very little activity. But with the help of a thoughtful diet, dedicated pet parents can get a weight problem under control.
Watch this CNN story about an overweight dog’s path to recovery.
What key health risk factors exist for obese dogs and cats?
Most importantly, we’ve learned from studies that overweight animals live shorter lives than do their lean counterparts. Other conditions associated with obesity include arthritis, worsened respiratory disease, skin diseases, and a poorer overall quality of life. In cats, diabetes mellitus is also associated with obesity and can be a very difficult condition to manage, but fortunately, it can improve with weight loss.
How do you know the ideal weight for your pet?
Dogs and cats should have a “tuck” in their belly when you look at them from the side and the top. You don’t want to see all the ribs and hip bones, but you should be able to see where they are visually and be able to feel them with minimal pressure. A body condition score (BCS) chart is very helpful (I like the Nine Point Chart).
When is it time to seek medical attention for an overweight dog or cat?
If you think your pet might be overweight, it’s a good idea to talk to your veterinarian sooner rather than later. They can help you set up a weight loss plan and determine the appropriate number of calories to get on the right track. Don’t wait until your pet is displaying secondary side effects from being heavier, like moving less or more slowly— proactivity can help prevent some of the long-term consequences of being overweight!
What are some tips for pet parents to combat unwanted weight gain in dogs and cats?
The first step is to calculate an ideal body weight and develop a monitoring plan. It’s a good idea to try to weigh your pet weekly in the beginning to assess progress. While a vet’s guidance is best, calories can be determined from equations available online. And don’t forget to factor in treats, which are often a source of a lot of calories in overweight dogs and cats! Additionally, using pre-portioned pet food can help eliminate the risk of overfeeding.
Most dogs and cats should be fed a high protein diet during weight loss, and a target rate of 1% weight loss per week is recommended. If owners can also increase activity, that’s very helpful. I can’t emphasize enough how important a monitoring plan is since it’s hard for pet parents to see slow steady progress — and repeat weigh-ins and photos really help!
Are there “fad diet” trends for cats and dogs? If so, are there any that are more effective than others?
There are a number of pet foods marketed as “healthy weight” or weight loss diets, but this is misleading. Every pet has different needs based on breed, age, activity level, etc. and these diets don’t conform to any standard nutrient profile. High protein diets have been shown to help preserve muscle mass during weight loss. Higher moisture diets, especially for cats, also seem to achieve faster and more sustainable weight loss; and interestingly, cats fed higher moisture diets also were more active.
Other inclusions like carnitine, which helps cells to process fat, have some scientific support. A low-fat diet isn’t necessary, but they do reduce the number of calories since fat is more energy-dense than protein and carbohydrates. Individually packaged diets like Nom Nom, which take care of portion control, are also very helpful to prevent overfeeding.
How can a pet maintain a healthy weight?
Pet parents will need to carefully watch calories even after that healthy target weight is reached because a dog or cat’s metabolism might never return to where it was at a healthy body weight. It’s best to stick with a diet that is controlled in calories and matched to their new metabolism. And if exercise helped achieve the new healthy weight, it’s important to continue those habits as well!
Learn More About Dog Health
Thanks to Dr. Shmalberg for taking the time to share your expertise with our readers. If you want to learn more about how to prevent your pup from being overweight, check out our article on how much to feed your dog (complete with infographic). You might also consider getting a dog activity tracker to keep your pup active and encourage them to keep the pounds off.
Has your dog or cat struggled with weight?