Trim your pet down to size for a happier, healthier life.

By Jessie Van Amburg

Being overweight is as big a deal for pets as it is for humans. Long-term obesity in animals can shorten their life span and lead to heart problems, arthritis and an increased risk of diabetes. Still, more than half the cats and dogs in the United States are packing extra pounds. Here’s how to make sure your furry friend isn’t one of them.

Check It Out

Look at your dog or cat from above. You should be able to see a waistline and feel his ribs when rubbing your hand along his body, says Lori Bierbrier, DVM, a staff veterinarian at the ASPCA. His tummy should also tuck upward into the hind area. If his body shape is more rounded overall and you can’t feel the ribs, consider him overweight.

Call in a Pro

A veterinarian can suggest a diet plan based on your pet’s specific needs and history, and help with accurate monitoring. “You want slow, steady weight loss over a period of time,” says Sue Chastain, DVM, of the Chastain Veterinary Medical Group. For more severe cases, your vet may recommend a specialized diet or even prescription food.

Feeding Frenzy

The most common cause of pet obesity is overfeeding, says Joseph Kinnarney, DVM, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Dogs and cats should eat the amount specified on the back of the package, adjusted according to any instructions from your vet.

Decode the Labels

Quality, as well as quantity, is key. On the back of the kibble bag or wet food can, assess the nutritional value (think protein, fat and fiber) and the type of ingredients. For example, the primary source of protein should be meat rather than corn or soy, says Bierbrier.

Step to It!

Getting animals moving is crucial for shedding those excess pounds. Make walking your dog a priority—he needs 30 minutes of activity twice a day, per the ASPCA—and carve out at least half an hour of play daily with your kitty. Even the most unmotivated felines will respond to some laser pointer action! Remember not to push it, especially with severely overweight pets. “Start small, with incremental increases,” says Bierbrier. Too much too soon can hurt their joints and cause extra strain on the heart.

Tricky Treats

You can reward pets without empty calories. For dogs, try low-cal alternatives like whole baby carrots or canned green beans, says Chastain. For cats, withhold a small portion of kibble from their dinner plate to be given later as a treat, adds Kinnarney. And resist the urge to sneak them food from the holiday table. You don’t want your pet to start expecting regular scraps, especially since human food isn’t formulated for his nutritional needs.