The 411 on Pet Obesity

The 411 on Pet Obesity

Pet Obesity Awareness
Dr. Leslie Brooks

One of the biggest and most challenging health problems our pets face today is obesity. According to a study conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 60% of cats and 56% of dogs in the United States were overweight or obese in 2018.  And while being overweight or obese is nearly a completely preventable problem, pets that are overweight or obese are at a much higher risk of developing many other negative health conditions.  With National Pet Obesity Awareness Day being October 14, we want to highlight the concern of pet obesity and bring more understanding and education around this growing problem.

Causes of Obesity in Pets

There are many things that work together making it more likely a pet may become overweight or obese. It is also usually much easier to put weight on a pet than it is to get the extra pounds off of them. That is why understanding the underlying factors that contribute to a pet becoming overweight are so important. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…. and in regards to this topic, it can be taken almost literally.

  • Slow Metabolism – Just like people, pets are individuals and each has their own metabolism. Some pets’ metabolism is just slower than others, and there is no fool proof way to tell if your pet is prone to packing on the pounds. Additionally, after a pet is spayed or neutered, their metabolism slows down as they no longer are producing sex hormones. It is still very important to spay and neuter our pets to prevent unwanted pregnancies and behaviors, as well as to prevent certain types of cancers and diseases later in life.  However, once a pet is spayed or neutered, their feed intake will need to be decreased to accommodate their decreased caloric needs.
  • Inactivity – With most pets living in indoor environments and having easy access to food, it is very easy for pets to slowly gain weight, gradually becoming obese, often without their owners even noticing.  Add on our busy schedules and not being able to regularly spend sufficient time in play and exercise with our pets, and this can lead to a pet becoming overweight.
  • Too Many Calories – If a pet is prone to a slow metabolism, doesn’t get enough exercise, and then is also allowed to eat as much food as they want (even from our own plates), they have the trifecta that contributes to them becoming obese. One of our main interactions with our pets these days is during their feedings. They rely on us for their food and they love us for it. But if we aren’t careful with how much we show them love through food, especially if we share some of our own food with them, we run the risk of harming their health.

How do I know if my pet is overweight or obese?

Even though the word weight is mentioned often when we talk about pets being overweight or obese, what we really want to focus on is body condition scoring. Weight in and of itself is very relative. So, what we want to focus on is not so much weight, but body condition score, or BCS, for short.

Body Condition Score (BCS)

The BCS is an objective way of determining if your pet is overweight or obese for their particular size and breed. It is similar to determining a person’s body mass index (BMI).  Grading a pet’s BCS is typically done on a scale of 1-9, with 1 being significantly underweight and 9 being significantly overweight. When you take your pet to the vet for their yearly check-ups, they are recording your pet’s BCS as a part of their physical exam. So this is something your vet should be talking with you about at each visit when discussing your pet’s health.  An ideal pet, with a score of 5, will have very little fat covering their ribs. This means you should be able to easily feel their ribs when you pet them. You will also be able to notice a waist line and just generally see a good outline of their body and physique.  The following charts can help guide you in determining what your pet’s current body condition score is.  And you can use it to monitor your pet’s physique throughout the months and years, so you can make any necessary changes if they seem to be getting a little plump.













Health problems associated with pets being overweight or obese

There are many health problems associated with obesity once it sets in. Not only does being heavier make it harder on their bones and joints, but fat tends to be inflammatory in nature. This means, have extra fat can make our pets prone to inflammatory conditions.

Dogs and cats that are overweight and obese are at a higher risk for developing the following conditions:

  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Breathing problems (due to the excessive fat)
  • Feline Asthma in cats
  • Heart problems
  • Debilitating arthritis
  • Joint & ligament injuries, such as Cranial Cruciate Ligament Rupture
  • Fatty Liver Syndrome (Hepatic Lipidosis) in cats who become sick
  • Increased risk of urinary blockage in cats

Many of these conditions are preventable by maintaining a regular exercise routine and eating healthy. Even though cancer and certain joint conditions can occur in healthy weight dogs and cats, the effects of those conditions may not be as severe as in dogs and cats who are obese.

How to prevent your pet from becoming overweight or obese

As mentioned before, it is much easier to prevent a pet from becoming overweight than it is to get them to shed the pounds. Talking with your veterinarian and keeping the following things in mind can help prevent having to deal with obesity and its consequences at all.

  • Feeding the right amount of food – It is imperative that you consult with your veterinarian throughout your pet’s life regarding how much food they should be eating. This will change regularly through their life as they experience different life stages. Your growing puppy and adolescent dog or cat may seem to eat and need more calories per day than your adult and senior-aged dog or cat. This is because as they age, their activity levels may decrease and their metabolism may also start to slow down. It is important to note that after a pet is spayed or neutered, their metabolism will be slower than a pet who is not fixed. Once they are full grown they will typically not need to eat as much food portions as is usually recommended on bags of pet food. The recommended amount of food portions on most pet food bags accounts for pets with high energy needs, such as non-spayed pets who are also very active. Your veterinarian can work with you to calculate exactly how many calories your pet should eat per day based on their current weight and activity level. They can then translate this information into how many cups of food you should feed them each day.
  • Avoiding Fatty & High Calorie People Foods – An easy mistake pet owners make is offering table scraps to their pets, especially dogs. They want to show their pet just how much they love them by sharing their food with them. Not only does this have the potential to lead to obesity in our pets, but it can also cause your pet to develop bad habits, such as begging or grabbing food off of the table or out of your hand. If your pet learns to do these things, there is the possibility they may eat foods that are toxic to them. This can lead to expensive veterinary bills and even be life-threatening for your pet. If it is very important to you that you share human food with your pet, talk with your veterinarian about what human foods are safe to share with your pet. They can also guide you on how much you should decrease your pet’s typical food intake if you add in other sources of calories to their diet.
  • Minimizing treats – If you give your pet treats throughout the day, you will need to decrease how much food you give them at mealtime. Even seemingly little treats still contain calories. And these calories can add up. Your treat bag should say how many calories are in each treat. You can use this as a guide to know how much you should decrease your pet’s mealtime food portion based off of how many treats you gave them that particular day.  Additionally, try to get low calorie treats and avoid the ones high in sodium. Treats that are effective at keeping your pet’s teeth clean are good options.
  • Exercise, stimulation, and enrichment – Exercise is probably one of the most important ways to keep your pet from packing on the pounds. Regular exercise will keep their metabolism up to speed. Exercise will also help strengthen and maintain their muscle mass, which can help decrease the negative effects of arthritis and other joint issues they may start to develop as they get older. Staying active is also great for the health of your pet’s heart and blood circulation. Maintaining a regular exercise routine with your pet is good not only for their physical health, but for their mental and emotional health as well. A pet that has been able to release pent up energy is a content pet and less likely to develop anxiety and other behavioral disorders at home. Exercise can come in all shapes and sizes. For some dogs and their owners this may mean going on daily runs or jogs. For others, this may mean going for regular, good paced walks around the neighborhood. Still, for others this may mean going hiking in the woods, attending agility classes, playing fetch, or making regular visits to the dog park. For cats, cat wheels are a great way to help increase activity. Even just getting some new toys and throwing them around with your cat are beneficial. Adding in some tall, sturdy scratching posts that they can also jump and climb up can help as well.
  • Regular veterinary appointments – Taking your pet to the vet for yearly check-ups are another way to stay on top of your pet’s weight. When you see your pet every day, it is difficult to notice subtle changes in their physique and body condition. Their vet can weight them on the same scale each year and look back in their past records to see what their body condition score was in year’s past. This can help you keep up with any subtle changes you may not have noticed at home.

Medical conditions to consider if your pet is overweight or obese

Even though the majority of obese pets become obese due to inappropriate feedings and inactivity, there are some medical conditions that can cause our pets, dogs in particular, to become overweight through no fault of their own (or of their owners).  The most common medical condition that can cause this is Hypothyroidism. Dogs can develop hypothyroidism at any point in their life and it causes their metabolism to slow way down.
Dogs with hypothyroidism show the following signs: 

  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Decreased appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Depression
  • Seeking cold places to lie down
  • Fur loss, usually near the base of the tail
  • Recurrent skin infections

Hypothyroidism is treatable with a daily medication. If you suspect your dog may have hypothyroidism, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. They will be able to submit a blood test to determine if this is the cause of your dog’s unexplained weight gain.

Another medical condition that can cause dogs to gain weight is Cushing’s Disease. Dogs with Cushing’s Disease have too much steroid production in their body. Sometimes this can be associated with obesity, but other times it can affect dogs that are even at healthy weights.
Dogs with Cushing’s Disease will display one or more of the following signs:

  • Pot-bellied appearance
  • Muscle wasting
  • Excessive panting
  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Increased appetite
  • Fur loss
  • Recurrent skin infections

If you are concerned your dog may have Cushing’s Disease, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. They can check bloodwork to help determine if diagnostic tests for Cushing’s should be considered.

Helping your pet lose weight

If your pet could stand to lose some weight, there are a variety of tools that can be used to help in the process. Just be prepared for a long process. It can take months and possibly years to see results.

Weight Loss Food

There are foods specifically for helping with weight loss in dogs and cats. They tend to have more fiber in them, which helps your pet feel full for longer periods of time. Some are generic and you can find them at any pet store or even through an online pet food supplier.  The best weight loss foods, though, are the prescription ones. They tend to be more expensive and are sold through veterinary offices. But, they work, and they work very well! In addition, you will be working closely with your veterinarian’s office on tracking your pet’s weight loss, which will help provide you emotional support and motivation throughout the process.  It is important to note that when feeding your pet weight loss food, you are supposed to feed the amount of food recommended for the weight you are trying to reach, not their current weight.  For instance, if your cat currently weighs 15 pounds and their ideal weight is 10 pounds (your veterinarian can help you determine what your pet’s ideal weight should be), you should feed the recommended amount for a 10-pound cat.

Food Puzzle Balls and Bowls

Sometimes what dogs and cats need is something to slow down how fast they are eating. Puzzle balls and puzzle food bowls are wonderful for this! They make your pet have to work for their food and are also a great form of enrichment.  Food puzzle balls are especially helpful for cats because your cat has to push the ball around to get the food out, which causes them to get a form of physical activity while they are eating. This also helps to fulfill, albeit to a small degree, their natural hunting instinct.

Exercise & Enrichment

Depending on the degree of obesity, exercise may not actually be an option until they start losing some of the weight. That being said, any amount of exercise is good. Don’t push your pet to do more than they can with their own limitations, but encourage gentle play and walks or jogs that can gradually increase in frequency and duration.

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