The Problem With Obesity In Pets

It's estimated that over 40% of dogs and over 30% of cats are overweight. Many pet owners aren't even aware their pet is overweight, as they don't know exactly how to tell. The news that a pet is overweight frequently comes as a shock to many owners.

Obesity is a true epidemic with animals, just as it is with people. Not only is an overweight pet at a higher risk of serious health problems such as diabetes, pancreatitis, and urinary issues, but existing health problems are usually worsened when an animal is overweight. It is also extremely uncomfortable being overweight, just as it is with humans. Ultimately, the lifespan and life quality of an overweight pet is significantly reduced.

How to tell if your pet is overweight

The first step to addressing obesity in your pet is to recognise whether your pet is overweight.

Assessing whether your pet is overweight really is simple. With pets, we don't worry about numbers on the scale per height as much as we do for humans, as different breeds can be different sizes and shapes (for example, a staffie can be 40cm tall and weigh 16kg as a healthy weight, but an italian greyhound at 40cm height might only weigh around 5kg as a healthy weight!) Instead, for pets we work off a system of Body Condition Scoring. A pet is typically given a score out of 5 or 9 depending on which scale is used.

There are a number of parameters assessed when body condition scoring a pet. These are outlined below. Keep in mind that the aspects are slightly different for dogs as they are for cats.

1. Ribs

Feel either side of your pet's ribcage. Ribs should be easily felt with a slight fat cover. If you can barely feel your pet's ribs, this likely means they are overweight. Likewise if the ribs are sharply demarcated with hardly any fat covering, your pet may be underweight. Keep in mind that cats gain weight over their ribs at a later stage in obesity than dogs do, so a cat may still be overweight but maintain the ability to feel their ribs.

Keep in mind that fur can cover ribs, so you'll need to get your fingers down to the skin if your pet has a lot of fur. It also helps to move the skin around over the ribs if you aren't sure. Fur coverage can make underweight pets appear healthy to the eye. However, at the opposite end of the spectrum, be careful not to assume that your pet is just merely 'fluffy', when they are actually obese. This is a very common assumption.

2. Presence of a waist from above

Look at your pet from an above birds-eye view. They should have a nice waist contour sloping in (like an hourglass) between their ribs and hips. If they appear to be the same width around their waist as they do on their ribs and hips, they might be overweight.

Very overweight pets will have a 'barrel' shape appearance to their torso. This is what we want to avoid.

3. Presence of a waist or 'abdominal tuck' from the side.

Now look at your pet from a side-on view. You should see the abdomen tuck upwards under the flank, becoming narrower than the chest, and making another hourglass-type figure.

If the abdomen is the same width as the chest and doesn't appear to 'tuck', or if it hangs lower than the chest, it is likely that your pet is overweight.

Note that in cats, the tummy is where they tend to gain weight first. A small amount of 'fat pouch' is normal, but if it is anything more than a mild puffy gathering of skin, it might be that your cat needs to lose weight.

4. Tail Base

Feel at the top of the tail base, where the tail joins the torso. There should be a smooth contour with small amount of fat cover, and bones underneath should be palpable.

Overweight animals will have a fair amount of thickening of the fat here, and obese animals will have thickening to the point where it is difficult to feel any bones.

See the charts below for a diagrammatic demonstration of how to grade your pet's body condition score from 1-9.

Tips for how to help your pet reach a healthy weight

1. Feed the right food

Feeding your pet a complete and balanced diet to suit their life stage goes a long way to helping them maintain an ideal weight. Premium diets are formulated to ensure that your pet receives all the nutrition the require, without any variation in nutrition content or ingredients from batch to batch. This helps to prevent tummy upsets and helps to regulate the calories that they eat each day. For pets that are prone to weight gain, it is best to feed a controlled calorie diet designed to help maintain lean muscle mass.

When embarking on a weight loss program for your pet you should consult with your veterinarian as to the best option for their specific needs. Your vet may recommend a prescription weight loss foods such as Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Satiety, Weight Control or Obesity Management or Hill's Prescription Diet Metabolic, w/d, r/d or Feline m/d to help bolster your pet's weight loss efforts. For pets with less weight to lose or who are simply at risk of weight gain, non-prescription alternatives such as Advance Weight Control, Hill's Science Diet Light or Healthy Weight and Royal Canin Light varieties are a good choice.

2. Feed the right amount

So you've picked a picked out the right diet, what next? Too much of anything can be a bad thing, so it is important that you work out the correct amount of your chosen food to feed your pet. The first place to look for this information is the product label; a good diet will provide a guide for how much to feed your pet depending on their size, activity level and lifestage.

3. Change the way you feed

You can also change the way you feed your pet to make meals more time consuming. Instead of just pouring food in the bowl, fill up a KONG Wobbler with your dog's dinner and make them work for it instead. Cats who wolf down their kibble can be slowed down using a clever feeding toy like the Catit Senses Food Digger or Catit Senses Food Tree.

4. Be mindful with treats

Just because your pet is on a diet it doesn't mean they have to miss out on treats, but it does pay to be mindful of what you are feeding them. As most pets will have a substantially lower daily energy requirement than their humans, what may seem like a little treat to us can be a calorie bomb for our dogs and cats. For example, 30g of cheddar cheese is the equivalent of almost three hamburgers to a 5kg dog!

Instead of feeding tidbits of human food, look for low calorie alternatives like Hill's Prescription Diet Metabolic Treats or even healthy vegetables including carrot, zucchini and broccoli.

5. Regular exercise

Just as with humans, regular exercise plays an important role in helping our pets to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. As a rule of thumb between 20-60 minutes a day of moderate activity like walking, running, swimming or active play will be suitable for most dogs. More active and working breeds such as border collies and kelpies may need longer, more frequent or more intense play or workout sessions. Remember that if your dog is overweight or elderly it is best to start slowly or you may cause strain to his or her joints.

Cats need exercise too! If your feline friend is not keen to walk on a harness, you can encourage them to increase their activity levels with regular play sessions using interactive toys. You can also hide your cat's food or put it in a challenging to reach place to try and get them moving.

6. Embrace technology

Take the guesswork out of your pet's weight loss journey by using innovative pet tech products to track and control their food intake and activity levels. The PetKit Activity Monitor tracks your pet's daily calorific spend and suggest a feeding and exercise guideline based on the results, while the PetKit Bowl range makes it easy to measure out your pet's food down to the last gram.

If your pet is overweight, it's not too late! With patience and persistence all overweight pets are capable of reaching a healthy body weight. Remember that keeping your pet at their ideal weight is one of the best things you can do to ensure that they live a long and happy life.

Posted by Dr Teagan Lever

When Teagan's not busy sharing her knowledge of all things pets as Pet Circle's resident vet, she is the human companion of two intense English staffies and a three-legged cat named Steve.


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