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Obesity in Dogs and Cats

Obesity in Dogs and Cats

Obesity has become an extremely important health problem in the Western world, not just for humans but for dogs and cats as well. Recent studies show approximately 60% of dogs and cats in the U.S. are classified as obese or overweight, making obesity an epidemic. Most pet owners underestimate their pet's body condition, in part because overweight pets are so common that an overweight body condition now seems to be normal. We can assure you that there is nothing normal about being overweight.

  1. Arthritis

The overweight animal has extra unneeded stress on joints. This extra stress leads to the progression of joint degeneration and creates more pain. Weight management alone decreases and can even eliminate the need for arthritis medications. The problem is compounded as joint pain leads to poorer mobility, which in turn leads to greater obesity.

  1. Respiratory Compromise

The obese pet has a good inch or two of fat forming a constricting jacket around the chest. This makes the pet less able to take deep breaths as more work is required to move the respiratory muscles. Areas of the lung cannot fully inflate, so coughing results. The pet also overheats more easily. Many cases of tracheal collapse and chronic cough can be managed with only weight loss.

  1. Diabetes Mellitus

Extra body fat leads to insulin resistance in cats just as it does in humans. In fact, obese cats have been found to have a 50% decrease in insulin sensitivity. Weight management is especially important in decreasing a cat’s risk for the development of diabetes mellitus.

  1. Reduced Life Span

A study of age-matched Labrador retrievers found that dogs kept on the slender side of normal lived a median of 2.5 years longer than their overweight counterparts.

  1. Increased Surgical/Anesthetic Risk

Obesity poses an extra anesthetic risk because drug dosing becomes less accurate. (It is hard to estimate a patient’s lean body mass for drug dosing if it is encased in a fat suit.) Furthermore, anesthesia is inherently suppressive to respiration and adding a constrictive jacket of fat only serves to make proper air exchange more challenging. And still further, surgery in the abdomen is hampered by the slippery nature of the extra fat as well as difficulty visualizing all the normal structures through the copious fat deposits. One never knows when a pet will require an emergency surgery (to say nothing of regular teeth cleanings).

So is the enjoyment of all those extra treats really worth it?


My pet is overweight without seemingly eating that much, what now?

Many packages of food include on their label some sort of feeding schedule that indicates how much food should be fed to a pet of a certain weight. These guidelines are meant as a starting point only. They are recommendations based on a maintenance diet for the ideal body weight. If your pet is too fat on the recommended feeding schedule, then you should reduce the amount of food or change to a diet that is higher in fiber so that a satisfying volume of food can still be eaten without adding calories.

You also have to take into account other additions to the diet, including treats, dental chews, etc. Many people express their affection for the pet by providing regular treats. For some people, feeding treats to the pet constitutes a major part of the human-animal bond and they do not wish to give it up or reduce it. Pet treats are often high in calories, though, and four or five treats readily converts into an extra meal’s worth of added fat. Free feeding of dry food encourages the pet to snack as well; meal feeding represents better calorie control.

Treats should not exceed 10% of the pet's feeding allotment.

There are also other considerations when fighting obesity.

Some animals simply have the genes that predispose them to obesity. Dog breeds with genetic tendencies towards obesity include the: Golden Retriever, Cocker Spaniel, Dachshund, Beagle, Shetland Sheepdog, Boxer, Cairn Terrier, Basset Hound, and Labrador Retriever.

Some pets do not burn calories efficiently; they simply have a slow metabolism. This might be genetic as mentioned or it might be the result of a disease such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease. Testing for health problems such as these is helpful to get the best treatment for the resolution of obesity. It seems like increasing exercise and eating a healthier diet would be easy to accomplish for a pet but it generally does not turn out that way.

Spaying and neutering your pet can have multiple benefits. However, the change in the hormonal picture, creates a tendency to form more fat cells (creating increased fat storage capacity – especially in female cats), and typically slows metabolism. Spay/neuter is an excellent time to switch from free feeding to meal feeding.


Evaluation by Body Score

Sometimes it is hard to recognize that your pet is overweight as the weight gain has come on gradually or it is hard to actually accept that your pet is more than just a little chubby and is now fully obese. To assist in this evaluation, body condition scoring has been developed and is fairly easy to accomplish. There are two scoring systems: a five-point system (where three out of five is considered optimal) and a nine-point system where four to five out of nine is considered optimal). To evaluate your pet, feel for a small amount of padding over the ribs. It should be possible to feel the ribs easily without having to push through fat and there should be a small tuck in the belly where the hind legs meet the body.




What can be Done: Diet and Exercise

This sounds simple, but in fact when you simply try to cut back on food, it just does not seem to work. Begging for food can result, plus simply reducing the amount of a regular diet (one not meant for weight loss), can lead to deficiency in vitamins or minerals.

As with humans, a more formal approach seems to work best. This means feeding a prescription diet made for weight loss (typically “lite” or “less active” diets are meant to prevent weight gain, not actually cause weight loss), feeding a measured amount, and coming in for regular weigh-ins at the vet’s office.

This means:

  • There must be control over what the obese pet eats. That’s easy enough if there is only one pet and roaming is not allowed, but trickier if there is more than one pet in the home. Use your ingenuity to feed the pets separately.

  • Feed in meals. Leaving food out encourages snacking. Feeding in meals makes it easier to feed multiple pets different foods or different amounts of food.

  • Commit to regular weigh-ins. Know what the goal weight is and how long it should take to reach this goal/or how to tell if the pet is on target. It is important not to try to go too fast. If the weight loss is not on track, sometimes it is necessary to feed more rather than less. Your veterinarian may need to be in contact with the clinical nutritionists at the pet food company so as to make the best recommendations.

  • Consider interactive toys that can be used when you are not home or where your own participation is minimal.

Be sure to rule out health issues that might specifically cause obesity as an initial step in obesity management.


Information from Veterinary Partner; Wendy Brooks, DVM, DABVP


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