Cute cuddly orange fat cats, roly poly pugs, and other pets are just so adorable with that little extra roll of fat! But, are they really? Overweight and obese pets are a growing epidemic in the US and other countries. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, in the US, a whopping 54 percent of dogs and 59 percent of cats were considered overweight or obese in 2016 . Extra weight can spell issues for your pet’s body, health, and lifespan. What is pet obesity, how does it happen, and what are some ways owners can help keep our pets in tip-top shape?
Before knowing what pet obesity is, it is good to know how it is determined in pets in the first place. The main tool used by veterinary clinics is the Body Condition Score chart, which is a way to measure your pet’s body condition by checking for fat over the ribs, back, and under the belly.
A body condition score (BCS) is a chart that is used to help determine if your pet is at a healthy weight. Most veterinary clinics use a variation of the AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) as the gold standard. You can check out their chart here. The chart is usually done on a 1-5 or 1-9 scale, with 3 being the ideal on the 5-point scale and 5 the ideal on the 9-point scale. Pets that are under 3 or 5 are considered thin or underweight, while pets that are over 3 or 5 are considered overweight. Pets at the top of the scale at either a 5 or a 9 are considered obese.
One major drawback of the Body Condition Score chart is that it is somewhat subjective, especially with the 5-point scale. The 9-point scale offers a little more variation in determining condition, however, it is still ultimately up to the veterinarian to make the call. However, BCS is a good tool to gain a general understanding of your pet’s weight in addition to other measurements such as weight, activity level, and health status.
Obesity and overweight are often used interchangeably, especially when referring to our pets. However, overweight and obese pets do vary slightly.
Healthy Weight: A pet at a healthy weight typically has a good body condition score, is active, and eats enough to maintain that weight only. Typically, pets have slightly visible ribs, backbones, and a tuck to their belly when viewed from the side, or a visible waist when viewed from above. As overweight pets are growing in the population, many owners may think that a healthy pet is actually underweight, as they can look on the “skinny” side in comparison.
Overweight: An overweight pet may still have some of the above signs of a healthy pet, but with less visibility. There may be some fat bulging from the stomach, less of a waist when viewed from above, or some extra padding over the ribs. These pets are still typically active, alert and healthy.
Obese: Obese pets have lost any visible shape to their bodies, and have large fad pads in the belly and along the back and sides. It may be harder for them to perform normal activities such as getting up and moving around, or properly grooming. In severe cases, a pet may become so obese that they cannot get up at all, or begin to have infections under the folds of skin that can’t be properly cleaned. Obese pets are at great risk for health issues and death.
The typical rule of thumb is calories in, calories out. This means your pet should be eating just enough to maintain a healthy weight at their activity level. More than that means either increasing activity to burn off the calories, or decreasing the amount of food eaten. It can be hard, however, especially as many foods and treats are filled with calorie-rich fillers, and human scraps become delectable extras on top of regular meals. In some cases, an underlying health issue can lead to obesity even with proper exercise and nutrition.
Pet MD found that long-term obesity in pets can lead to :
These problems can cause severe issues not only in the short-term, but in the long-term as well. These issues can quickly add up to costly veterinary bills and even the passing away of your pet. You may see signs of an illness beginning if your pet becomes unable to get up and move around comfortably, isn’t interested in regular activities, or is unable to properly groom and clean itself. A pet in distress from pain or underlying illness may also lose interest in eating or drinking, pant heavily, become more vocal, or even lethargic.
In some cases, obesity is caused by a health problem, rather than causing it. Metabolic issues in older pets are the most common, with hypothyroidism being a common cause of weight gain in dogs. Cats, however, are typically hyperthyroid, and so tend to lose weight! Other metabolic diseases such as Type 1 diabetes, can also affect weight. In the case of Type 2, diabetes, however, it is often caused by obesity rather than the cause.
An old injury may also lead to obesity, especially if it limits your pet’s mobility and activity levels. GI issues and illness may also cause changes to weight if your pet is unable to regulate intake or properly digest foods.
In some cases, obesity in pets was linked to obesity in their owners, making it harder to maintain a healthy lifestyle . Educating pet parents about obesity in their pets, and encouraging a healthy lifestyle change together may see better results. In addition, Forbes also recommends tracking your pet’s weight, working with your vet, and knowing how much food and exercise they are getting . Sometimes, formulating a plan that encompasses a healthy lifestyle for both you and your pets can help get everyone back into shape.
Diet: Diet is one of the easiest ways to change and maintain your pet’s weight. Many commercial pet foods are now carrying weight-reducing formulations, and many already carry foods tailored specifically to your pet’s age, activity level, and even breed. Choosing a food that is tailored can help ensure your pet is getting enough calories without excess. Active dogs, for example, may need more protein and fat for muscle and energy, while your typical senior dog will need far fewer of each.
Prescription Diets: For pets that are still not losing enough weight on a regular diet, prescription diets are available. Prescribed by a veterinarian, these foods are formulated to help reduce weight, keep it off, and in some cases reduce stress or other underlying health problems as well. Often, these foods have an increased fiber content, which can help your pet feel full faster while eating less overall. This leads to a reduction in calories, which in turn helps your pet lose weight. In recent years, many prescription pet food companies have included a weight-reduction diet in their line.
Exercise (Dogs): Exercise for dogs is a great way to burn off excess calories. It can also help keep the joints healthy and reduce stress and strain on the body. For most dogs, a walk once or twice a day for 20-30 minutes is plenty to stay in shape, however, some dogs may need to build up to this if they are overweight or having trouble getting around.
In addition to walks, activities such as agility or trips to the dog park, or even prolonged training sessions can provide exercise, provided the number of treats given during these is limited! Here are some more great ways to do so.
Exercise (Cats): Cats need exercise too! While taking your cat on a walk is not really feasible (though some cats DO enjoy this), other activities can be used to help keep your cat healthy. This can include interactive toys that encourage your cat to chase or leap such as feathers on a string, or even moving laser pointers. Some pet companies have even designed “cat treadmills”, that look like giant hamster wheels and encourage your cat to keep moving and stay active without taking up a lot of space!
While diet and exercise are great to reduce weight and keep your pet healthy, there are lots of other things you can do, too. Looking for other ways to keep your pet healthy? Check out our tips and tricks here.
Working with your vet is the best way to help ensure your pet stays at a healthy weight. Your vet can help determine your pet’s body condition score, and help you make a decision on how to maintain or reduce their weight. A healthy weight means a pet that will be happier, less stressed, less likely to become ill, and more likely to stay your companion for a long time to come!
All photos provided by Creative Commons/Pixabay for commercial use.
 Lee, Bruce Y. "The Pet Obesity Epidemic: What If Your Pet is Overweight?" Forbes Magazine, 20 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Jul. 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2016/01/20/the-pet-obesity-epidemic-what-if-your-pet-is-overweight/#22510c2b49ef
 "Long-term Effects of Obesity on Pets." PetMD. Web. 24 Jul. 2017. http://www.petmd.com/dog/nutrition/evr_multi_long_term_effects_of_obesity_on_pets
 Montoya-Alonso, J, et al. "Prevalence of canine Obesity, Obesity-Related Metabolic Dysfunction, and Relationship with Owner Obesity in an Obesogenic Region of Spain." Font Vet Sci, 25 Apr. 2017. Web. 24 Jul. 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5403824/
 "US Pets Get Fatter, Owners Disagree with Veterinarians on Nutritional Issues." 2016 US Pet Obesity Statistics, Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, Mar. 2016. Web. 24 Jul. 2017. http://petobesityprevention.org/2016-u-s-pet-obesity-statistics/