Pet Obesity: It is a Life or Death Matter

Renee DiPietro, CVT
Veterinary Information Specialist 

This is a really important topic. Obesity has far reaching effects but is often overlooked by pet owners as pets become saddled with medical conditions that often can be traced directly to obesity. It is a hard subject to discuss at times. There is an emotional aspect as Fido and Felix become voluptuous as a result of overabundant nutrition given out of love. Various human sociological factors can actually contribute to weight gain in our pets. Even with ourselves, it can be difficult to recognize that so many health conditions are intimately related to being overweight. It can be even harder to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation. This article focuses on dogs and cats but all types of animals can be negatively affected by obesity.

If we as pet owners/guardians can grasp the concept of how important it is to keep our pets at a healthy weight from Day 1, a plethora of health issues can be avoided throughout the lives of our beloved companions. Life expectancy can realistically be extended when we help our pets maintain a healthy weight.

Make no mistake, this is the most common health threat our furry companions face. It is also a financial threat. Imagine the reduced level of veterinary bills from a healthy pet as opposed to one that it riddled with obesity related conditions.

Some interesting information:

An estimated 56% of dogs and 60% of cats are in the United States are obese. This translates to 100 million cats and dogs.

39% of owners with obese pets consider their animals to be of normal weight.

A body condition score chart can be a valuable visual tool for understanding what a pet of healthy weight should look like. For an example of a BCS Score Chart click here!

As with our own health, obesity in pets increases the risk of many health conditions including:

heart disease, renal disease, orthopedic disease, soft tissue injury, diabetes, skin disorders, respiratory disorders, metabolic disorders, some types of cancer, and reduced quality of life.

Conversely, health benefits associated with a healthy weight include:

Overall better health, greater longevity, reduced veterinary and food bills for the owner, and in some cases a stronger Human-Animal Bond between pet and owner.

If you and your pet are healthy enough to get out and play and exercise together this can really increase the quality of your relationship.

Your veterinarian can determine your pet’s ideal weight and energy requirements to help you design a plan to help your pet lose weight in a healthy way. It is important that your pet lose weight slowly and steadily so as to not put major stress on various physiological systems.

There are three important components to a Healthy Weight Loss Plan for pets.

  1. Calorie Restriction:

 Instructions on pet food packaging often recommend more food than your companion may need. Seek out Nutritional Counseling from your veterinarian or a Veterinary nutritionist. These veterinary professionals can determine your pet’s energy requirements and the best type and amount of diet (measure, measure, measure!) that will support Fido or Felix’s weight loss goals. This does not always mean a “lite” diet.

Your DVM may also suggest substituting fresh vegetables such as carrots, zucchini, cucumber, asparagus or green beans for the out of hand treats you normally give your pet, or adding these items to the food bowl to help round out a restricted quantity and help your pet feel more full.

My dogs are wild about crunchy raw vegetables (especially carrots), and they think that these items are what all dogs get for treats. I simply have to hold up a carrot and both of my dogs while dive into their crates to wait for their treats. Regular ingestion of crunchy vegetables may also help to keep your dog’s teeth clean.

A note about cats: Cats are obligate carnivores as opposed to dogs who are omnivores. Whether feeding for maintenance or weight loss, cats needs are very different then a dog. Cats are designed to eat a high protein, high moisture, low carb diet. Ask your vet about how you can help your cat lose weight while still meeting its obligate carnivore nutritional needs. For cats, transitioning them slowly to a canned food diet can often help significantly with weight loss.

  1. Exercise:

Exercising your pet can be very fun and rewarding for both you and your furry friend. Start out easy and build up to larger blocks of movement time as your buddy can tolerate it.

With dogs nice slow walks to start, are a good way to ease in. This can evolve to games of fetch or frisbee, (if your dog is so inclined), walks on the beach (if you are lucky enough to live near one), longer walks, and hikes if that interests you.

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, most pet owners (including veterinary professionals) site being “too busy” as their #1 reason for not being able to exercise their pets. A little creative planning can help in these situations. For example, some retailers such as large home improvement stores allow leashed dogs to visit. These types of opportunities allow you to exercise your dog while running errands. Most dogs really enjoy getting out and about with their people. Even just the ride in the car, getting out of the house, and in and out of the car is better than no activity at all.

Even introverted, activity reluctant dogs almost always want to head towards home. If need be as a last resort you can put your dog in the car and drive a short ways from home. Try walking your reluctant dog towards home. If this works, great! You will of course have to go back for the car later but where there is a will, there is a way!

If exercise away from home is not possible there are still other options and a little outside of the box thinking can reveal solutions. I have a disabled friend who cannot leave her home without assistance. Both of her dogs are trained to walk on a treadmill and get their daily exercise this way.

Another fine way to get your dog moving is to get them a puzzle feeder that they have to push around to get food out of. Part or all of their daily ration can be put in the puzzle feeder. Having to work for their meal can help to burn some of those calories. This activity is also a great way to stimulate your dog’s mind and may help resolve boredom related behavioral issues.

Exercising a cat may seem harder but can also be achieved with a little creativity. Feline hunting behavior is defined by short bursts of activity within larger spans of more sedentary time. Use this information to your advantage when planning exercise for your cat.

Most cats love to play and this is a really good form of exercise for them. They can be encouraged to play with toys on strings (take care to remove any toys that pose a risk for ingestion of the string), laser pointers, or other easily moved cat toys. Scheduling a play time daily for your cat can help to get him moving and support the bond you have with your pet. For more information on enrichment and exercise opportunities for your cat click here! 

For those who are able, bigger investments such as a catio or cat safe fenced in yard can provide your cat with easily accessed, species specific (stalking, pouncing) exercise opportunities. For more information read our “Enrichment for House Cats” blog:

Enrichment for House Cats

  1. Support and Community:

Just as when we are trying to lose weight ourselves, helping our pets lose weight can sometimes feel like a lonely place to be. Having the support of your veterinary staff or a pet weight loss community can really keep you motivated to keep helping your pet. Ask your vet if you can bring your dog by for regular weigh-ins. Consider buying a baby scale so you can weigh your cat at home.

Keep a chart of successes and set-backs. Reward your dog and yourself when a weight milestone is reached (not with food). Join or start a community for pet owners who are managing their pet’s weight. You may be surprised how many people are in the same boat as you.

If we make an investment in our pets healthy weight today (love, time, money, etc.) we are paying forward rewards that can be redeemed for ourselves and our animal companions for many years!