The obesity epidemic is not limited to the human population – recent studies suggest that 49% of dogs, 44% cats, 32% small mammals and 11% birds are overweight or obese (source: PFMA, p6). This is not a victimless issue, either – obesity has serious health consequences in animals, as well as people. In particular, being overweight or obese increases the risks of:
- Certain types of cancer, e.g. lipoma and liposarcoma.
- Some skin diseases, particularly Skin Fold Dermatitis and Moist Surface Pyoderma.
- There may also be an increase in the risk of heart disease, although this is not well understood.
- Developing diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes) – especially in cats, for whom the majority of cases are due to insulin resistance due to obesity.
- Severe osteoarthritis. Carrying extra weight puts additional load on the joints, increasing wear and tear. This is particularly severe in animals with existing joint problems such as hip or elbow dysplasia, where the severity of the arthritis is dramatically worsened by being overweight.
- Respiratory difficulty – additional fat around the ribcage and in the abdomen makes it harder to breathe. This is especially important in short-nosed animals (brachycephalics, e.g. Pugs, Bulldogs, Persian cats) who already suffer a degree of respiratory compromise due to their nasal conformation, and in toy breeds (e.g. Yorkshire Terriers) with a risk of tracheal collapse (which is worsened by the fat around the windpipe).
Unfortunately, in the Western World our modern glut of easily available and cheap calories have made it difficult for us to recognise what a healthy weight for a dog, cat, rabbit or guinea pig is – we are so used to seeing plump and overweight animals, that we tend to assume that’s normal and healthy. To complicate matters further, our pets generally have a thick layer of fur making it difficult to see the contours of their bodies.
As a result, we strongly recommend the use of the BCS or Body Condition Score system to recognise whether a pet is overweight, underweight, or just right. Unlike the unreliable BMI measure, it caters for different shapes, sizes and breeds of animal, by estimating the amount of fat they are carrying under the skin. Using a number of observations (for example, if you can see a dog’s ribs, they’re underweight, but if you cannot feel them easily, they are overweight), the pet is given a score of 1 to 5. A score of 1 indicates emaciation (and in urgent need of veterinary attention), 2 means underweight (needs to be fed more), 3 is just right, 4 means they are overweight (needs to lose weight), and 5 indicates morbid obesity (again, in urgent need of veterinary attention).
The primary approach to obesity is dietary control. It’s really important to measure out the food each animal gets, in accordance with their ideal (not necessarily their actual!) body weight. Sadly, 43% of pet owners never read the nutritional advice label on the food they give their pet – but this is a vital resource. If your dog’s ideal weight is 20kg but you’re feeding them for 30kg, unsurprisingly, they will probably end up at 30kg, carrying 50% of their bodyweight in additional fat.
Another problem is giving extra high-energy treats. In particular, we would strongly advise never feeding table scraps or other human food. Instead, as a treat, feed part of that evening’s ration, or choose a low-calorie alternative.
Exercise is also important (although not usually sufficient on its own). Most pets will love to spend more time with you – dogs actually enjoy going for a run with their human, and will gain as much from it as we do! Cats, meanwhile, love to play “pounce” and can get in their exercise while enjoying themselves.
If your pet is overweight or unfit, make an appointment to see one of our trained nurses for a free weight clinic appointment. They will help you identify your pet’s nutritional and exercise needs, and offer a regular “weigh-in and check-up” service so you can keep track of how well your pet is doing towards their target. If your pet has underlying health issues, then see one of our vets before changing their diet or exercise significantly.