Obesity is a weighty issue affecting U.S. pets. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than half of our nation’s dogs and cats are overweight or obese, with a mere 39% of dog owners and 45% of cat owners recognizing their pet’s condition. Without intervention, overweight pets are at an increased risk for serious health issues—some of which are life-threatening. Learn whether your pet’s health is at risk, and discover new ways to help them lose weight by reading our Wales Animal Clinic team’s guide to pet weight management. 

Extra fluffy—What’s the big deal about my pet’s weight?

Current trends label overweight pets as being fluffy or offering more to love, but their weight-related health issues are anything but cute. Excess fat tissue creates chronic inflammation, which damages the body’s healthy cells and the immune system. When compared with healthy weight pets, obese pets experience a shorter lifespan, and are more likely to experience serious health issues including:

  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Orthopedic injury
  • Diabetes
  • Respiratory problems
  • Skin disorders
  • Kidney failure
  • Endocrine and metabolic disorders

Nature and nurture—Pet weight gain risk factors

Pets gain weight for various reasons, many of which are preventable and lifestyle-based. These include: 

  • Too much food — Many pets consume excess calories from food, treats, and table scraps.
  • Incorrect food — High-protein and high-fat diets can lead to weight gain in pets who have an average activity level. Treats and chews are often high in calories and low in nutritional benefit. Most people food is highly processed, or high in fat, salt, and sugar. 
  • Inactivity — Domesticated pets lead a relatively sedentary lifestyle in comparison with their ancestors. Pet exercise is rarely strenuous enough to create a steady calorie burn.
  • Health conditions — Various conditions, including canine hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease, pregnancy, and abdominal fluid accumulation, can cause unexplained weight gain. Arthritis or orthopedic injury pain compromises a pet’s willingness to play or exercise. Your veterinarian must exclude serious disease before treating your pet’s obesity.
  • Genetic predisposition — Some dog breeds are more susceptible to weight gain, including dachshunds, beagles, Labrador retrievers, and cocker spaniels. 
  • Medication — Weight gain is a common side effect of steroids and phenobarbital.

Size score—Assessing your pet’s body condition

Pets’ bodies vary widely in size and structure, so their weight shown on the scale does not provide enough information to determine if their weight is appropriate. Instead, veterinary professionals use visualization and palpation to determine your pet’s body condition score (BCS), which assesses their current and ideal body weight.  

You can learn to use the BCS scale—a simple and easy tool to implement at home. To assess your pet, place them in a standing position, and evaluate the following three key body areas:

  • Ribs — You should be able to easily palpate a healthy pet’s ribs under only a light fat covering. 
  • Waistline — When viewed from above, your pet should have an obvious waistline between their last rib and their hips.
  • Profile — Your pet’s side profile should have an inverted curve from the rib cage to the abdomen. 

You can measure your pet’s BCS on a 5- or 9-point scale, with each numeric score describing different physical characteristics. Ideal body weight is defined as a 3 or 5, respectively. Follow this link for the complete illustrated 5-point BCS chart. If your pet scores outside the ideal range, schedule an appointment at Wales Animal Clinic.

Feed less? Not so fast—Safe weight loss for pets

The answer to weight loss is not always fewer calories and more exercise—especially when your pet’s health is at stake. Abrupt nutrition changes can do more harm than good—especially if your pet has an underlying medical condition. Placing your cat on an unsupervised diet can lead to a life-threatening liver condition (i.e., hepatic lipidosis), while pushing your overweight dog to overexertion can lead to heatstroke, orthopedic injury, and soft tissue strain. 

Safe and effective weight loss requires tailored nutrition to fuel your pet’s body and simultaneously burn excess fat. Exercise must be low-impact to meet your pet’s current cardiovascular and physical capacities. Your pet’s veterinarian will determine whether  your furry friend’s diet should change, and provide information on the amount they can eat each day for controlled weight loss.

Walk this way—Take your pet’s exercise routine up a notch

Pet owners are often perplexed to learn that their dog’s daily leash walks or their cat’s nightly chase sessions are inadequate exercise. Although all movement is valuable for your pet’s health, exercising for weight loss involves increasing cardiovascular demand. Like us, pets must increase their heart rate to achieve authentic aerobic (i.e., fat-burning) activity. Reaching and sustaining the aerobic activity level requires effort and stamina from both you and your pet, and you must gradually increase the challenge as their fitness improves.

As your pet begins losing weight, becoming more exercise tolerant, you can gradually begin taking their activity level up a notch. Your Wales Animal Clinic veterinarian will provide your pet’s customized exercise recommendations, which may include:

  • Increasing the tempo — Setting criteria for your leash walk (e.g., speed, time, and distance) can improve their health status and focus.
  • Improving comfort — Pain medication and joint supplements can make physical activity more comfortable for arthritic pets.
  • Cross-training — Exploring veterinary-approved activities (e.g., nose work, rally obedience) or toys (e.g., replacing your pet’s bowl with a food-dispensing toy) can increase your pet’s motivation to move, and improve their mood.
  • Trying something new — Swimming, underwater treadmill, and canine fitness are wonderful low-impact exercises.

If your pet is overweight, don’t wait until it’s too late—contact Wales Animal Clinic to learn how customized weight loss can improve your pet’s health, and add years to their life.