Pet obesity: too much of the good stuff

Overweight pets are incredibly common and obesity is one of the most common diseases we deal with at the Dawson Creek Veterinary Clinic. In fact, the majority of pets are overweight.

Overweight pets are incredibly common and obesity is one of the most common diseases we deal with at the Dawson Creek Veterinary Clinic. In fact, the majority of pets are overweight. In the US in 2018 a study showed that 55% of dogs and 59% of cats are overweight or obese (numbers from the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association are similar to this). Given the number of health risks associated with obesity, these numbers are rather concerning.

The first challenge is recognizing your pet is overweight. The easiest way to do this is to body condition score your pet on a regular basis. This is a scale from 1-9 where 1 is extremely skinny, 9 is severely obese, and 5/9 is ideal. The main areas we assess is fat covering over the ribs and spine, whether there is a waist present and whether there is a tuck under the groin. In cats they commonly have a pouch under the belly and this is where they will deposit fat first. Refer to the visual scale I have attached to help assess your pet.

The overall reason for obesity is more calories going into the body than are being used by the body. There are certain medical conditions that can cause obesity, such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease which we can test for with bloodwork. Once these are ruled out it ultimately comes down to too much food and not enough exercise. As pets age their metabolism goes down and they don’t require as much anymore. One downside of spaying and neutering is that it also reduces their metabolism. Not enough exercise also contributes a lot. Many pets gain over winter as we just don’t get out as much when it is dark and cold.

Why should we care about obesity? Obesity has significant effects on pets overall health. Several years ago Purina performed a life-long study where they compared calorie restricted diets to free-choice-all-they-can-eat diets. The study showed that dogs (these were labs) on a restricted diet lived 2 more years or 15% longer. This is likely even more significant in smaller dogs and cats.

Many serious health risks can arise out of being overweight. One of the most common is issues with joints, such as ligament tears and early onset arthritis. Increased weight is very hard on joints and once arthritis develops it can be very tough to start losing weight as they are not able to exercise as much. Other health complications of obesity are endocrine diseases such as diabetes, breathing issues, heart conditions, and other overall organ health.

As with most things, prevention is key with pet obesity. While they are puppies they can generally eat as much as they want to and being a little round in that stage is not overly concerning. Once they are about 6 months old I like to start paying attention a little more and start cutting back if their body condition starts going over 5/9. Once a pet gets spayed or neutered is the most common time to start to see them gaining weight and is the easiest time to intervene. The longer we wait to intervene the harder it gets.

Once your pet is already overweight there are several steps to go through. A first step can simply be switching your pet to measured out feedings instead of being free-fed or looking on the bag of food and measuring out the amount they should get at a lean weight instead of their current weight. The next step is to cut down on treats and human scraps and switching to healthier treats such as carrots. The amount of kibble should be cut back as well – generally we try to cut back by 20% slowly over a few weeks and continue cutting back every 2 weeks until the pet is at a healthier body condition and weight. I prefer to go by body condition but having a target weight can certainly help keep your goals on task. Feel free to come into the clinic to use our scale to get serial weights on your pet. Increasing exercise is of course the other important aspect. In the cold winter months this may mean playing ball inside the house or making the pet work for their meals with games or slow feeders. Whenever possible outdoor walks are likely much more effective though.

If these initial steps are not effective then consider a trip to your veterinarian to rule out underlying health issues, help with mobility concerns, or come up with a specific weight loss plan. If your pet is acting very hungry with a reduced diet then switching to a metabolic food may help as it is designed to deliver less calories but keep them fuller.

Given the many negative health effects of obesity it is worth speaking to your veterinarian about your pet’s weight!

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