How do I know if my pet is overweight and what can I do about it?

As the holidays sadly come to a close, no doubt you’re feeling quite full of Christmas turkey and New Year’s drinks. Perhaps this year you’re considering sticking to your New Year’s Resolution and going to the gym more often! Unfortunately, overeating is a problem in our pets as well. However, many don’t get a chance to slim down at the gym and become overweight. In today’s article, we will discuss what the problems are with portly pets, how you can tell when your pet is overweight, and what you can do to help slim them down and prevent obesity.

So what’s actually wrong with having an overweight pet?

In simple terms, obesity is an excess accumulation of body fat, and a kind of chronic disease. The UK pet population is increasingly growing more overweight. There are many factors that can lead to obesity, but it would seem that poor diet and lack of exercise are the biggest contributors. Being an overweight pet is not just a cosmetic issue, as it causes a number of health issues as well. The word ‘malnutrition’ is normally associated with starvation and being underweight, but malnutrition is actually defined as any diet that is not healthy and appropriate – this makes an overweight animal malnourished.

Fat, or adipose, is a living tissue that releases chemical messengers into the blood, called adipokines. Excess fat leads to excess adipokines which the body cannot manage. So, obesity leads to an almost endless list of related diseases, including diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular problems, respiratory disease, various cancers, mobility issues, arthritis, and more. In fact, almost every body system is affected by obesity.

Okay, so how do I know if my pet is overweight?

The simplest way to know if your pet is overweight is, of course, visually – a pet with excess fat will look overweight, particularly around the hips. Online charts can show you the ideal shape. However, it is important to know that around 50% of body fat is located inside your pet, wrapped around organs – however large a pet looks, there is the same amount of fat again inside, also releasing adipokines. 

A good habit to get into is to weigh your pets – doing this regularly is essential to spot trends that can indicate inappropriate weight gain (or loss). Ideally, get this done at every vet appointment, so that records can be made. You should do this at home too, especially if you don’t visit us that often. However, weight can be misleading as well, and there are huge variations in what is considered ‘normal’, especially in dogs where breeds vary so much in their “healthy” sizes. Nevertheless, it is a good way to look for steady increases that might give you an indication your pet is growing too big. Our vets and nurses can give you targets and optimum weights for your pets, but of course these tend to be breed averages.

The best method to identify overweight pets is via body condition scoring. BCS is where you (or one of our staff!) feel your pet’s body in specific areas for fat coverage. In dogs and cats, these include the neck, ribs, hips and abdomen. It is relatively easy to learn, but practise makes perfect, so we recommend asking one of the vets or nurses for the best techniques. Your pet should be graded on a BCS scale (1-9), with anything above 5 being considered overweight. It is at this point you need to start making changes.

Unfortunately, studies have found that we all tend to underestimate the size of our pets, and often consider overweight pets to be normal. Furthermore, as overweight pets have become more and more common, this has led to a ‘normalisation’ of obesity, where slightly overweight pets are considered normal, and pets of a good weight are considered underweight. It is important to get the vet to BCS your pet as well, to double check, at their next visit. 

There are other advanced tests for determining whether a pet is overweight or not, but they are rarely necessary. Visual assessment, weighing and BCS are generally sufficient.

My pet is overweight – what can I do?

Just like in people, the most important step you can make is to help your pet lose weight. This starts with looking at their diet and exercise. Generally, an obese pet needs to reduce their food intake so they’re being fed for their “healthy weight” not their actual weight. However, the target weight loss should be no more than 1-2% per week – especially in cats who are prone to liver problems if put on a crash diet. In some very large pets, this dramatic reduction in food volume can lead to nutrient deficiency, so talk to us about the most appropriate food. Often we willl recommend a less calorific diet too, but portion control is most important – a set diet of 300g of food per day, for example, should not be exceeded. This means very few treats – or even better, take the treats out of the evening ration!

More intense and more regular exercise is essential too, though you may have to start slow, particularly with very inactive pets. Incorporating it with your own exercise routine, like cycling or running, can be a great way for you both to lose the pounds! Starting exercise can be difficult in some pets, like cats, so try and encourage movement around the house – place food upstairs so they have to move to get it, or inside puzzles they have to open. Any extra exercise is better than none. 

Diseases linked to being overweight should be managed as well – certain diseases, like diabetes, can make dieting trickier, so be aware of this. In a few cases, certain drugs can also be given which help your pet lose weight, but these are the exception.

Regular checks are really important to monitor progress. Do this at home, as well as visiting us often. Our vet nurses run weight loss clinics, which are really good motivators for sticking to your management – nurses often have plenty of new ideas to keep dieting interesting for you both too.

My pet is healthy, but I’m worried they might be getting overweight:

This is a great position to be in, recognising there is a problem before it becomes too serious. Changes now will make such a big impact in your pet’s life. Most of the above steps for losing weight should be implemented in pets on the high-end of normal weights, though to a lesser degree of course. You even may find that your pet slims down quicker than a very obese pet, as they do not yet have the excess adipokines and genentic changes that can make obesity worse. Prevention is crucial with overweight pets.

Closing thoughts

Though more and more UK pets are becoming overweight, it doesn’t have to stay this way. The vet industry is becoming more aware of the problem of obesity, and thus owners are becoming better informed too. In all too many cases, obesity is a life-long disease, and losing weight can be a very long process – we cannot emphasise enough how important prevention is, via regular weighing, BCS and vet check-ups, to keep weight in check. Hopefully, with early intervention, dogs and cats starting to get too large can be managed and brought back to a healthy weight.

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