Chubby pets can be endearing, and they inspire hilarious memes on the internet, but excess weight is no laughing matter. Studies and surveys conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention and Banfield Pet Hospitals found that more than half of American pets are classified as overweight, putting the majority at risk for chronic health problems and a shorter lifespan. Many veterinarians agree that the obesity epidemic is the greatest health threat facing our pet population, and something needs to be done. LaGrange Veterinary Hospital shares how obesity can affect your pet, and offers tips to combat excess weight and help ensure your pet enjoys a longer, healthier life.

How do I know if my pet is obese?

Pets are considered overweight when they exceed their ideal weight by 10% to 20%, but ideal weight is different for each individual pet. Veterinarians assess a pet’s weight using a body condition scoring (BCS) system, which rates pets on a scale of either 1 to 5 or 1 to 9. In the 5-point scale, a 3 is considered ideal, with 1 being too underweight, and 5 representing obesity. The 9-point scale allows a more nuanced evaluation, with pets at a 5 considered ideal, and overweight or obese—and needing help—if they score above the ideal.

To evaluate pets and assign a BCS, veterinarians assess muscle condition, waist size and shape, and the degree of fat covering the ribs and other bony prominences. Dogs at a healthy weight typically have easily palpable, but not overly visible ribs, and a defined waist when viewed from the side or above. Because breed and body shape also play a role, ask your veterinarian to evaluate your pet’s weight and explain their findings, so you can better understand your pet’s weight loss goals and progress.

Why is pet obesity a problem?

Researchers have linked pet obesity to many chronic conditions that can cause a shortened lifespan and reduced quality of life. Similar to obese humans, obese pets accumulate fat cells that can contribute to low-grade inflammation and eventually lead to disease development. Obese pets live up to two years less than their lean counterparts, and often struggle with the following ailments:

  • Osteoarthritis — Excess weight can increase the wear and tear on joints, causing chronic inflammation that contributes to arthritis development. Overweight pets are around 20% less active than other pets, and arthritic pets are up to 35% less active, so obesity and arthritis can severely limit mobility—leading to more weight gain.
  • High blood pressure — The reason is not clear, but obese pets are more likely to develop hypertension, which can severely damage important organs, such as the kidneys.
  • Metabolic disease — Obese pets may become insulin-resistant over time, leading to diabetes and other metabolic illnesses.
  • Cancer — Obese humans are more likely to develop cancer, probably because of chronic inflammation. Research into the cancer-fat connection in pets is ongoing.
  • Respiratory disease — Excess fat surrounding the lungs can limit their ability to expand and place chronic stress on your pet’s respiratory system.

How can I help my pet lose weight?

The general principle behind weight loss calls for consuming fewer calories than you’re burning, which translates to eating less and exercising more. Unfortunately, metabolism is more complicated and, in practice, this method often fails. Your veterinarian can help you develop a treatment plan to reduce your pet’s weight, but finding the best strategy for your pet may take some trial and error. Pet weight loss plans commonly include:

  • Special diets — Reduced calorie, increased protein, and increased fiber foods can help your pet feel full, despite the lower calorie intake. Newer prescription diets address suspected metabolic problems, and low-carb diets may help improve insulin sensitivity. 
  • Swapping treats — Crunchy vegetables, rice cakes, cheerios, or other small, low-calorie treats in place of calorie-dense biscuits or chews can significantly reduce daily calorie intake.
  • Exercise — All movement counts! Increased exercise for your pet through play, neighborhood walks, or daycare visits can build muscle condition and burn fat. Arthritic pets may benefit from rehabilitation or water-based exercise to strengthen supporting muscles and improve mobility. 
  • Family education — Educate the whole household about your pet’s obesity-related health risks and their weight-loss goals to get them on board with the plan, and to ensure success. Emphasize that non-food expressions of affection and love are more important to help your pet, to prevent food-sneaking from family members.

Pet obesity is a growing problem with far-reaching and potentially devastating health consequences. Maintaining a lean, healthy weight is the best prevention for many chronic conditions, and can extend your pet’s life up to two years. If you suspect your pet is overweight or obese, or you’d like to learn more about keeping your pet healthy, contact the team at LaGrange Veterinary Hospital for a weight management consultation.