This is the time of the year when we all tend to cautiously avoid the bathroom scales… But it’s not just us humans who are suffering an obesity epidemic – it’s our pets too. Recent research suggests that nearly half of all dogs and cats are overweight or obese – and that’s a problem that’s getting worse and worse.
Why are a few extra pounds a problem for pets?
Because as soon as a dog, cat, or rabbit – or indeed any pet – is over their “healthy” or “optimal” weight, their risk of certain disease conditions rapidly starts to increase. The consequences are increased risks of:
- Arthritis – overloading the joints causes them to become inflamed. The cartilage inside is damaged by the excessive loading forces, and the synovial fluid (the “lubricating oil” of the joint) becomes thinner and less viscous. The result is osteoarthritis, leading to stiffness, lameness and pain.
- Breathing problems – the extra fat outside the ribcage, and behind the diaphragm, makes it harder for them to breathe. While this may not be a major problem immediately, for animals with existing breathing problems (e.g. very short nosed animals like Pugs or Persian cats, those with tracheal collapse disorder, and other respiratory diseases) this can be disastrous. In addition, it reduces their exercise tolerance (see below) and makes anaesthetics for any surgery they may need more risky.
- Exercise intolerance – additional weight means that running or even walking around is harder work. Add in the breathing issues, and the result is that animals tend to do less exercise, so burn less calories, so get even fatter!
- Certain tumours – overweight animals have more soft tissues and so are at a greater risk of a number of tumours. The most important are lipomas (a relatively benign fatty tumour) and liposarcomas (a malignant cancer), both of which are much more common in overweight animals.
- Cystitis – yes, being overweight is a major risk factor for cystitis (Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disorder) in cats!
- Heart problems – there is some evidence to suggest that being overweight may accelerate the progression of heart disease – probably because the heart has to work harder to pump blood around the extra tissues.
How do I know if my pet is overweight?
Just weighing them on its own isn’t usually enough – you need to estimate the amount of fat inside the animal! That’s why we recommend using the Body Condition Score System. Basically, look at and feel your animal’s body, then compare what you find to the charts! You can download “Size-O-Meter” charts for lots of different pet species here. Remember, 1 is emaciated, 2 is underweight, 3 is just right, 4 is overweight and 5 is obese. Try to get them to 3, and AVOID 1 and 5.
What can be done about it?
Just like with people, weight loss in pets needs multiple approaches to be successful.
Feeding a restricted calorie diet is absolutely essential – if we overfeed our pets, inevitably they will tend to gain weight! You need to work out how much food your pet needs for a healthy weight (use the labels on the back of the bag or tin for guidance!), then stick to it for a week or so. It may be useful to weigh out each day’s “ration” to help you stick to it! Then, reassess them – have they lost weight? If not, reduce their diet further.
You should be aiming for weight loss of about 1% of body weight per week. If they lose weight more slowly than that, it will take a very long time to reach a healthy size; if faster, you put their health at risk, potentially leading to liver disease.
That said, many pets violently dislike being put on a strict diet, so you may need to find tricks to make them feel happier with their diet! The most important is to avoid giving treats or snacks. These are often very high in calories. If you must give a treat, take a couple of kibbles or biscuits out of their evening meal, so they get a reward without it being “extra” calories. Another useful method is to use a “low calorie”, “weight loss”, “reducing” or “metabolic” diet food – this will make them feel full, while still giving them restricted calories.
If this seems difficult, don’t worry – we understand it isn’t easy! That’s why we’ve introduced Weight Watchers clinics with our trained veterinary nurses to help you out! They can help measure and assess your pet, give you tips and tricks, and work out a suitable diet for them.
The other part of the story is, of course, exercise. Now, while it is true that you can’t exercise away a poor diet, that doesn’t mean it isn’t vitally important, for three reasons…
- Exercise builds muscle, and muscle burns energy faster than fat, reversing the negative cycle of weight loss.
- Exercise improves fitness, which can help to offset some of the health risks from being overweight.
- Exercise improves mental wellbeing (yours and your pet’s!).
So get the dog out for a run (or at least a brisk walk), spend time playing pouncing games with the cat, and give the rabbit room to run and stretch his legs. They’ll benefit, and so will you!