By David Brooks MRCVS of Pet Insurance Expert.
Humans are not the only species to be suffering an obesity epidemic in certain parts of the world. Our pampered pets are also getting fat, with some estimates putting the level of obesity amongst dogs and cats at around 25%.
It is accepted that being clinically obese can lead to medical problems in humans, and this too is true for our pets. Arthritis, heart disease, bladder problems and diabetes are just some of the ailments our pets can suffer from if they are predisposed to it by their weight problem. Also, obese pets experience fatigue, exercise intolerance and heat intolerance leading to a poor overall quality of life.
Quite often overweight owners will have overweight pets. For dogs, this derives from 3 likelihoods:
- The owner is relatively inactive, and the dog does not get walked as much as it should, burning off less calories.
- The owner eats regularly throughout the day, meaning the dog is more often begging for treats and probably getting them.
- The owner has a misplaced judgement of what is overweight and what is healthy, and what constitutes an appropriate portion size for the dogs body weight.
For cats, the situation is a little different as they cannot be walked like dogs can to burn off calories. Naturally cats that spend more time indoors are getting less exercise than those that spend most of the time outdoors, and so are more likely to be obese. The latter 2 likelihoods above apply to cats too though.
In the authors experience, a motivated attempt by the owner to lose weight will often co-incide with the pet losing weight too. Like humans, pets cannot manufacture fat or muscle out of thin air and so for dogs and indoor cats you have total control over your pets body condition.
How can I tell if my pet is overweight?
There is no set rule of what is overweight and what not because there is so much variation between and within breeds. As a rule of thumb you should be able to feel your pets ribs easily by gently stroking the side of the chest with your fingertips. You should also be able to just feel the tips of the vertebrae jutting out (dorsal spinous processes) along your pets spine as you stroke him/her from head to tail. If they are not palpable then your pet is likely to be obese.
All pets should be weighed regularly. This may be difficult to achieve at home but a rough guide to your pets weight can be obtained by weighing yourself on some bathroom scales, then weighing yourself whilst carrying your pet and subtracting one from the other. This may be difficult for big heavy dogs, and inaccurate for small dogs and cats where small fluctuations can be more significant. Keeping track of your pets weight means that you can:
- Dose them more accurately for medicines such as flea and worming prevention drugs.
- Tell if they are putting on weight more accurately, as change is seldom noticed if you are seeing the animal on a daily basis rather than at intervals.
- Tell if they are losing weight, which is a common factor in many disease processes.
If the bathroom scales option is not feasible, drop by your local veterinary clinic and ask if you can weight your pet on their scales. They will be impressed at your conscientiousness!
Killing your pet with kindness
For many animals the highlight of the day is meal time. Of course if your pet had just weeks to live due to, say, an inoperable tumor, then it would be wise to feed him/her whatever his/her favorite food is as there is no long term to suffer the long term consequences. However, for the vast majority, feeding an appropriate amount of a healthy diet will be greeted with equal enthusiasm as the gluttonous portions your pet may be accustomed to, it just needs a little owner motivation and discipline to get to that point.
So, are these diseases that fat animals suffer from genuine or are they just scare stories? They are indeed real and possibly even imminent for your pet. Lets have a closer look at some of the diseases and problems pets can suffer from as a direct result of their obesity:
- Heart disease. The bigger you are, the harder your heart has to work to pump blood around the body. Very obese pets have a higher than normal heart rate and a larger heart with no reserve capacity, meaning they get out of breath very easily and regularly pant after minimal physical exertion. Losing some of that weight takes a huge strain off the heart.
- Arthritis. Imagine carrying around a large rucksack full of stones wherever you went. After some time the strain on your joints would start to tell. Many pets will get arthritis at a certain age anyway, for obese pets this is more likely to occur sooner and the severity of the disease will be increased, necessitating permanent anti-inflammatory painkillers which can be expensive.
- Diabetes Mellitus. Obesity is a well known factor in the development of diabetes, due to insufficient insulin produced in the pancreas and resistance to the insulin that is already being produced. Unfortunately once your pet develops diabetes there is no cure for it, and you must accept the responsibility of giving once or twice daily insulin injections for the rest of your pets life. Much better to avoid developing diabetes in the first place of course!
- Urinary problems. Obese animals are more likely to suffer from cystitis, which requires veterinary treatment, and blockage of the bladder. A blocked bladder is common in obese male cats and is a true emergency.
- Problems giving birth.
- Non allergic skin diseases.
- Breathing problems.
- Hepatic lipidosis (fat deposited in the liver). This is a very serious condition that occurs in cats, particularly those that lose weight very quickly, or are starved for greater than 5 days.
- Increased anesthetic risk.
How can I get my pet to lose weight?
- Take your pet to the vet to have a thorough physical examination, lab tests, and an accurate weight recorded. The main purpose of this visit is to rule out hypothyroidism or other metabolic disorders which can prevent normal weight loss.
- Feed less food than you have been. Quite simply, feed smaller portions.
- Change the type of food to a low calorie complete diet. These diets, e.g. Hills r/d, provide less calories than regular pet foods do despite the portion being the same size. As a result your pets stomach is filled to the same degree and he/she does not feel hungry.
- Feed pets small portions at intervals rather than continuous free access. If your pet goes outdoors, make sure no neighbors are feeding him/her.
- Take your dog for longer and more regular walks to burn off calories. Increase the cats activity and exercise by enriching the cats environment, encouraging play.
- Reweigh your pet at monthly intervals to assess your weight loss progress. If possible keep a chart so you can visualize how you are doing, with the target weight marked clearly. Your vet will be able to suggest an appropriate target weight.
- Reduce the total daily amount fed if weight gain or no weight loss is noted.
- Once your pet is at an ideal weight, adjust the total amount fed so that his or her body weight remains stable.
David Brooks MRCVS is part of the veterinarian team at Pet Insurance Expert, the most comprehensive resource on pet insurance in the UK. Learn about the different pet insurance options and find the best pet insurance for your pet.