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canine health problems
dog lying on floor

The essentials

  • Pet obesity is increasing — The number of obese dogs and cats more than doubled between 2011 and 2020.
  • Pet obesity prevention is key — Obese pets are at a higher risk for diabetes, arthritis, and shorter life spans.
  • Pet owners can help their furry friends stay healthy — Regular walks and play sessions, and a discussion with your local veterinarian about your pet’s diet can help your pet achieve a healthy weight.

Pet obesity is an epidemic with a 108% increase in dogs diagnosed as overweight or obese from 2011 to 2020, according to a Banfield Pet Hospital report. The news was worse for cats — a 114% increase in obesity diagnoses from 2011 to 2020. And the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help with a 2.3% uptick in dogs diagnosed as overweight or obese from March to December 2020.

If you have an overweight pet, solutions may be a bit more complicated than cutting back on human food or other treats, but they’ll pay off in the long run. Keeping your pet at a healthy weight reduces the likelihood they’ll develop medical conditions like arthritis and diabetes.

What is pet obesity?

Obesity occurs when a pet has excessive body fat. Typically, a vet will diagnose a dog as obese if their weight is 15% above the ideal body weight, and a cat if their weight is 20% more than their ideal body weight.

Though obesity is common among cats and dogs, that doesn’t mean it’s any less serious. According to researchers and vets, obesity is linked to several health risks, including heart disease, muscle and joint issues, and diabetes. If your pet is obese, a veterinarian can help you develop a plan.

Causes of pet obesity

There are a variety of factors that make your pet prone to obesity, including feeding them people food. We love our pets. When their big, hopeful eyes lock with ours as we rummage through our pantry, it’s natural to give in and let them have a little bit of the food we’re going to eat. But feeding your pets people food in addition to their pet food increases the number of calories and fat that they consume. Too much food, along with other factors, can cause serious health problems.

Breed

Bulldogs, Dachshunds, Labrador retrievers, and basset hounds are among the breeds with an increased chance of being overweight. Some of it is genetics, but dachshunds and basset hounds, in particular, also have a unique body shape and size that adds to their risk.

👉 For more helpful information, take a look at our vet-approved guide to potential health conditions that affect dogs.

Age

Humans’ risk for obesity rises with age, and the same goes for our pets. As pets age, they don’t have as much energy for long walks and games of fetch. They prefer to take more naps during the day. However, it’s still important to encourage senior pets to exercise. Take your dog on a shorter walk more frequently, or have your cat chase a laser-pointer light up and down the hallway a few times a week. Exercise for pets of all ages is important to help maintain a healthy weight and keep their muscles toned. Senior pets also may require some lifestyle tweaks to make up for less exercise.

Spayed/neutered

Spaying and neutering your pet has many benefits, including decreasing the risk of unwanted animals in shelters. However, recent research has linked spaying and neutering to pet obesity later in life. Pet owners can combat this risk by adhering to a healthy diet.

Food type

Pets need a well-balanced high-quality diet. Foods with too many kilocalories per cup (kcals per cup), can up a pet’s obesity risk. An Association for American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) label signifies a well-balanced high-quality pet food. Make sure you check for this label when looking for food for your pet.

Food amount

Overeating is a common factor contributing to obesity, whether it’s feeding too much human food, kibble, or treats. Gradually reducing a pet’s food intake may help. However, consult with your local veterinarian first to see if you are feeding your pet too much. Sometimes, a pet eats too fast to digest the food, so they miss hunger cues. You can pace their consumption with slow-feed bowls.

Underlying health conditions

Specific issues, including hypothyroidism and osteoarthritis, can raise a pet’s obesity risk. If your pet has these risks, pay close attention to their diet, body condition, and weight. Pet parents can access body condition charts to assess their dog or cat.

“It is important to consult with your local veterinarian about your pet's weight and diet. A local veterinarian will be able to tell you if your pet is overweight and what your pet's target weight should be. Also, your local veterinarian can give you guidance on the type of food to feed and the proper amount.”

Dr. Michelle Diener

Risks of pet obesity

Obesity isn’t a standalone condition. It has a ripple effect that can lower our fur babies’ quality of life. Obese pets are more prone to certain diseases, immobility, and a shorter lifespan.

  • Diabetes. Overweight cats are more likely to develop diabetes mellitus, specifically Type II diabetes. The good news is that this disease can go into remission with the proper care and lifestyle tweaks.
  • Arthritis. Too many extra pounds and excess body fat can damage our pet’s joints. Obesity can contribute to a dog or cat developing arthritis, a painful joint condition that can make it challenging to move.
  • Insulin resistance. Obesity may lead to insulin resistance in both dogs and cats. However, when cats develop insulin resistance, this causes diabetes type II to develop. If a cat’s diabetes is not diagnosed and managed quickly, it can become life-threatening.
  • Heart disease. Researchers say obese dogs that are overweight around their abdomen have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular issues.

How to know if your pet is obese: 3 steps

The sooner you catch weight troubles in your pet, the more likely it is that you can help them get the number on the scale back to normal. Only a vet can provide a formal obesity diagnosis, but proactive pet owners can take a few steps to get ahead of the issue before an annual check-up. Early detection can go a long way in preventing painful and potentially fatal conditions.

Step 1: Check your pet’s body condition

You may struggle to weigh your dog at home, but looking at their figure can provide clues into what the scale would say. A dog’s waist should be defined and slightly raised near their backside. The tummy should not sag. Obese dogs will have a plump or oval-shaped figure.

Body condition scoring chart

Source: VCA Animal Hospitals

Step 2: Do regular weigh-ins at the vet

As good as the eye test can be, your best bet is to take your dog to the vet to get an obesity diagnosis. Vets’ offices are equipped with high-quality scales specifically designed for pets. Vets know the ideal weight for your pet based on their size and breed.

Vets can also evaluate your pet’s figure to make sure it’s healthy. After assessing your pup, a vet will use a body condition score chart. A score of one indicates your pet is emaciated and nine means they’re very obese. Vets typically prefer a body condition score of a four or five — right in the middle.

Step 3: Feel for excess fat

You can gain some insights into your pet’s weight and body fat simply by petting them. Some breeds, like sighthounds, should have some of their ribs showing. Regardless of breed, pet parents should always be able to feel each of their pup’s ribs. If there’s a hefty fat layer covering your dog’s ribs, they are probably overweight and may be obese. Overweight pets will also have fat pads on their hips.

How to help your overweight pet lose weight

Obesity is treatable. You can take some simple steps to help your dog or cat lose weight. Remember, prevention is the best medicine.

  • Talk to your vet Give your vet a call if you are concerned about your pet’s figure or weight. A vet can give you an accurate weight and diagnose any underlying conditions that may be contributing to or causing the uptick in weight.
  • Get pets moving Regular walks for dogs and lots of heart-thumping play activities can help pets lose weight. Pups may love a rousing game of fetch, and many cats like chasing something on a “fish pole.” “Scheduling your dog to attend a local doggie daycare a few days a week can give your dog lots of exercise,” betterpet veterinarian Michelle Diener said. “Another option is to schedule play dates with other dogs that get along well with your pup. Some cats also love to go on walks too for exercise! Consider buying a harness and leash for your cat to give it a try.”
  • Make sure everyone is on board Keeping Fido healthy is a family affair. Make sure everyone is aligned on do’s and don’ts, especially regarding high-calorie treats and table food.

👉 Shedding a few extra pounds can go a long way in keeping your dog healthy and happy. Here are more ways to help your pet lose weight.

Obesity is challenging to manage and fix, but it’s doable and important. Just like with people, it will take time for a dog or cat to lose weight. However, achieving a healthy body weight is crucial to reduce the risk of arthritis and diabetes and to live a longer and healthier life. A healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and regular check-ups with your vet to monitor weight and screen for underlying medical conditions are simple ways you can help prevent unhealthy weight gain.

Frequently asked questions

How would you define pet obesity?

Pet obesity occurs when a pet has too much body fat. Generally, dogs are obese if their body weight is 15% higher than ideal. Cats who are 20% over their normal body weight are diagnosed as obese.

How common is pet obesity?

More than a third of dogs and cats are overweight or obese. The number of obese dogs and cats jumped more than 100% from 2011 to 2020.

How is obesity treated in pets?

There are several ways to treat pet obesity, and the vet will typically recommend a multimodal approach. A healthy diet, regular weigh-ins, plenty of exercise, and a commitment from all family members to participate can help your pet succeed in their weight loss journey.

How much should I feed my pet?

The recommended food intake for your dog or cat depends on multiple factors, including their size, breed, age, and whether they are obese or overweight. Most pet foods come with a chart with information on how much to feed an animal per day. Dogs typically have two daily meals, so you may need to divide the per-day number on the bag by two. Consult with your local veterinarian about your pet’s diet and feeding amounts.

How can I tell if my pet is overweight?

 Use a body condition score chart as a guide to determine if your pet is overweight. Also, schedule an appointment with your pet’s vet if you are concerned about your pet’s weight. Your vet can weigh your pet and guide you if they’re overweight. An overweight pet is more susceptible to health problems, so you’ll want to work with the vet to help your furry friend get back to a healthy weight.

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