Fat Kills: The True Danger of Pet Obesity

Why you should care if your dog or cat is fat

Are you concerned about your pet being overweight or obese?  Are you wondering how to go about introducing a diet or optimising a weight loss program for your cat or dog?  In this two part series I will address the rising problem of overweight pets, discuss why we should be concerned and advise how we can get our cats and dogs back to their healthy weight so they can live a happy, healthy life to their full potential.


Pets are fat (but not my pet right?)

Obesity in the general dog and cat population is a rapidly developing problem.  So much so that it is seen by many vets and pet owners as one of the biggest issues facing our pet population with the majority of people recognising that an overweight or obese pet will have a compromised quality of life and a reduced life span.  It is great that people are recognising that weight issues have significant consequences.  What isn’t so great is the fact that these same people are not recognising the problem of their own pets being overweight.

We can see this clearly in a US study which determined that while a whopping 54% of dogs and 59% of cats are either overweight or obese, 80% of pet owners classified their own pets weight as being normal and healthy.  This is clearly impossible!  Put simply, if I lined up 5 overweight pets, 3 owners would tell me their pet was a healthy weight.  Pet obesity is by no means limited to the United States.  It is clearly a global problem with 36% of dogs and 29% of cats considered overweight in the UK.  This rises to 40% of dogs and 30% of cats in Australia and New Zealand.  

obesity is a serious, growing, global problem in our pet population

Many owners will claim their obese pet actually hardly eats anything and will then often make excuses as to why their pets are overweight saying they are just big boned, naturally stocky or they have a medical condition causing them to be the weight they are.  If you are really concerned about the latter then you must consult your vet but in reality the vast majority of our overweight pets suffer neither underactive thyroid problems or other hormonal abnormalities resulting in obesity.  Being spayed or castrated is not an excuse either, as our neutered pet population has every potential to be a normal healthy weight.  We just need to recognise that after neutering our pets needs change.  We need to feed them around 25% less after neutering as well as maintain exercise levels to ensure muscle maintenance.

Where's the harm in being fat?

Hopefully we can all accept that there is a problem in general and recognise that despite what we may think our own pets may actually be suffering from being overweight or obese.  Why though should we care?  What harm is there in our cats and dogs being a little tubby?  Well fat is not just a substance that sits around doing nothing, although this is something we used to believe for a long time.  Instead fats presence affects many different functions of the body and so causes detrimental effects to an individual in a number of ways.  Fat actually produces messenger chemicals in the form of hormones as well as a number of inflammatory proteins.  These molecules either result in direct impairment of normal body functions or result in an overweight individual being in a state of persistent low grade inflammation.

Both of these play a role in the development of chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and diabetes.  Other diseases that overweight animals are more likely to experience also include: urinary tract disease, urinary incontinence, airway disease, fatty liver disease, cruciate ligament damage and even some cancers.

An amazing example of this is a study done in Labradors that clearly demonstrated the fact that overweight Labradors suffered from arthritis on average 3 years before and died 2 years earlier than their healthy weight counterparts.  Put another way this means that healthy weight dogs can potentially live pain free for 3 years longer than those that are overweight as well as living for an extra 2 years in total.  Just think as well that this study did not even look at obese dogs.  Just imagine what the difference would be if it had.  

Cats are clearly not immune from the effects of being overweight either.  Another study reported that obese cats are 4 times more likely to develop diabetes.  They are also over twice as likely to suffer from skin disease and 5 times as likely to suffer from lameness.

Lets now remove specific diseases from the equation and instead focus on a study that assessed quality of life as perceived by each pets owner.  There was unsurprisingly a clear difference.  Healthy weight dogs appeared to be much more energetic and enthusiastic as well as being more active and comfortable than their overweight counterparts.  Obese animals performed even worse than the overweight ones so clearly as weight increases quality of life deteriorates.  This is especially notable because it is information as reported by normal owners, and remember a lot of us don’t realise our pets are in fact overweight or obese.

A final problem with being overweight or obese comes about should our pets require investigations and surgery for other conditions.  Being overweight can increase anaesthetic risk and also increase the potential for surgical complications to occur as many surgeries will take longer and be more challenging as a result of the increased body fat.

the dangers and risks of obese, fat and overweight cats and dogs

Is my dog fat? Is my cat obese?

So how can we tell if a cat or a dog is overweight?  Thankfully the answer to this is quite simple.  We have a great tool to use for this known as the body condition score.  Using this tool we can determine an individuals body shape and mark then on a scale of 1-9, with 4 to 5 being a normal healthy weight.  A score of 6 and 7 would make a cat or dog overweight by around 10 to 20%.  An 8 or 9 means obesity, with a body weight of at least 30-40% greater than is healthy.  Body condition scoring is something anyone can do although experience does help to allow breed variations to be considered.  To learn more about body condition scoring and how to score your own pet take a look at my separate is my pet fat article.  

You may have seen breed weight charts where specific breeds are given their normal healthy weight range.  I am personally not much a fan of these because the weight ranges are typically quite large to reflect the range of sizes within each breed and they understandably do not take into account cross breeds.  Body condition scoring is far superior reflecting the true condition of each individual pet.

The next step

OK so we now know how big a problem obesity is in our dog and cat population.  We know what problems being overweight can cause and we can score our own pets to determine if they are overweight or not.  So what comes next?  Well if your pet is a healthy weight congratulations!  It is important however not to now just ignore weight as a potential issue.  Obesity is a dynamic disease.  Weight changes with time and we need to ensure that our pets healthy weight is maintained.  

If your pet is overweight or obese don't worry.  In a way congratulations as well because this disease can only be addressed if we accept it is a problem in the first place.  Now you have recognised the problem and accepted a need to act.  What can we now do to get our pet down to a more healthy weight and is it ever too late?  The clear answer to the latter is no.  There is always a benefit to losing weight and even in those individuals who are already arthritic and painful a loss of as little as 6% of body weight can result in a significant reduction in lameness.

As for how we can go about getting a cat or dogs weight down to a healthy level?  Make sure you read part 2 of this article about how to diet your dog and cat.  

If you have any questions.  If you have weight loss tips or motivational stories you would like to share or if there is anything you would like covered in future articles then please leave a comment below.  Also sign up to our newsletter to be sure not to miss out on our future content.  

Our Pets Health: for a healthier, happier life.