How To Tell If a Pet Is Obese
As pet parents, we want to keep our dogs, cats, and other animals healthy, happy, and with us for a long time. While they can face a broad array of potential health issues, one of the most common and most damaging health challenges pets face also happens to be one of the most treatable: obesity.
Obesity Is a Life-Altering Health Pandemic
While our daily news is packed with stories of human obesity rates skyrocketing across the globe, many people are not aware that obesity in pets has followed an alarmingly similar growth pattern in recent decades. Industry data indicates that nearly 60% of dogs and cats are either overweight or obese, making this the most common nutritional disorder identified by veterinarians in the US.
It is not surprising that our attitudes and habits towards exercise, reduced-calorie diets, and overall health would affect our entire family, felines and canines included, but many pet parents either do not fully realize just how damaging extra weight can be to dogs and cats, or they are not taking the necessary steps to address the problem. The result is that our companions are living shorter lives, dealing with more health complications, and enjoying a lower overall quality of life than they should be.
A study of Labrador retrievers showed that subjects who were only 10% to 20% overweight (not obese, which is usually defined as being overweight by more than 30%) had their lifespans shortened by a median of 1.8 years compared to dogs at an ideal weight. Health complications resulting from obesity include diabetes, osteoarthritis, respiratory complications, heat intolerance, skin disease, some forms of cancer, and a reduced lifespan with an overall lower quality of life.
Even among those that understand the dangers, a study in the United Kingdom found that pet parents are often inaccurate in their assessment of their dog’s condition. In the study, parents were asked to identify their dog’s overall body condition using a 1-5 scale: 1 = emaciated, 2 = lean, 3 = ideal, 4 = overweight, 5 = obese. Approximately half of them were able to correctly identify which category applied to their dog. For the half that were wrong, nearly 80% rated too low on the scale, with some participants mis-identifying by two or even three levels.
Identifying Whether Your Dog or Cat Is Obese
Diagnosing your pet’s overall health is something you should discuss with your veterinarian. Ideal weights and body composition can vary significantly between cats and dogs, and even within species between breeds, that vary significantly in size and makeup. However, various industry organizations have developed useful guidelines for pet parents to assess their pets’ overall Body Condition Score (BCS). The most common BCS guides use either a 5-point scale (as in the study mentioned above) or a 9-point scale, which is favored by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) and others. Some feel that the more detailed scale could make it easier to properly apply to their own cats and dogs.
The guide offers visual representation of under, over, and ideal-weight dogs as well as descriptions of specific areas of the body and how they should feel or appear for a given category. (You can use these categorizations for cats as well, however, we will be adding a cat chart soon).
The important thing when using these guidelines is to be honest in your assessment. It might feel better to just say your dog is “chunky” or simply has a body or coat type that makes him look overweight when he is not, but ignoring weight issues cannot eliminate the very real health risks they create.
Beyond this visual guide and descriptions, here are some questions you can ask yourself to help identify if your pet could be suffering from canine or feline obesity:
- Does he struggle, even briefly, to get up from a sitting or lying position?
- Does he avoid playing with you or other household animals?
- Do you notice wheezing when he breathes?
- Does he pant constantly?
- Does he need extra help getting into the car?
- Is he winded after even minimal movement, such as greeting you when you come home?
The Treatable Nature of Obesity
Remember that dogs and cats cannot come to you and say, “I do not feel well.” If your pet rates outside of the ideal BCS range, or if you are noticing changes in behavior that concern you, talk to your vet. They can help you identify any areas of concern and work with you to devise a treatment plan.
Changes to dietary and exercise habits can help get an animal back on track towards a more ideal body and improved overall health. Weight loss can even help minimize or eliminate many other issues that affect your pet’s quality of life, and may even reduce your overall cost of care by eliminating expensive medications and treatments.