Your 8-year-old chocolate lab is putting on weight, and you know she should probably lose a pound or two. But when she looks at you pleadingly with those big brown eyes, how can you resist handing out just one more treat?
It’s not easy. But it may be important.
“Just as obesity has become a serious problem in people, it’s also a growing problem in pets, one that can seriously harm your pet’s health,” says Carmela Stamper, a veterinarian in the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Among CVM’s responsibilities are making sure that food for animals—which includes animal feed, pet food, and pet treats—is properly labeled with truthful claims, and is safe for animals and the people who handle it.
According to a 2015 survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, an estimated 58% of cats and 54% of dogs in the United States are overweight.
“The diseases we see in our overweight pets are strikingly similar to those seen in overweight people,” Stamper says, naming as examples diabetes mellitus (also known as Type 2 Diabetes, in which the body does not use insulin properly), osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, heart and respiratory disease, and kidney disease.
“We want our pets to live happy lives, but we also want them to live long ones,” Stamper says. Obesity in your pet can significantly shorten the animal’s life span.
How Fat is Too Fat?
In pets, 20 percent over ideal body weight is considered obese. But the ideal weight is relative, depending on the animal’s breed, age, body type, and metabolism.
“In dogs, some breeds seem more inclined toward obesity than others,” Stamper notes. Labs and beagles are two examples, as well as long, low dogs such as dachshunds and basset hounds. In contrast, while veterinarians are reporting more overweight and obese felines, no one specific cat breed is prone to obesity.
Neutering can slow down a dog or cat’s metabolism, and so can aging, especially if the animal gets less exercise than when younger. It is important to talk to your veterinarian about how much food your dog or cat should be eating.
Keeping Track: Important Questions to Ask Your Vet
The real expert on the ideal weight for your animal is your vet, who marks changes over time in a way that you—who sees your animal every day—may not.
How does your vet know if a pet’s weight has edged past normal and become unhealthy? Many use body condition scoring systems for both dogs and cats, such as a 1-5 point scale (with a “1” being very skinny, and a “5” being obese.) Where on the scale does your animal fall?
“Ask your vet to explain the scoring system he or she uses,” Stamper says. And ask for specifics about what to look for, such as:
- What are some specific signs that my animal is gaining weight?
- What is a good normal weight for my pet?
- What type of food do you recommend, and how much is a serving? How many times a day should I feed my pet? (Stamper notes that the amount recommended on the side of the food bag may not be right for your particular animal, depending on your pet’s age, activity level, or other factors).
- Does my pet have a health condition (such as arthritis) that makes it advisable to keep weight on the low side?
“There’s a good reason why your animals get weighed at every vet visit,” Stamper says. Pet owners should make it a habit to ask how their animal is doing weight-wise and whether there is cause for concern if their animal is significantly overweight—or underweight.
Being too skinny or weight loss can be the sign of a health problem, too, Stamper adds. In particular, a dog or cat who normally enjoys eating but suddenly shows a lack of appetite can be exhibiting a symptom of a serious health problem that may warrant a visit to the vet to be sure everything’s okay.
Signs to Look For
In the meantime there are some basic signs to look for to determine whether or not your pet is at a healthy weight.
- Look at your animal from above. Does your pet have a definite waist? “If not, and her back is broad and flat like a footstool, she is likely overweight,” Stamper says.
- Run your hands along your animal’s side. Can you easily feel the ribs, or do you have to push hard to feel them? Are they too prominent?
- Does your animal have a “tucked” abdomen, or a sagging stomach? If you can easily grab a handful of fat, that’s a sign your animal is overweight.
All things in moderation, Stamper says. For most animals, the occasional treat is just fine.
“It’s not unusual for people who are very focused on their own weight to be overly focused on their animals’,” she adds. “The key is to talk to your vet if you’re concerned.”