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 at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Among CVM’s responsibilities are making sure that animal food is safe for the animals that eat it and the people who handle it, produced under sanitary conditions, and truthfully labeled. Animal food includes food for all species of animals and covers pet food, pet treats, food for horses, and food for food-producing animals, like cows and pigs.
According to a 2022 Association for Pet Obesity Prevention survey, 60% of cats and 59% of dogs in the U.S. are overweight or obese.
“The diseases we see in our overweight pets are strikingly similar to those seen in overweight people,” Stamper says, naming as examples Type 2 diabetes, in which the body does not use insulin properly, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and heart and respiratory disease.
“We want our pets to live happy lives, but we also want them to live long ones,” Stamper says. Obesity in your pet causes chronic inflammation throughout the animal's body, and it can significantly shorten your pet’s life span.
How Fat is Too Fat?
According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, pets that are 10-20% over their ideal body weight are considered overweight, while pets 21% and over are considered obese. But the ideal weight is relative, depending on the pet’s breed, age, and body type.
“In dogs, some breeds seem more inclined toward obesity than others,” Stamper notes. Labrador retrievers 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 specific cat breed is prone to obesity. However, because indoor cats are typically less active, they are more likely to be overweight than outdoor cats, or even cats that spend time indoors and outdoors.
Spaying and neutering can slow down a dog or cat’s metabolism, and so can aging, especially if the pet 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 for each stage of life.
Keeping Track: Important Questions to Ask Your Vet
The real expert on the ideal weight for your pet 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, such as a 1-5 or 1-9 point scale (with a “1” being very skinny, and a “5” or “9” 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 about what to look for with your pet, such as:
- What are some specific signs that my pet 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, can, or pouch may not be right for your pet, depending on his age, activity level, or other factors).
- Does my pet have a health condition (such as osteoarthritis) that makes it advisable to keep weight on the low side? It may also be advisable to keep weight on the low side for large and giant dog breeds and dog breeds that are predisposed to developing orthopedic problems, such as dachshunds, German shepherds, and Newfoundlands.
“There’s a good reason why your pet gets weighed at every vet visit,” Stamper says. “The owner and vet should have a conversation about the pet’s weight at every exam.” To keep the pet at a healthy weight, the owner/veterinarian relationship should be a partnership from the beginning. Don’t be afraid to ask how your pet is doing weight-wise and whether there is cause for concern if he is overweight—or underweight.
Being too skinny or having sudden weight loss can be a 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, including cancer, various infections, pain, liver problems, or kidney disease.
Signs to Look For
In the meantime, there are some basic signs to look for to determine whether your pet is at a healthy weight.
- Look at your pet 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 pet’s side. Can you easily feel the ribs, or do you have to push hard to feel them? If you must push hard, your pet may have some excess fat around the ribs. Are the ribs too prominent? If so, your pet may be underweight and need to eat more calories.
- Stand next to your pet and look at her profile as she stands naturally. She should have a slight tuck or upward slope in the tummy area. Does her stomach hang low and appear bulging or sagging? If so, she may be overweight. If you can easily grab a handful of fat, that’s also a sign your pet is overweight.
If you have more questions, you can read the FDA’s Helping Pets Live Healthier, Thinner Lives: AAHA Nutritional Assessment Guidelines.
All things in moderation, Stamper says. For most pets, the occasional treat is just fine.