OCTOBER 12, 2016

Pet Obesity Awareness Day

By Dr. Jack Walkenhorst

Obesity is a prevalent finding in our fur babies, which can significantly affect their overall health. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than half of cats and dogs in the United States are overweight or obese. What’s worse is that many pet owners are unaware of the problem; with 22% of dog owners and 15% of cat owners saying their pet's weight was normal when it was actually overweight or obese.

Why is pet obesity so prevalent?

Obesity is not only an issue in our pets; it’s a cultural problem that has extended to our pets, with many Americans suffering from obesity themselves. Because of the obesity epidemic throughout our culture, many pet owners do not recognize obesity in their pets. Then, even if a pet owner recognizes it, they’re often unaware of the dangers and potential consequences.

How to determine if your pet is obese:

Recognizing obesity in your pet is not always easy. Seeing them daily can make it hard to recognize gradual weight gain. Your vet can use a technical process to determine if a pet is 15% over their target weight, making them clinically overweight, or more than 30% over, meaning they’re clinically obese. However, it can be impossible to check those numbers at home, so here are some tips for spotting obesity in your pet:

  1. Can you feel your pet’s ribs? If you cannot easily feel their individual ribs under the fat, the pet is likely obese.
  2. Stand over your pet and look down on their back. If the pet is not overweight, you will see a defined waistline in their abdomen before their hind legs
  3. Take your pet for yearly check-ups and vaccinations to give your vet the opportunity to spot weight issues. Discuss any weight concerns with your vet during these annual appointments, so they can reference those technical guidelines and help you create a treatment plan to get your pet back on track.

Consequences of pet obesity:

It can be easy to laugh-off a loveable family pet’s chubby belly, until you know the true dangers and potential consequences of pet obesity. These include:

  1. Pre-disposition to diabetes, especially in cats: Diabetes is an incurable, but potentially treatable disease that creates a whole new list of dangers and consequences to the animal.
  2. Orthopedic health: Obesity can worsen the symptoms and progression of arthritis, which is common in many of our older pets. When an animal is overweight, it’s hard for their bones and joints to support the extra weight. Obesity can cause irreversible damage that results in constant pain and limits mobility.
  3. Heart and lung health: Just like in humans, obesity can cause dangerous pulmonary and cardiovascular issues for pets.

How to prevent and treat pet obesity:

Pet obesity is a difficult problem to solve because we live in a world of instant gratification. Changing an animal’s diet and exercise routine for a few weeks will not treat or prevent obesity. Treatment is a long-term commitment and a slow, difficult process, especially if an owner has multiple pets or is required to change their lifestyle too. If you’re committed to maintaining a healthy pet, here are some tips to help you get started: 

  1. Awareness: Recognizing the problem and its risks are the first step. Then educating yourself about your pet’s specific needs and genetic predisposition for obesity based on the type of pet and their breed will help you take steps toward prevention or treatment.
  2. Diet: In the last fifty or so years our pets have gone from eating table scraps and running around outside, to indoor animals that eat pet food. This is good in a lot of ways for their safety, but they’re now lacking exercise and eating predominantly dry pet foods that are high in calories and carbs. Pet food containers provide feeding recommendations and they’re a good place to start, especially if you currently leave out your pet’s food and absentmindedly refill the bowl when it’s empty. However, these instructions must be combined with the knowledge of your pet’s metabolic rate and obesity risk to make the best diet plan. Consider changing to a “low calorie” or “lite” pet food diet. Pet owners should also consider substituting some canned food into their pet’s diet. It has far less calories for the same volume per serving. 
  3. Exercise: Many people think they can fix their pet’s obesity issues with diet adjustments alone. But just like humans, its unhealthy for an animal to sit all day, making daily exercise is a key piece to the puzzle. Not only does exercise help your pet loose weight, it’s great for their cardiovascular, pulmonary, and orthopedic health. This can sometimes be the hardest part of prevention and treatment because owners often must participate in the program, but it’s a great way for owners and pets to bond and stay healthy together.

To fight pet obesity, we must raise awareness to help pet owners recognize it, understand the dangers, and take steps toward prevention or treatment. By making a long-term commitment to life-style changes, caregivers have the ability improve and extend the lives of their animal companions. And while it might seem impossible to take on the entire pet obesity epidemic, we can all start by helping one pet, and one pet owner discover the path to weight loss and ongoing healthy living.