The most common health problem that I see in the Louisiana SPCA Community Clinic is rarely the one that owners bring their pet in to address. We diagnose it at annual examinations, at appointments for skin problems, ear problems, and illness, at appointments for travel paperwork, spay and neuter, and heartworm treatment. This problem is significant, but is usually preventable and treatable. This problem is obesity.
In parallel with the rise in obesity in humans, the rise in overweight and obese pets is marked. A survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention in 2016 found that an estimated 54% of dogs and 59% of cats were either overweight or obese. This is big. Literally. People tend to think of pets who are obese as being cute and cuddly, especially cats. Often, we use food as a way to express our love for and bond with our pets, and trust me, I am guilty of this, too. The truth is that while pets who are overweight may look cute and huggable, the negative health effects for pets caused by being overweight or obese are pronounced and can lead to a significantly shorter life span for both dogs and cats.
Obesity can predispose pets to a variety of illnesses. In cats, obesity can lead to insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes. It can make breathing difficult by increasing pressure on the chest, leading to shallower respirations. Obesity also aggravates a multitude of other health conditions. Arthritis and other joint problems are much more difficult to manage when the pet is overweight. Respiratory conditions such as tracheal collapse or laryngeal paralysis are worsened when the pet is overweight. Overweight pets are at greater risk of heat stroke. Surgeries such as spays are more challenging when the pet is overweight. Even skin problems can be worsened if yeast infections develop in skin folds and areas where obesity causes increased skin to skin contact. Obese cats will often have difficulty grooming themselves, leading to matting and skin problems.
Luckily, with some effort, obesity can be corrected. As in people, every pet is different and there is not one single plan that will work for every pet. It’s best to talk to your veterinarian and develop a strategy that takes into account your pet’s lifestyle and habits. This is especially important for overweight cats, as they are at risk for a serious illness called Hepatic Lipidosis, which can occur if an obese cat stops eating for even a few days.
Your veterinarian will likely start by discussing your pet’s body condition score. This is a way for your veterinarian to determine how obese your pet is, without simply relying on the number on the scale. You and your veterinarian should discuss how you feed your pet, including how many treats they get per day and if they eat table scraps as well. Your veterinarian will likely suggest a change to a lower calorie/higher fiber food, or may recommend a prescription diet. Any diet changes should be done slowly, over the course of a week or two. On most food bags, there is a feeding guide listing how many cups (measuring cups, not those used for drinking) a day your pet should eat, based on its ideal weight, not its current weight. Feeding a meal rather than leaving a full bowl out at all times is usually better for weight loss. Treats should be limited. If you like to give your pets treats throughout the day, consider holding back some food from their meals and using that as treats. Or, talk with your veterinarian about low calorie options for treats.
Along with diet, increasing the activity of your pet is key. It’s the middle of summer, so use caution and talk with your vet about how to safely exercise your overweight pet when it’s hot outside. Walking in the very early morning and late evening when it’s not quite as hot are better for your pet. Always monitor your pet for signs that they may be struggling in the heat and get them back where it’s cool if they begin having trouble. For pets who like water, swimming can be a great choice for increasing exercise. For cats, increasing activity may require more ingenuity. Moving the food bowl around to different locations encourages your pet to move more. Playing with toys or laser pointers can also interest cats in exercising. If your pet is showing other signs of illness or is not losing weight despite following the diet and exercise plan, your veterinarian may want to perform tests to make sure that there is no underlying disease preventing weight loss.
Pet obesity is a growing problem that we can all help prevent. If you are concerned about your pet’s weight or would like to learn how to prevent obesity in your pet, talk to your veterinarian. They can help you develop a nutrition plan that will help your pet to live its best, most healthy life!