Managing Obesity in Cats and Dogs
Written by Small Door's medical experts
Weight management can be a big problem for pets. Approximately 60% of cats and 55% of dogs in the United States are either overweight or obese. Not only can this impact your pet’s quality of life, making it harder for them to enjoy walks and playtime, but it can also lead to medical issues such as diabetes, pancreatitis and arthritis. Read on to learn more about the risk factors for obesity in pets, and how you can help your pet lose weight safely, if needed.
In This Article
Obesity in pets is when they accumulate too much body fat. As a general rule of thumb, a cat or dog is considered obese if they weigh over 20% more than the recommend weight for their breed and gender. They are considered overweight if they weigh between 10-20% over the recommended amount.
Being obese or overweight poses a number of dangers to your pet:
Poor quality of life: Being overweight can make it harder for your pet to get around. Their joints may struggle to hold their additional weight, causing pain or discomfort. They may get out of breath more quickly, have less stamina, and it may make them less likely to enjoy activities they used to love, including going for walks or playing with you.
Diabetes: Overweight pets are more likely to develop diabetes (diabetes in cats, diabetes in dogs), a hormonal disorder that requires regular injections of insulin to keep their blood sugar levels under control.
Osteo-arthritis: The increased pressure on an overweight pet’s joints can lead them to develop arthritis, a condition where the cartilage cushioning the joints wears down, causing the bones to rub together painfully.
Shorter life span: In general, overweight pets don’t live as long as pets at a healthy weight, as they are more predisposed to a number of diseases, including those mentioned above, amongst others. Being overweight may also put additional pressure on your pet’s heart and lungs, which can also lead to a shortened lifespan.
The best way to keep track of your pet’s weight is to get them checked frequently at the veterinarian’s office. Your vet will weigh your pet as part of their regular exams, and can provide specific advice on how much your pet should weigh for their breed, body conformation and gender.
As a general rule of thumb, you can also tell if your pet is at a good weight using the following methods:
You should be able to easily feel their ribs and backbone under their fur, but not see them.
Your pet should have a visible waist, from above and from the side.
Here’s a handy visual guide from the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), which may help you to visualize whether your pet is at a good weight.
Once you’ve got a recommended goal weight from your veterinarian, you should continue regularly weighing your pet to keep track of their progress.
Most veterinarians would be more than happy to let you use their scales if you pop in; or you can use your own scales at home by picking up your pet – just subtract your weight from the weight of you and your pet on the scales together.
Weight gain is often a vicious circle. As a pet becomes heavier, it’s harder for them to run around and play, and so they become more sedentary, burning even fewer calories and putting on weight more quickly.
Pets gain weight when they routinely use less energy (on walks, playtime and other activities) than they are consuming each day. This often occurs either because they are not getting enough exercise, or because they are being fed more than they need at mealtimes, or they’re getting too many treats or table scraps.
Weight gain and obesity is often a vicious circle. As a pet becomes heavier, it becomes harder and less enjoyable for them to run around and play, and so they become more sedentary, burning even fewer calories and putting on weight more quickly. This is why it’s so important to combat weight gain early.
There are certain other factors that can contribute to weight gain:
Breed predispositions: Certain breeds are more predisposed to being overweight or obese. These include Dachshunds, Beagles, Basset Hounds, Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Newfoundlands and Saint Bernards. If you own one of these breeds, you should keep an extra close eye on their weight and nutrition. All indoor cat breeds can be predisposed to weight gain.
Changes in routine: Sometimes, a pet may begin gaining weight after a change in routine – for example, if they start getting fewer walks than previously, or if they are restricted from activity while recovering from a surgery or when injured. In situations where exercise cannot be maintained at the previous levels, it’s important to temporarily adjust your pet’s food to ensure they’re not taking in excess calories that they cannot burn off.
Getting older: A pet’s metabolism may change over their lifetime; as they get older, they may not need as much food as they did when they were younger. Older pets are particularly susceptible to weight gain, so it’s important to keep up with your pet’s regular veterinary exams, where your vet can help you keep an eye on their weight.
Medical conditions: Lastly, there are certain medical conditions that can make a pet gain excess weight; such as hypothyroidism (hypothyroidism in cats, hypothyroidism in dogs) and Cushing’s disease disease, amongst others. If your pet is gaining weight despite no changes in food intake or exercise levels, your vet can screen for conditions that might be to blame.
There are a number of steps you can take to help prevent obesity in your pet.
Set a goal weight: Work with your veterinarian to determine a healthy weight for your pet’s breed and gender, and the right amount of food you should be feeding them each day. As each pet’s exercise levels and metabolism can vary, this may take a little bit of trial and error. If you notice your pet gaining weight, reduce the amount of food until you find the right balance. Always measure the amount of food you’re giving your pet; don’t simply ‘eyeball’ it, or fill up the bowl. Almost all pets don’t need a full bowl of food at each meal.
Limit treats and table scraps: Treats should make up no more than 10% of your pet’s daily calorie intake, to ensure they’re getting a well balanced, nutritious diet. Try to avoid giving your pet table scraps too, as this can contribute a large number of excess calories (and some pets can start to get picky if they regularly get to eat human food!)
Feed healthy treats: Feed healthy fruits and vegetables as treats rather than store-bought treats. Snacks like blueberries, strawberries and cucumber make perfect low-calorie treats.
Give your pet plenty of exercise: Make sure your pet gets plenty of opportunity to exercise and play every day. Speak to your veterinarian if you’re not sure how much exercise is appropriate for your pet’s size or breed.
If your pet is overweight or obese, you’ll need to take steps to help them lose weight safely:
Decrease portion sizes: You’ll most likely need to reduce the amount of food you’re giving your pet, however, it’s important not to make drastic changes or withhold food entirely, otherwise they may not get the nutrients they need to stay healthy. Speak to your vet to determine the appropriate portion sizes for your pet, and remember that you will likely need to keep reducing their portion sizes bit-by-bit as they lose weight.
Follow a feeding schedule: It’s better to feed two small meals a day, rather than leaving food out all day for your pet to graze on. Also, if you have a multi-pet household and struggle with one pet eating the other’s food, try feeding them at different times or in different places. You can also purchase an automatic food bowl that will only release food for one specific pet when they approach the bowl, triggered by their microchip. Ensure your overweight pet cannot physically take the other pet’s food during their feeding time – consider a baby gate, or putting them in a separate room temporarily.
Consider a slow-feeding bowl or puzzle feeder: For pets who tend to wolf down their meals, there are a number of special food bowls or feeders you could try that help them to eat more slowly. The additional time taken to eat may help to compensate for the reduced amount of food you’re providing, and may also help them to register the feeling of being full. Puzzle bowls and hunting feeders also provide additional mental stimulation for your pet. For cats, we particularly like Doc and Phoebe’s Indoor Hunting Feeder.
Ask your vet about reduced calorie diets: Not all pets will need special reduced calorie foods, but some may benefit from them. Speak to your veterinarian about whether this may be appropriate for your pet, and they can help to recommend a brand or provide a prescription.
Reduce treats: As mentioned above, make sure you’re limiting the number of treats you’re giving your pet, and don’t give them table scraps, no matter how much they whine or beg. Pets who are used to getting scraps are likely to protest at first, but they will soon get used to the new normal. Many pet owners find that using their pet’s regular kibble as treats can work well – just take out a portion of their daily meal allowance to use for treats for that day.
Increase exercise levels: You will likely need to increase your pet’s exercise levels, but again, it’s important to take this slowly. If your pet isn’t used to exercising much, they may not have much stamina to begin with. Try increasing the length of your walks slightly each week, or adding in an additional play session or two.
Provide plenty of enrichment opportunities: Both cats and dogs benefit from the mental and physical stimulation provided by toys and enrichment items, but indoor cats in particular need lots of opportunities to play, exercise and get stimulation, since they don’t benefit from outdoor time like dogs and outdoor cats. Check out our articles on dogs toys and cat toys and cat toys to get some ideas for how to keep your pet active at home.
Get creative with exercise ideas: Exercise doesn’t just have to mean a walk or a game of tug. Anything that gets your pet moving counts! Instead of feeding your pet in their usual location, you could try hiding pieces of kibble around the home for them to sniff out. Try creating a homemade obstacle course and teaching your pet the basics of agility! Or you could also consider some time at the dog park, or at pet daycare, where they can play with other pets.
Consider a catio: If you have the space, a catio or outdoor enclosure can be a great tool to help indoor cats experience and benefit from the outdoors, whilst keeping them safe from outdoor dangers.
Consider adapting activities for your pet: If your pet is particularly obese, you may need to adapt certain activities to help them manage physically. Hydrotherapy (where your pet walks in water so their body is partially floating, taking some of the weight off their legs) is an option for severely obese pets. Your veterinarian can suggest options and help make referrals if your pet requires specialist help like this.
If you have any questions about your pet’s diet and exercise routine, don’t hesitate to reach out to your veterinarian. Weight is an extremely important part of your pet’s overall wellbeing, and so they’ll be happy to help you address any concerns you have, and help get your pet back to a healthy weight.
At Small Door, we offer nutritional consultations that can help you make sure you’re feeding your pet right.