Maintaining a healthy weight has an incredible impact on promoting health, comfort, and happiness in pets. A 2018 study (1) revealed that 60% of cats and 56% of dogs in the United States were overweight or obese. Meanwhile, a survey of Canadian veterinarians identified weight control as the number one measure owners can take to increase their pet's lifespan (2). A Purina study supports this claim, demonstrating pets of healthy weight have a 15% longer lifespan than their obese counterparts (3).
What is Pet Obesity?
In human medicine, obesity has been widely recognized as a disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines overweight and obesity as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health (4). Body Mass Index (BMI) is the current standardized measurement for determining ideal weight and diagnosing overweight and obesity in humans.
In contrast, a standard classification system has not been adopted in veterinary medicine. Defining obesity as a disease is still under debate. Many believe that this has created barriers to discussing and emphasizing the importance of weight management for pets.
What Causes Weight Issues in Pets?
For some pets, genetics, metabolic and endocrine diseases may cause unhealthy body weights. In most cases, the cause of obesity is simple pets are consuming too many calories and not exercising enough. Although this may seem like easy math, the factors influencing owners to overfeed and under-exercise their pets are complex and numerous.
Over half of all pets sport a plump physique. Overweight pets frequently appear in media and marketing campaigns, and this visual barrage has distorted the accepted public image of a fit pet. When pets on weight-loss programs approach their ideal weight, it is common for owners to comment that their pet seems too thin.
Pet food feeding guides often over-calculate the daily needs of the average pet. Lack of reliable portion measurement compounds the issue, frequently leading to the delivery of over-sized servings. Treats and table scraps add to the miscalculation. Pet owners regularly under-estimate these foods' calorie values and fail to include them in their pets' daily total calorie intake.
Finally, pet owners love to use food to create and strengthen their human-animal bond. Food is a very useful training incentive, a reward, and a gesture of love and affection. Pet food and treat marketing campaigns frequently underscore this principle.
Is there Harm in Pet Obesity?
A wide variety of diseases are caused or worsened by obesity. People can easily see that an overweight condition reduces a pet's mobility, playfulness, and stamina. Excess weight increases the stress on muscles, bones, and joints, accelerating normal wear and tear. Less obviously, obesity significantly changes metabolic and inflammatory processes (5). These changes cause or contribute to skin and ear disease, arthritis, urinary tract disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, asthma, liver disease, hypothyroidism, spinal disease, and numerous other conditions (6).
The Pet Obesity Taboo
Veterinarians can be hesitant to discuss weight-management with pet owners and even more reluctant to make dietary recommendations related to weight. Some veterinarians worry that making prescription weight loss diet recommendations will be perceived as "up-selling" and damage their relationship with clients. The profession's failure to define obesity as a disease promotes the concept that a pet can be "overweight but healthy"; therefore, no changes need to be made. Instead, obesity needs to be presented to pet owners as a diagnosis to ensure they understand the urgency of treatment measures.
Veterinarians may be reluctant to discuss weight management with pet owners because they do not want to interfere with the bonding associated with feeding and treating pets. A pet's response to food rewards is outwardly obvious. Pet owners may have difficulty accepting that non-food rewards can also be gratifying to the pet and that they can be equally important in enhancing the owner-pet relationship.
Finally, the social stigma of human obesity may cause veterinarians and pet owners to avoid discussing animal weight management. With 64-72% of North American adults being overweight (7, 8, 9), at least one human in the exam room likely struggles with weight management. An overweight veterinarian may prefer not to discuss the issue. Similarly, a veterinarian may hesitate to bring up the topic with an overweight client for fear of negatively impacting the veterinarian-client rapport.
Solutions for Pet Weight Management
Proactive and Routine Discussions
Body condition scoring and discussions around weight management should be routinely included and prioritized in wellness and sick-pet visits alike. Clear goals should be communicated, including goal weights, recheck timelines, and therapeutic recommendations. Veterinarians should build both diet and activity into a treatment plan with numerical goalposts. Like the dose and frequency of any drug, weight management treatment plans need to be recorded. Plans should include daily targets such as grams of food to feed and minutes to spend exercising. Weekly or monthly weight loss goals should be established in kilograms. A pet's daily calorie requirement should be calculated and reported to the owner. If the veterinarian does not broach weight management, prudent pet owners should ask how they can help their pets maintain an ideal weight. Vague suggestions such as " control your pet's portions" should be rejected in favour of more precise and measurable directives.
Awareness of Healthy Pet Image
Veterinary health teams can re-calibrate pet owners' perceptions of ideal body weight with visual aids. People need to be aware that more than half of the companion animals they see are overweight or obese. Marketers and other media stakeholders should be careful to use ideal body weight animals in content intended to display healthy pets.
Vigilant Calorie Calculations
Measuring or weighing pet food should be a regular part of the feeding routine. Even free-fed pets should have a measured allotment for the day. The calorie value of table scraps cannot be accurately calculated, so these treats are best avoided. When treats are used, they should be accounted for in the pet's daily calorie ration by subtracting from the regular food portion. Treats should make up no more than 10% of a pet's daily intake.
Creative Use of Non-Food Rewards
When possible, owners should use non-food rewards to motivate and build a relationship with their pet. Affection, petting, games, exercise, toys, and clicker training are just some examples of high-value rewards for pets. If treats are used, low-calorie options in small pieces are preferable.
Prioritizing daily exercise is essential for all pets. Exercise can include outdoor time, play, or training as needed. Physical activity promotes a healthy body weight as well as an active mind. It allows for the expression of natural instinctive behaviours such as predatory impulses, sniffing, tracking, and climbing.
Communication of Value
Finally, excess weight and obesity need to be communicated to pet owners as a disease. The financial burden of managing this disease and its associated illnesses need to be emphasized. Pet owners, veterinarians, and the media all have a role in supporting veterinary involvement in promoting and managing pet weight loss. All stakeholders need to understand the cost of failing to address obesity in pets, especially those with no other outward signs of disease.
For more information about obesity in pets, please visit the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention website at https://petobesityprevention.org/
- Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. 2019. Ocean Isle (NC). 2018 Pet Obesity Survey. [Accessed 2020, Sept 9]. Petobesityprevention.org/2018
- Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. 2015 Sept 1. Obesity Poses Serious Health Hazards to Pets. [Article]. CVMA Documents. [Accessed 2020, Sept 9]. Canadianveterinarians.net/documents/obesity-poses-serious-health-hazards-to-pets
- Kealy RD, Lawler DF, Ballan JM, et al. 2002. Effects of Diet Restriction on Life Span and Age-Related Changes in Dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 220(9): 1315-20
- World Health Organization. 2020 Apr 1. Obesity and Overweight. [Fact Sheet]. [Accessed 2020 Sept 9]. who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight
- Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. c 2019. The Global Pet Obesity Initiative Position Statement. [Position Statement]. [Accessed 2020, Sept 9]. petobesityprevention.org/about
- Vet Innovations. 2018 Jan. Pet Obesity Epidemic Fact Sheet. [Fact Sheet]. [Accessed 2020, Sept 9]. vetinnovations.co/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/180123-new-2018-pet-obesity-epidemic-fact-sheet-copy-final.pdf
- Government of Canada. 2017 Jan 22. Tackling Obesity in Canada: Obesity and Excess Weight Rates in Canadian Adults. [Infographic].
- [Accessed 2020, Sept 9]. canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/healthy-living/obesity-excess-weight-rates-canadian-adults.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020 Jan 29. Adult Obesity Facts. [Fact Sheet]. [Accessed 2020, Sept 9]. cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html
- Fernald LC, Gutierrez JP, Neufeld LM, et al. 2004. High Prevalence of Obesity Among the Poor in Mexico. JAMA. 291(21): 2544-5