For a dog or cat, obesity can be as much of a problem as it is for humans. And sadly, as is the case with their human counterparts, pet obesity is reaching epidemic proportions.
Obesity is one of the most diagnosed problems in pets. However, many owners may not be aware that their pet is overweight. For some pets, the weight is hidden under a lot of hair, and can only be assessed by feeling the body underneath. Another problem in the recognition of pet obesity is the shifting public perception as to what constitutes a “normal” look for a pet.
Regardless of how big or small a pet’s body type is, there are a few guidelines to assess whether a pet is overweight or not. The ribs should not be visible (except in some breeds, such as greyhounds), but they should be easily palpable with only a slight layer of fat. In addition, the abdomen should tuck slightly upward and inward near the hips, creating a noticeable waistline.
These parameters are used to determine an animal’s body condition score, or BCS. The BCS helps normalize the concept of whether a pet is overweight or underweight across breeds with drastically different normal weight ranges. On a nine-point scale, a BCS of five is ideal, with each deviation up or down the scale representing a 10 percent excess or deficiency (respectively) of body weight. For example, a 30-pound dog with a BCS of seven is 20 percent overweight, and should ideally weigh 24 pounds.
It is not uncommon for owners to be surprised when a veterinarian gives their pet an elevated BCS. Because so many pets are overweight, many people are biased to accept an overweight animal as normal. This is problematic, as pet obesity is difficult to treat when the pet owner does not even see that there is a problem.
Pets that are overweight are at increased risk of certain types of diseases. Many people know that arthritis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease are commonly seen in obese pets as they are in obese people. However, some less commonly known problems associated with obesity in pets include urinary tract disease, increased anesthetic risks, and hepatic lipidosis or “fatty liver” disease.
In many cases, obesity is simply a matter of a pet consuming more calories than are expended with activity. This is a relatively straightforward problem to overcome. Decreasing the food portions or switching to a weight loss diet can cut calories, and increased exercise can help burn them. Weight loss diets are available over-the-counter for many brands; additionally, prescription-only therapeutic diets that are even further calorie restricted may be recommended by a veterinarian.
However, sometimes obesity is not that straightforward. There may be underlying medical and/or behavioral problems that cause a pet to be overweight. In these cases, diet and exercise may not be enough to solve the problem.
One common example of a condition that leads to obesity is hypothyroidism in dogs. The thyroid gland helps control the overall metabolism of the body. Dogs can develop a deficiency of the thyroid gland which slows metabolism and thus induces weight gain.
For this reason, a veterinarian may recommend that laboratory testing be done on overweight animals. Any underlying disease processes can be detected and potentially treated, thus allowing weight loss to be a more attainable outcome.
Veterinarians are an ideal resource for planning a weight loss protocol for an obese pet. They can determine a pet’s ideal weight and develop a plan that includes diet, exercise, and possible laboratory testing. They can also advise on preventing too rapid a decrease in weight, which can lead to problems such as fatty liver disease.
Weight loss in an obese pet can help extend the length and quality of life. Even a few pounds can make a large difference for a pet’s health.
— Keith Rode is a veterinarian at Woodland Veterinary Hospital and a graduate of UC Davis. For more information, call 530-666-2461.