Pet obesity: How to prevent it & what to look out for [Chart]

We all want our fluffy whānau to be fit, healthy, and ready to join in on our next beach cricket match or bush walk. But hey, just like us humans, our pets can sometimes pack on a few extra kilos.

This growing issue of pet obesity is a big problem, with 50-60% of cats and dogs considered overweight worldwide, and 20-25% in Aotearoa.

We know it's not always easy managing our pet's weight, especially when those puppy eyes are asking for just one more treat. So let's deep-dive together into this issue, and with the help of Dr Rosalind Holland (BVSc, MVM, MANZCVS), we will learn about its dangers, and how we can prevent our pets from becoming overweight for good.

Pet obesity, what is it? 

Obesity in pets is a condition where an animal weighs more than is healthy for their breed and size.

Similar to humans, pet obesity is typically the result of an imbalance between energy intake and energy expenditure. This imbalance causes an excess accumulation of fat, leading to a body weight that's 15% or more above the ideal.

Several factors can contribute to pet obesity. Overfeeding is one of the leading causes, especially when pets are given energy-dense foods and treats. Free feeding is also not recommended to avoid overeating. Lack of physical activity is another significant factor, as it reduces the energy expenditure of pets. 

Some factors that may predispose your pet to weight gain are genetic predisposition, age, desexing, and certain health conditions that can lead to weight gain or make weight management more challenging.

Understanding the effects of obesity on your pet's health 

Obesity in pets is not just about appearance; it's a serious health issue that can reduce quality of life and shorten an animal’s lifespan. Dr Holland says, “In both dogs and cats obesity can have adverse effects on heart function, it can contribute to the development of insulin resistance, and can worsen osteoarthritis. Obesity can also lead to reduced life span in both dogs and cats.”  

In dogs, obesity often leads to decreased stamina, heat intolerance, difficulty breathing, and may increase the risk of developing some malignant tumours. Cats aren't exempt either; obesity in cats can lead to urinary problems, diabetes, and arthritis.

Signs to watch: What to look for in dogs and cats 

Pet owners should be vigilant about their pet's weight. Signs of obesity in dogs and cats include:

  • difficulty walking
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue after minimal exercise
  • difficulty grooming themselves 
  • a pot-bellied appearance
  • excess body fat on the neck, legs, and tail - this can be identified by the lack of a visible waist when viewed from above. Refer to our body condition chart for your cat or dog for more information.

You should also be able to feel your pet's ribs easily under their fur. If you're unsure whether your pet is overweight, consult with your vet.

Understanding if your pet is overweight often goes beyond just looking at their size. A helpful tool that veterinarians and pet owners can utilise to get a more objective measure is the Body Condition Score (BCS).

The BCS is a scale used to evaluate a pet's body weight and body fat composition, with one end representing an underweight pet and the other end a severely obese one. Your vet can assess your pet’s BCS during their visits, and teach you how to do it at home.

Dr Holland suggests that the best ways to monitor for obesity is weighing and body scoring, “Regular weighing is a very useful tool for monitoring your pet’s health, ideally this should be done much more frequently than once a year at their annual check up.” 

A simple rib check (you should be able to feel their ribs easily under their fur) can also be telling. It’s always best to consult with your vet as pet owners' misconceptions about their pet's body condition are a contributing factor to pet obesity numbers.

Preventing pet obesity 

Prevention is always better than cure, especially when it comes to pet obesity. 

Dr Holland emphasises that one of the best ways to keep on top of this issue is regular weight monitoring via body scoring and weighing. It’s also important to check pet food labels for valuable dietary information, “Pet foods have guidance on how much to feed on the package so make sure you are familiar with the recommendations for the food you are offering and remember to consider all calories in your pet’s daily allowance, including treats.”  

Also consider discussing pet obesity prevention with your vet about the different ways to keep your pet happy and healthy. For example, if you happen to notice your pet is starting to put on weight, your vet may recommend a prescription weight loss diet to keep your pet feeling fuller for longer on fewer calories.

Regular exercise is another crucial factor in preventing pet obesity. For dogs, this might mean daily walks or games of fetch in the backyard. Cats also need regular playtime, preferably involving toys and an engaging home environment that encourages them to climb, jump, and explore.

Pet owners should also be wary of feeding their pet unsuitable foods. Avoid sharing human food with your pets, as it can contribute to weight gain. Instead, feed them a balanced diet suitable for their species, age, size, and activity level. Dr Holland recommends that treats should not make up more than 10% of your pet’s diet.

Tips to prevent pet obesity in dogs 

  • Feed a balanced diet and measure your pet's portion sizes (including treats!). Avoid feeding table scraps, or “people food”.
  • Take them for regular walks. Not only is this good for their physical and mental health, but it's good for yours too!
  • Play games with your pet like fetch and tug-of-war.
  • Provide plenty of enrichment to keep your pet entertained and active in between walks, like chew toys or puzzle feeders.
  • Regular vet visits are key for monitoring their health. Your vet can determine if your pet is at a healthy weight and provide advice on how to reduce it if needed.
  • Weigh regularly - your pet should be weighed more often than at their annual vet visit! Try picking up your small dog or cat and stepping onto your bathroom scale. By subtracting your own weight, you can keep track of your pet’s size.

Tips to prevent pet obesity in cats 

  • Offer a variety of food and treats to make sure their diet is balanced.
  • Control the quantity of food you give to your cat. Overfeeding is a common cause of obesity, as food weighing can require more accuracy than just using a scoop or cup. We all know how demanding cats can be when it comes to their food.
  • Keep an eye on your cat’s weight and take them for regular check-ups.
  • Increase environmental enrichment activities like playtime, and providing scratching posts or toys that encourage natural behaviours like jumping and climbing can help your cat stay active and fit.
  • Consider a “catio” or outdoor enclosure, where they can explore safely outside!
  • Take them for regular vet visits to ensure any health issues are addressed promptly.
  • Consider getting more than one cat, so they can have companionship and play together. This can help keep cats more active and entertained, rather than being alone when you aren't home.

Take a look at our handy downloadable chart 

Ultimately, maintaining your pet's healthy weight is all about balance. It's about monitoring their food intake, providing them with regular exercise, and scheduling regular vet check-ups. Remember, a healthy pet is a happy pet! Take a look at our handy downloadable condition chart to help you identify the signs of obesity in your pet. 

You can download and print the free chart for cats and dogs here.