Obesity a leading cause of health problems for pets

By Dr. Nigel Skinner • February 23, 2012 • Print This Article

Obesity in pets, both cats and dogs continues to be probably the number one contributor to illness and decreased quality of life.

Obesity in pets has many of the same correlations to the development of disease that are seen in people. Overweight pets are much more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease and chronic constipation to name a few illnesses, but the most significant impact we see is the effect of excess pounds on the joints. The effect on the onset and severity of arthritis bought about by being overweight is profound. This is not just a major blow to a pets quality of life, it is literally life threatening. Many pets are euthanized each year because the pain of arthritis and the loss of mobility it causes become unmanageable.  We are also now realizing that arthritis is as big a problem in cats as it is in dogs. Recent studies have shown that the “typical” senior cat that sleeps most of the day is probably doing so because it hurts to move around.

Rather then look at ideals in terms of weight, it makes more sense to consider “body condition”. As a rule, your pet should have a discernible “waist” i.e. the part of the body between the last rib and the hips should be visibly narrower than the chest when viewed from above and should tuck up slightly, being higher from the ground the breastbone. You should also be able to feel the ribs with only light pressure.

As with us all, the key to body condition management is diet and exercise, or more accurately the relationship between the two. The input of calories needs to correlate to activity level. More often than the problem being a lack of activity, the issue is diet. Here we typically encounter two problems: over-feeding or feeding the wrong type of food for your pet.

Many pet owners will not consider the impact of the “extras”. A typical cat requires around 200 – 250 calories a day total. Anyone who has ever watched calories themselves will know that depending on the source, this can be a very small volume of food. It’s very easy for a few extra treats or a couple of extra spoons of a tasty food to add 40 – 50 extra calories. 50 extra calories above a normal daily requirement of 200 is like a person adding an entire extra meal to their day! Most of us would gain weight if we kept our activity level constant and suddenly started having an extra lunch at 3 pm. This fact is also problematic when food is not measured accurately.  The difference between a level cup and a heaped one could easily add 10% to your daily caloric intake.

Dietary protein and carbohydrate levels are also a significant factor in weight control. Just like humans, a high carbohydrate, low protein diet favors weight gain. This is particularly important in cats, who as true carnivores have a high protein requirement.  The better weight management and maintenance diets take this into consideration. This does not mean that all “high protein” diets are good for weight control. In fact some of the most popular high protein diets available today are among the worst culprits for weight gain. Many of the newer very nutrient dense, high protein diets are labeled as suitable for “all life stages”. The requirement for this claim is that they are high enough in calories for a growing pet. The problem here is that the difference in caloric requirements for a growing pet and an adult pet are considerable. A growing large breed dog for instance might need 2000 plus calories a day, this will drop to around 1400 once they are adult and neutered. In many dogs it can be very difficult with these diets to be as restrictive with the volume offered as we need to be, and very easy therefore to overfeed. Your typical Lab is not going to let you get away with dropping from 5 cups a day to 3 without a fight!

The key message here is that obesity is very common in our pets, it is a very significant contributor to illness and unnecessary suffering and it is more often than not related to diet. Your vet will be able to provide you with an accurate assessment of your pets body condition and advise you on types and quantities of foods based on nutrient and caloric requirements. The rest is up to us as pet owners realizing that a little can go a long way and that those heaped cups and extra treats can literally be killing your pet with kindness.