The global problem of pet obesity

Pet obesity is astonishingly common. The proportion of overweight and obese pets varies from study to study, but it’s thought to be between 33 and 58%. It’s now recognised that obesity is a state of chronic inflammation. When pets suffer from obesity-related diseases such as arthritis, it isn’t just because of the excess weight putting stress on the joints. The increased likelihood of diabetes isn’t due to excessive blood sugars. Instead, recent research has identified over 100 hormones, cytokines and other metabolites that are thought to adversely affect bodily functions.

So when owners allow their pets to become obese, they are doing much more than inflicting excessive body weight on their animals: they are actually causing physical disease.Owners are inadvertently causing their pets to have premature deaths: while obese humans live, on average, for nine years less than people of normal weight, for obese pets, the difference is two years.

Definitions of obesity

Definitions are important: they are well defined for both humans and animals.

The Body Mass Index (BMI) in humans means the body weight in kilograms divided by the height in metres squared.
(e.g. 50kg person, 1.5m tall, would be 50 / (1.5 x 1.5) = 50/2.25 = 22.22)

“Normal” means a BMI of between 18 and 25
“Overweight” means a BMI of between 25 and 30
“Obese” means a BMI of over 30

Clearly BMI cannot be applied to animals: there is too much variation in body dimensions between species and breeds. However the same broad definitions apply, with “overweight” being “carrying a bit too much weight” and “obese” meaning “carrying much too much weight”.

Assessing pet’s weight

  1. Weigh your pet: most vets have walk-on electronic scales
  2. Body condition score: This is more of a “body shape assessment” – on a scale of 1 to 5
    1 = Emaciated
    Ribs, lumbar vertebrae, pelvic bones and all body prominences evident from a distance. No discernible body fat. Obvious absence of muscle mass.
    2 = Thin
    Ribs easily palpated and may be visible with no palpable fat. Tops of lumbar vertebrae visible. Pelvic bones less prominent. Obvious waist and abdominal tuck.
    3 = Moderate
    Ribs palpable without excess fat covering. Abdomen tucked up when viewed from side.
    4 = Stout
    General fleshy appearance. Ribs palpable with difficulty. Noticeable fat deposits over lumbar spine and tail base. Abdominal tuck may be absent.
    5 = Obese
    Large fat deposits over chest, spine and tail base. Waist and abdominal tuck absent. Fat deposits on neck and limbs. Abdomen distended.

Why are so many pets obese?

The basic problem is too much food and not enough exercise, but this is affected by aspects such as genetics (some breeds are more likely to be obese than others), neutering (neutered and spayed animals put on weight more easily) and diet (many modern pet foods are energy-dense, meaning that small amounts of food contain high levels of calories.

What can be done about pet obesity?

The key to this is owner education. 93% of owners say they would be concerned to discover that their pet was overweight, and that they would be willing to take action to deal with this. Once the problem has been identified, specific steps need to be taken:

  1. Set a target weight
    1. Breed averages
    2. Clinical knowledge – vets can judge the ideal weight from experience
    3. Morpho Metric Measurements (MMM) which take into account the individual patient measurements for dogs
    4. For cats
      At every check up, vets and vet nurses take three measurements: neck, chest and waist
  2. Provide a specific dietary guide, with written instructions and a chart
  3. Regular weigh-ins and measurements at your local vet clinic

At the most simple level, even without special diets, owners should give a measured amount of food to their pet every day, rather than estimating it. Even by just doing this, many pets begin to lose weight.

1 Comment

  • It would help owners manage the weight of their animals if the pet food manufacturers used a simple system indicating nutritional values, the same as is used to label food for humans. The current labelling legislation allows the manufacturers to pay lip service to the law and obfuscate any actual information that owners can use to manage the diet of their pets.

    Vets often push the branded(sell at the vets only) foods (Hills etc) These so called “superior” foods have the same difficult labelling as the pet food sold in supermarkets. The labelling is useless. How can owners realistically compare nutritional values between different brands when all use the same information that just does not give a clear picture.

    Often vets insist that animals will eat the same food for eternity, but the reality is that many animals become bored of one food, will stop eating it – just as we would. So we need a labelling system that allows us to compare, properly.

    If simple values were used on labels, along with honest, transparent descriptions of the contents, then the pet obesity problem would be less of an issue.

    It’s easy to blame owners, but we are working in the dark when it comes to working out pet food nutritional values because the pet food industry refuses to do anything but reluctantly comply with the law, and the law is inadequate.

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Please note that I am unable to answer veterinary questions in comments. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health it is always better to contact your vet.

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