Obesity is very common in dogs and cats, and in my clinic, about half of all dogs and cats are either overweight or obese, and there is no doubt that this incidence is increasing, and in many ways mirrors the increase in obesity in the human population.

This is a big issue because obese patients are more likely to be ill with a variety of conditions. Obesity exacerbates heart disease and arthritis. Obesity is a major factor in the development of cruciate ligament disease, a common injury that causes severe lameness and usually requires surgery to correct. Also, certain cancers are more common in obese animals.

What causes obesity?

Quite simply giving more calories (food) than the animal requires. There are some diseases that will affect just how many calories an animal requires, but the bottom line is always the same: more calories means higher weight.

So why is obesity increasing? My view is that:

  • People don’t realise what a dog or cat at their normal bodyweight should look like.
  • It’s really easy to pile in the calories to an animal without realising it.

What does a normal dog look like?

Scales are not much use to us in determining if a dog is overweight. The reason for this is the very wide normal weight range for dogs, which can be from about 2kg for a Chihuahua to over 100kg for a St. Bernard.

So we do something called body condition scoring. A dog at their normal weight should have ribs that are easy to feel with gentle pressure. There should be a slope upwards from the end of the sternum (chest bone) towards the tail. The bony parts at the top of the spine should be easy to feel with gentle pressure (but they shouldn’t be sharp). When viewed from above, (with the dog standing), there should be a noticeable ‘waist’ behind the ribs.

What about cats?

We also body condition score cats, because you do get big cats and little cats, but my rule-of-thumb is that most cats over 5kg in bodyweight are overweight.

How many calories.

So you follow the guide on the pack of food that you bought but your pet is still overweight. Why?

It’s true that different individuals need different amounts of food to maintain their ideal bodyweight, but this is not the main problem. It’s my belief that people simply don’t realise just how many calories there are in pet treats. For example, one of my dog’s favourite treats, the Markie, has the equivalent number of calories for a small dog as a hamburger produced by a famous fast-food restaurant has for an adult human man. This is not to single out Markies for criticism, because most dog biscuits, chews and treats have exactly the same problem: most dogs simply don’t have anything like the calorie requirement of an adult human, but that’s the reference that most of us have when deciding on what to give our pets.

What about exercise?

This won’t change the calorie requirement of your pet much. Of course working sheep dogs or gun dogs need more than your Lhasa Apso, or pet Labrador, but simply walking them more frankly is not going to be the answer to your dog’s obesity problem. Feeding them fewer calories is.