SPCA New Zealand

Pet obesity: How big is the issue?

07 October 2019
Pet obesity: How big is the issue?

October 9 is World Pet Obesity Day. Pets come in all shapes, colours, breeds, species, and sizes. It’s hard to resist a cute dog or cat who loves cuddles, and we hardly seem to mind if they are extra cuddly because they are a bit overweight.

How big is the issue?

Pets come in all shapes, colours, breeds, species, and sizes. It’s hard to resist a cute dog or cat who loves cuddles, and we hardly seem to mind if they are extra cuddly because they are a bit overweight.

Unfortunately, pets are getting bigger. With obesity in people a health concern in many countries, there is a growing trend in pets becoming overweight and obese, too. Sadly, as pets get bigger, their lives get shorter. Obesity can shorten a dogs’ life expectancy by 25%.

Being overweight causes health issues that need to be taken as seriously as underweight animals.

At the heart of the issue

It can be difficult to deny our furry friends of the food they constantly beg for, and as pet obesity is so common, many people don’t realise they are overfeeding their pet. Many owners give their pets human food as a treat, but one human biscuit can equate to a whole packet when fed to an animal due to their smaller body size.

In a 2012 survey, 45% of dog owners incorrectly believed their overweight dog was a healthy weight.

Members of SPCA’s science team (Dr Arnja Dale and Dr Jess Walker) were involved in a study of obesity in cats and dogs in New Zealand. They got records from 10 vet practices and collected almost 50,000 medical records. It was found that more than a quarter of dogs and a fifth of cats were overweight.

Health complications

Like humans, a pet who is overweight or obese will experience health complications. Not only does their weight impact their general health, it also reduces their overall quality of life, interfering with daily activities like walking and playing ball. Pet obesity can also lead to serious health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, kidney disease, respiratory distress, high blood pressure, and cancers.

Dog prone to obesity

Certain dog breeds have a higher risk of obesity, and the risk increases with age. A dog that is neutered is more at risk of being obese, and obesity is reported to be more common in older dogs and females. There is a link between obese owners having obese dogs, perhaps because they are less likely to exercise their dog, or less able to recognise obesity themselves.

Other species weighing in

Horses and rabbits with weight issues need to be kept in mind, too. Being overweight is particularly dangerous for horses because they can develop a condition called laminitis, which can be fatal. Ask your vet how to monitor your pet’s body condition to make sure they are within a healthy weight range.

Is my dog obese?

A dog at a non-ideal weight may not have palpable ribs at all and have a waist that is barely discernible from above, and have a back that is flat or has raised fat pads, particularly at the sides and base of the tail. We encourage dog owners to assess their dog’s body:

You should be able to see and feel the outline of your dog’s ribs without excess fat covering.

You should be able to see and feel your dog’s waist and it should be clearly visible when viewed from above.

Your dog’s belly should be tucked up when viewed from the side.

SPCA uses the Purina Body Condition Tool when assessing the body health of a dog.

Is my cat obese?

You should be able to see and feel your cat’s ribs, spine and hip bones, and its waist should be clearly visible when viewed from above. Your cat’s belly shouldn’t be sagging underneath, and there should only be a small amount of belly fat.

SPCA uses the Purina Body Condition Tool when assessing the body health of a cat.

Keeping obesity in check

You can have a positive impact on your pet’s health by understanding that your pet’s weight is one of the most influential factors of longevity, quality of life, and disease prevention. Your vet is the best person to give you an understanding of your pet’s weight and health, and determine a Body Condition Score (BCS).

Your vet will advise how many calories your pet should have each day. Find out how many cups or cans of pet food this equals, and don’t forget to include any treats in your daily calorific count. Those small snacks can swiftly sabotage the best laid dietary plans!

If your pet has to lose some weight, in general terms, a dog can safely lose 1 to 3 percent of its body weight a month, and cats can lose 0.5 to 2 percent per month. Patience is essential with pet weight loss, as losing weight isn’t easy or fast for pets, especially cats. If you put your pet on a crash diet, they can develop serious medical conditions, including a life-threatening form of liver failure that can occur in less than 72 hours. Your vet will likely create a step weight loss plan that will gradually decrease the amount you’re feeding over a 1 to 3-month period.

One small step for man, one giant (health) leap for pet kind!

Big or small, young or old, all dogs must be exercised daily. Start slow if your dog is not accustomed to being active.

A good rule of thumb is a ratio of five minutes of exercise per month of age (up to twice a day) until the puppy is fully grown, i.e. 15 minutes (up to twice a day) when three months old, 20 minutes when four months old etc. Once they are fully grown, they can go out for much longer.

Be careful when walking dogs in hot weather, particularly brachycephalic breeds such as pugs or French bulldogs as these dogs overheat easily. Walk in early morning or evening when the weather is cooler.

Ask your vet what types of activities are best based on your pet’s species, breed, age, gender, and current physical abilities. Walking, swimming, agility, chase, ball retrieving, and remote controlled toys – the opportunities for physical activity with your pet are limitless. The general recommendation is that dogs need at least an hour of physical activity a day and cats should strive for three 5-minute intense play periods.

Small lifestyle changes make the biggest difference

To help prevent obesity in your pet, ensure they maintain a healthy diet and receive plenty of exercise. Many owners show love for their pet through food, but often this is a case of killing with kindness - most animals would instead enjoy playing or interacting with their owner just as much as getting a treat!

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