Pet Obesity: A Huge Problem

Pet obesity is quietly going unnoticed by almost two-thirds of pet owners.

Two-thirds of clients say nothing about their overweight pet unless the veterinarian speaks first, experts say. Initiating the conversation is the first obstacle that veterinarians face when helping patients reduce weight.

The U.S. has the fattest pets in the world, and the social and psychological pressure to ignore weight problems is huge.

A February 2009 report from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention shows that more than 44 percent of dogs and 57 percent of cats are overweight or obese. The figures represent an increase of 1 percentage point in dogs and 4 percentage points in cats compared with a 2007 study.

“Pet obesity continues to emerge as a leading cause of preventable disease and death in dogs and cats,” says Ernie Ward, DVM, the association’s founder and chief-of-staff. “Pets are in real danger of not living as long as previous generations and developing serious and costly diseases such as diabetes, arthritis and other largely avoidable conditions.

“We are afraid to offend our clients or make them feel uncomfortable about their own weight if we discuss their overweight pet, but staying quiet is risking the patients health.”

One tactic is to use the body assessment rating for canines (BARC) or another scoring scale, experts say. This takes the focus away from the fat and onto the medical condition.

“You wouldn’t avoid discussing a diabetic cat’s condition with a diabetic pet owner, so don’t avoid the weight issue with owners that may have the same problem,” says Dottie LaFlamme, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVN, of Nestle Purina PetCare Co. “Give the owner something to work off of. Use a scale of 1 to 9 or 1 to 5 so they have an opportunity to realize the severity of the problem. The biggest problem is getting the owner to accept their pet is in fact overweight.”


Owner excuses for overweight pets include a misperception of the amount eaten daily, stories of constant hunger, passing blame onto others, disinterest in exercise and thoughts of complacency with being “fat and happy.”

“You have to write clients a prescription for weight loss or else they will forget everything you talked about in the exam room when they walk out your door,” says Veterinary Practice News columnist Patty Khuly, VMD, founder of the veterinary blog “You want to tell clients, ‘This dog is fat and you are going to kill her,’ but you really have to approach it on an individual client basis–know what they can and can’t handle. Tread lightly and get past the fat and talk strictly about the weight, even though some clients need to be hit over the head with the shocking facts.”

Some experts suggest giving clients a free measuring scoop provided by a pet food manufacturer. Many clients want to be told what to do step by step, often the only way to help them manage their pet’s weight loss.

“We come from a food is love society and getting pets to lose weight or stay at a good weight means breaking habits,” says Dr. Khuly, who practices at Sunset Animal Clinic in Miami. “Calories really should be listed on the side of all dog food bags since many owners are accustomed to counting calories for themselves, but unfortunately, most manufacturers do not have that information listed.

“The amount designated on the side of the animals’ food bags calls for more than needed as well. The only way pets would burn off those calories is if they were athletes. Society is working against successful weight loss because owners with trim dogs are often looked at as if they are starving their pets.”

By the Numbers

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found feline obesity rates of 17.8 percent, or 15.7 million animals, and an additional 35 million overweight cats. Dogs did better, with 9.6 percent, or 7.2 million, classified as obese and 26 million considered overweight.

“These numbers, 33 million dogs and 51 million cats that are overweight, represent a huge problem for everyone,” says Dr. Ward, who practices at Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C. “Excess weight causes or contributes to many painful and debilitating conditions. Just as we’ve become a nation of couch potatoes, our pets have become a nation of lap potatoes, and that’s not good for anyone.”

Older animals had a higher incidence of being overweight: 52 percent of dogs and 55 percent of cats older than age 7.

“This is a particularly concerning discovery for veterinarians,” Ward says. “Extra pounds in older pets amplify any pre-existing conditions and complicate treatment. We’re seeing more and more diabetes, respiratory and arthritic conditions in older pets as a direct result of obesity. These are often chronic, incurable and generally preventable diseases. Pet owners need to understand that a few extra pounds on a dog or cat is similar to a person being 30 to 50 pounds overweight.”

Veterinarians need to recommend solutions beyond just prescribing diet food, experts say. Click here for information that can be passed to owners in tactful ways. The website shows safe and correct ways to cut calories and how to exercise a dog. It also discusses praising a dog with affection as opposed to confection, which puts on unneeded calories.

“Clients tend to never get their pets into aerobic exercise. They simply walk them, which isn’t very effective,” Ward says. “Veterinarians need to help clients get their pet back to a healthy weight and not by simply saying the animal needs to eat less and exercise more. We’ve gone down that road and it’s about as effective for animals as it is people.”


“Giving clients a list of treats you are comfortable with is a good start,” Ward says. “You must give specific examples of treats and a number to give at once.”

Other tips include individualizing weight-loss plans. If Plan A isn’t working after three months, try something different to adjust to each patient’s unique needs. Tell the client what excess weight does to a pet’s body.

“New research shows that fat tissue is biologically active,” Ward says. “Scores of hormones are produced by this tissue and that affects the heart, brain, liver, pancreas and entire endocrine system.”

Prevention is the best approach, which means discussing proper nutrition and exercise when the animal is young. Considering that many animals are considered adults at 1 year old, they shouldn’t put on many more pounds at that point.

“Animals aren’t babies as owners often view them,” Ward says. “Just like in people, you should weigh the same as you did when you were 18 or 19 – when you stopped growing.”

Getting the clinic staff involved is a great tactic. Employees who use recommended weight-loss techniques on their pets can discuss the obstacles and accomplishments with clients.

“When the staff is on board, they can sincerely attest to clients the benefits of maintaining a healthy weight for pets,” Ward says. “It can be as simple as figuring the calories in food. You can help you clients calculate the proper amount of food for their pets based on the type of food and animal’s size.”

Medicine and Resources

Pfizer Inc.’s Slentrol, as well as other emerging and developing drugs, can be used after more traditional methods have been explored, Ward says.

“I am all for anything that helps fight obesity,” he says. “There are some weight-loss drugs that will hopefully be getting Food and Drug Administration approval soon. With 50 percent of animals having a weight problem, action must be taken. These are big numbers and they hold up across the board. It’s really frightening.”

Dialing for Advice

Several colleges and hospitals employing pet nutritionists will perform telephone consultations for animals diagnosed with a nutrition-related condition.

Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston performs referral consultations for about $100. This allows the owner to shoot endless questions to staff nutritionist Rebecca Remillard, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVN. She can tell the owner which diet fits the pet’s needs or create one that the owner can make at home.

“Once the discussion is in progress, the problem shouldn’t be difficult to fix,” says Joel Kaye, DVM, of Angell Animal Medical Center. “The pets aren’t going to the fridge and feeding themselves. Getting owners to recognize that they created the problem and they can fix it is a real breakthrough.

“Giving clients the information in the form of dollars and cents can also have a positive impact. Telling them the dog will blow a cruciate ligament and they’ll be looking at a $3,000 surgery, or the cat will become diabetic and need daily injections, seems to make them think fat is less cute.”

Set A Goal

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention lists these ideal weights:

For Dogs:
Labrador Retriever 55-80 lbs
Golden Retriever 55-75 lbs
Yorkshire Terrier 8 lbs
German Shepherd 70-95 lbs
Beagle 26-31 lbs
Dachshund <16 lbs
Boxer 53-70 lbs
Miniature Poodle 11 lbs
Shih Tzu 8-18 lbs
Miniature Schnauzer 11-15 lbs
For Cats:
Domestic 8-10 lbs
Persian 10-11 lbs.
Siamese 5-10 lbs.
Maine Coon 11-15 lbs.


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