Obesity and Weight Management

With obesity so common among humans, it is no surprise that obesity also plagues companion animals. Not only dogs and cats, but horses, birds and hamsters, sometimes have difficulty staying at an ideal weight. Unfortunately, even moderate obesity can have a serious negative impact on an animal's health, in many cases shortening its lifespan. Multiple areas of the body are affected by excess body fat, including bones, joints and the digestive and respiratory systems.

Why is My Pet Overweight?

Excess weight in animals is usually the result of too many ingested calories and too little exercise. Because so many pet owners are at work for a good portion of the pets' waking hours, owners have a tendency to spend more time cuddling and feeding treats to their animals than exercising them. Nonetheless, not all the blame for animal weight gain can be placed on their human companions. Other factors must be considered as possible culprits in animal weight and obesity, including:

  • Age
  • Breed
  • Medications
  • Endocrine imbalance

As animals reach and pass middle age, their tendency to put on excess weight increases, often because they become less frisky and less inclined to exercise. Certain disease conditions, or medications administered to control those conditions, may cause weight gain as well.

Finally, certain breeds are more prone to excess weight gain than others. Breeds that can benefit from special monitoring in terms of possible weight gain include large breeds in general and Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and Newfoundlands in particular. Other, smaller breeds of dogs that also may need weight management include cocker spaniels, pugs, bulldogs and Bichons.

Medical Problems and Obesity

The reasons to try to keep your pet at its optimal weight are many and varied. A great many medical issues can be generated or exacerbated by excess weight. These include:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Decreased liver function
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Arthritis

Once weight-related medical conditions set in, exercising becomes more difficult and a dangerous cycle of inactivity and overeating may develop.

Diagnosis of Obesity

Veterinary checkups should always include a full weight evaluation. Not only should the animal be weighed on a scale, but also physically examined by the vet, including a palpation of the ribs, lumbar region, head and tail, with its measurements compared to the breed standard. An animal found to be 10 to 15 percent overweight is usually considered obese.

Treating Obesity

Apart from treating the overweight animal for any underlying medical problems that may be working against its weight loss, the chief method of treating obesity is to restrict food intake and increase activity level.

Weight-loss diets for animals are normally rich in fiber and dietary protein and low in fat. The protein will speed up metabolism and increase the animal's sensation of fullness after a feeding, and the fiber will stimulate its metabolism. All overweight animals need exercise. Dogs should be taken on extended walks for at least 15 minutes twice a day and enticed into active games like fetch. Cats can be encouraged into activity with feline toys. Hamsters of ferrets can be coaxed to make use of more complex climbing equipment made for the purpose. Overweight horses can be taken out for more frequent rides.

Follow-up treatment is necessary to achieve and maintain animal weight loss. This should include regular veterinary monitoring of the animal's weight. The doctor may recommend particular commercial foods designed to assist in weight loss and may also make further suggestions about nutrition and exercise.

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American Veterinary Medical Association World Small Animal Veterinary Association AAVMC