How to tell if you have a fat cat or a podgy pooch
This is the first of two articles on obesity in animals. Today, I'm talking about how you can tell if your pet is overweight. Next week, the focus will be how to adjust your pet's nutrition to help them reach their ideal body condition.
It's ironic that in a world where many humans can't get enough food to survive, the most serious health issue to affect humans and pets in the western hemisphere is obesity. One recent survey found that 77% of vets believe that the pet obesity problem has worsened in the past decade. Vets reckon that 40% of cats, 45% of dogs and 28% of rabbits are overweight, whereas only 37% of pet owners believe that their pets are carrying too much body fat. The bottom line is that around four out of ten pets are being fed too much and/or not being given enough exercise or activity. The result is that they are carrying too much body fat, and this is leading to serious consequences.
To understand this common problem, definitions are important. In dogs and cats, as in humans, being "overweight" is defined as having a body condition where the levels of body fat exceed those considered optimal for good health. Being "obese" is defined as being overweight to the extent that serious effects on the individual's health are likely.
The health issues linked with excessive body weight in pets are well known. As well as the mechanical effect of the extra stress on joints aggravating arthritis, and the extra pressure on the circulatory system making heart disease worse, there are serious metabolic effects: diabetes is far more common in overweight animals. And there is the simple day-to-day problem of pets being so burdened by the extra weight that they are carrying around that they don't have enough energy to play or exercise. When owners successfully manage to get their pets to lose weight, they often comment that their pet has much more energy, and is much more playful. Research studies have shown that there is a clear correlation between a reduction in weight and an increase in vitality, and it has also been found that lean dogs show fewer signs of being emotionally disturbed and are less likely to be in pain.
As well as the reduced quality of life caused by obesity, there's also the significantly decreased quantity of life. While obese humans live, on average, nine years less than people of normal weight, obese pets can be expected to live for two years less time than animals with a normal body weight. When your eleven year old dog reaches the end of his life because of obesity-related disease, you may find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that if you had taken more care to keep him at his optimal weight, he could have lived on happily till he was thirteen.
Recognition of an overweight pet is more difficult than you might expect. These days, there are so many pets carrying too much weight that it has become "normal" for pets to be a bit chunky. I have heard of people approaching owners of lean, healthy dogs to tell them that they are starving their pets. And I have often seen disbelief in people's eyes when I tell them that their pet is too plump. Many people need to have their concept of "normal" adjusted so that they understand that a lean pet is healthier than an overweight pet.
There are three ways to identify an overweight animal.
First, have a regular official weigh-in using the easy-to-use walk-on electronic scales at your local vet clinic. This is free of charge, and you can then easily check the pet's medical record to see if their weight has increased since the previous visit. If an adult pet has gained 10% of body weight, then unarguably, they must be overweight, like a 10 stone person moving up to 11 stone.
Second, carry out a body shape assessment. There are plenty of guides on the internet telling you how to do this, but at the simplest level, you classify your pet from 1 (emaciated, with sticking-out ribs and a protruding spine) to 5 (obese, with large fat deposits over the body, and a plump, fat-filled abdomen) The ideal is a 3 (ribs can be felt, without excess fat covering. Abdomen is tucked up when viewed from side.) If you are not sure how to assess your pet's body shape, ask your vet to do it for you.
The third way to analyse a pet's weight is to use a system that involves measuring the your pets physical size with a tape measure, then keying this into a calculator to come up with the recommended body weight. This is know as Morpho Metric Measurements (MMM), and there's an easy-to-use website ( www.quickreco.com) that makes it simple to do yourself. This online calculator gives you a target weight for your pet, which is a useful way of giving you a goal to aim at. It also tells you how much food, and which type of food, is needed to help your pet reach the goal. Simply reducing the amount of daily food rations may be enough, but in some cases, a special weight reduction diet is needed.
Is your pet overweight or obese? If so, my column next week will include tips on how to make it easier to get back to that ideal, healthier weight.
Pete is currently featuring "Project Pet Slimdown" on TV3's Ireland AM on Wednesday mornings to help tackle pet obesity in Irish pets.