Obesity is shockingly common in pets: all species, including dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters and budgies can be affected. Surveys1 have demonstrated that around one-third of all pets are too fat. It's a complex subject: owners don't set out to deliberately overindulge their beloved pets.
Obesity causes many problems in pets, just as it does in humans. A vicious circle of weight gain can easily develop. The heavier a pet becomes, the less they want to exercise, and so the less energy they burn up. Instead of enjoying play and exercise, the most enjoyable part of their life becomes eating, so they eat more.
Obese pets are prone to a long list of health issues, all of which can be prevented or minimised by keeping avoiding obesity.
Pets that are overweight are carrying extra weight around with them all the time, like a person wearing a heavy backpack. The result is that they get tired more easily and are unable to exercise as much as normal without getting fatigued. This, of course, leads to a vicious circle of less exercise, fewer calories being burned up, and increased weight gain.
The extra fatty tissue that develops in the neck and chest applies internal pressure to the breathing structures, including the throat, the windpipe and the lungs. This makes it more difficult for affected animals to breathe comfortably.
Body fat acts as insulation, making obese animals more prone to overheating. This is compounded by the fact that their compromised breathing makes it more difficult for them to lose excess body heat by panting, which is the normal mechanism for cooling down.
Elevated Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
The internal pressures applied by body fat mean that the blood dynamics are changed, increasing the risk of high blood pressure in dogs and cats.
Obese animals are more likely to develop diabetes, a life-shortening disease that requires daily injections for treatment.
The high levels of fats in the bloodstream place a particular pressure on the function of the liver, leading to an increased incidence of liver disease in obese pets.
Degenerative Joint Disease (Arthritis)
Pets that are carrying excessive body weight suffer from increased pressure on all joints in the body. This causes increased stress and damage to the joints, increasing the incidence of painful arthritis. This is so significant that experts say that the most effective treatment for any animal with arthritis is simply to lose weight.
Complications During Anaesthesia or Surgery
Excessive internal body fat causes altered internal anatomical geography, which has negative consequences if an animal requires surgery.
Depressed Immune System
There is evidence that in obese animals, there are inflammatory markers present in the bloodstream, indicating that the immune system is continually reacting to the presence of extra fat in the body, reducing its ability to react effectively to other disease risks that may occur.
Increased Risk of Developing Cancer
There are specific cancers which have been shown to be more common in obese animals.
Apart from these specific diseases, obese pets simply live shorter, less enjoyable lives. And the worst thing is that it is not their fault, nor is it a random occurrence. Obesity is a direct consequence of the actions of the human looking after them. When obese pets lose weight, their increased enjoyment of life is tangible: they have more of a spring in their step, and a brighter look in their eyes.
Tell Tale Signs Your Pet is Overweight
1. Can You Feel your Pets Spine?
You should be able to feel bones of the spine when you run your hand along the pet's back. If an animal is too fat, the layer of blubber along the back can make it impossible to feel the normal hard ridges of the spinal vertebrae.
2. Can You Feel their Ribs?
You should be able to feel the outline of the ribs if you place your hand on the side of your pet's chest. The ribs should not be so prominent that you can see them easily, but as you run your fingers along your pet’s chest, you should be able to feel their washboard-like contour.
3. Is your Pet an Hour-Glass from Above?
Look down at the overall shape of your pet from above. Lean pets have an hour-glass type shape: widest at the chest, narrow around the midriff, and then wider at the pelvis. Fat pets become like shapeless cushions, wide at the chest, equally wide at the midriff and wide again at the pelvis.
4. Does your Pet Have a Triangular Shape from the Side?
You can also assess your pet from the side. Animals should have a vaguely triangular, wedge-shaped outline: deeper at the front, and tapering up towards their rear ends. Obese cats are especially prone to losing this shape, developing a spherical outline from the side, with their bellies drooping down almost to touch the ground.
Misunderstanding Needs and Having a Healthy Pet
Often there's a simple misunderstanding of the nutritional needs and habits of animals, combined, of course, with the fact that many people find it difficult to say “no” to an animal that enjoys being given treats.
So what can people do to keep their pets lean and healthy? The first step is to understand the biology behind eating habits, remembering that much as we treat them as family, pets are not little people.
We humans evolved as hunter/gatherers, catching and collecting food, storing it, and then eating it in small quantities as needed. plan for tomorrow, so that we have a steady long term food supply.
Cats and dogs are descendants of predators and/or scavengers who hunted prey, or found the remains of prey that had been killed by others. Their aim was to eat the food rapidly, in case another predator came along and stole their meal, perhaps attacking them at the same time. Wild carnivores never store food like humans: their thinking processes don't allow them to plan in that way. Instead, their body stores food as fat. This is why dogs and cats are prone to developing obesity when living in modern homes where they no longer need to eat everything in front of them. We give them more, and they eat it, as they're programmed to do. They don't know when they've had enough. It's up to humans to make that judgement on their behalf.
The human celebrities of today are perhaps the leanest, fittest-looking people of us all: one of the main reasons is that they have personalised nutritionists and fitness trainers who instruct them on what to eat and how to exercise. It may be useful to see yourself as your pet's personal diet and exercise coach. You can easily control what your pet eats, and you can decide how much exercise they take. You can simply adjust their food intake and level of energy expenditure to fine tune their body condition.
Shedding the Pounds
In practice, it's not so easy. It's simple if you are starting with a young lean animal, forming good habits from the start. When a pet has become fat, it's more of a challenge. The easiest way is to work with your local vet clinic. Ultra-strict rations are needed in the early stages, using measured amounts of special low calorie pet food. A carefully planned feeding and exercise plan is needed, and it can take months to reach the goal.
You have learned certain ways of interacting with your pet, and habits have been formed. Often pets have learned how to beg, using facial expressions and body postures, making them difficult to resist. Regular weigh-ins at your local vets, with the support of trained veterinary nurses, makes it easier to break these habits.
Once you see the monthly weight begin to drop, you'll notice your pet's energy levels picking up, and the process will get easier. New healthier habits will form, and you'll begin to wonder why it seemed so difficult before.
Thousands of pets have been transformed from overweight, lazy blobs to active, slender athletic creatures: why can't your pet be one of them?
1. Pet Obesity Surveys
This guidance is for general information purposes only and does not purport to provide legal advice. Allianz accepts no responsibility or liability for any losses that may arise from reliance upon the information contained in this article. Information correct as of March 2017.The opinions in this article are those of an experienced veterinarian Pete Wedderburn.