Guest article by Dr. Ernie Ward, DVM, CVFT
Founder, Association for Pet Obesity Prevention
The health threats posed by pet obesity
Pet obesity is our pets’ number one health threat. Today’s dogs and cats are living longer than ever before. Unfortunately, they’re also more likely to have obesity and costly weight-related diseases. When it comes to preventing disease and helping your pet live a long, healthy, pain-free life, there may be nothing more important than maintaining a healthy weight.
Obesity and excess weight in dogs and cats is one of the most commonly diagnosed medical disorders in veterinary practice. In the United States, an estimated 56% of dogs and 60% of cats are classified as overweight or obese, in the United Kingdom 46% of dogs, 34% of cats and 30% rabbits, and global estimates of overweight or obese pets range from 22% to 44%.
Veterinarians report that pet obesity is one of their primary health and welfare concerns for animals, with 98% of U.S. veterinary professionals considering pet obesity “a significant problem,” and 60% of U.K. veterinarians saying, “obesity is the biggest health and welfare concern for UK pets.” There is increasing evidence that obesity is beginning to affect dogs and cats in emerging countries, particularly Brazil and China. Obesity rates are also increasing among young animals, with studies documenting 21% of dogs overweight by 6 months of age.
In 2018, twenty-five of the world’s largest and highly respected veterinary organizations declared their support for the “Global Pet Obesity Initiative Position Statement,” creating a standardized definition of obesity in dogs and cats, universal body condition score (BCS), and “for the veterinary profession formally to recognize canine and feline obesity as a disease.”
Despite increasing prevalence rates, global awareness campaigns, and advances in treatments, many pet owners fail to recognize the risks of pet obesity and veterinarians struggle to accurately diagnose, effectively communicate with pet owners, and successfully treat pets with obesity.
Pets suffering from obesity are prone to a torrent of weight-related disorders. If your pet needs to shed a few pounds, consider these serious consequences of obesity as you’re looking for motivation.
Decreased Life Expectancy and Poor Quality of life from Pet Obesity
Less is more when it comes to feeding pets and living longer. Eating less has been proven to extend life expectancy and reduce suffering in species as diverse as worms, spiders, water fleas, fruit flies, fish, hamsters, mice, rats, dogs, and monkeys. In a 1999 longevity study conducted on dogs, researchers found dogs fed 25% fewer calories than normal lived an average two years longer.
Even more exciting was that the dogs fed a little less food had a lot fewer medical problems. The study dogs also required fewer medications and remained more active well into “old age.” If you’re looking for the Fountain of Youth for your pets, it may be found in their food bowl.
Arthritis in Dogs
The number one medical condition associated with excess weight is osteoarthritis (OA). Both large and small breeds of dogs are typically affected but cats are developing crippling arthritis at alarming rates. A March 2011 study concluded that the majority of cats (61%) had radiographic evidence of OA. Interestingly, few owners recognized the signs of arthritis, leading the study authors to strongly advise radiographs in older cats, especially those demonstrating inappropriate elimination or household “accidents.”
If your pet is carrying as little as one or two extra pounds, remember those pounds are stressing tiny joints not designed to carry extra weight. Making matters worse, fat cells produce harmful chemicals known as adipocytokines that damage even non-weight bearing joints. There is no cure for osteoarthritis; we can only minimize the pain. Preventing excess weight and obesity is key to helping your pet maintain a long, pain-free life.
Veterinarians are increasingly diagnosing diabetes in cats with obesity. Similar to humans, overweight cats are at tremendous risk for developing high blood sugar and diabetes, often requiring twice daily insulin injections. Dogs with obesity are more prone to a condition known as insulin resistance, a state in which they have dangerously high insulin and blood sugar levels and may also develop diabetes.
Both diabetes and insulin resistance have been shown to reduce a pet’s life expectancy in addition to requiring constant medication and treatment. Feline diabetes is largely prevented by simply feeding the amount of food to maintain a normal weight. What could be easier?
High Blood Pressure
Sometimes we forget our pets get many of the same diseases we do. Hypertension is one of these commonly overlooked conditions in pets. High blood pressure is known as the “silent killer” because you can’t tell if your pet has it nor can you see the damage it’s causing – until it’s too late.
If your dog or cat has packed on a few extra pounds, have its blood pressure checked regularly by your vet. This simple test can help prevent sudden blindness, heart problems, and kidney failure. Early recognition and treatment can be as simple as changing to a low-sodium diet, weight loss, and increasing exercise. Blood pressure medications are needed in more serious cases.
Excess fat has been implicated in the formation of many cancers in animals. The National Cancer Institute estimates that obesity and physical inactivity may account for 25% to 30% of the major cancers in humans: colon, breast cancer in postmenopausal women, endometrial, kidney, and cancer of the esophagus. New research points to obesity-related insulin resistance as a likely cause. While we don’t have as many dog and cat research studies to draw upon, the consensus is that excess weight increases a pet’s risk of developing many types of cancer. Reduce the weight to reduce the risk.
The trouble with our pets being plump isn’t vanity; excess weight causes or worsens many serious medical conditions in dogs and cats. Our animal companions depend on us to make good choices for them. Make sure you’re feeding your pet based on sound nutritional advice and not due to clever marketing or price.
Talk with your vet about specific strategies to keep your pet at a healthy weight. Your pets will be happier, have fewer medical problems, and you’ll enjoy more years together.