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Get Hands-On With Your Pets Weight

Updated: Apr 27

40-60% of our UK pets may be obese, so if you don't think yours is overweight, you might need to think again.


How long do we want our pets to live? The answer is obvious - as long as possible! Our animal companions are truly members of the family, sharing our lives, our beds, and sometimes even our meals. Unfortunately, our tendency to demonstrate love to our pets by feeding them more than they need can directly impact how long we have to spend with them and how good their quality of life may be during that time. At least half of pet dogs and cats in the UK are considered overweight or obese1. 


In one lifetime study, dogs who were fed an amount that resulted in them being slightly overweight had a median lifespan of nearly 2 years less than their littermates who were fed 25% less and maintained a more ideal body weight2. The dogs fed less and kept more lean also had a delayed time to onset of arthritis compared to their heavier counterparts. Other studies have repeatedly shown that overweight and obese dogs and cats have a higher risk of developing other medical conditions and a lower quality of life3-5.



Keeping Pets Lean


How do we set our pets up for success in maintaining their ideal body weights, so they can live long, healthy, comfortable lives with us? As with many things, prevention is much easier than treatment. 


  1. Know your pet’s risk factors. There are several things that can predispose a pet to becoming overweight or obese. 

  • Age - as pets age, their caloric needs and activity levels often decrease.

  • Neuter status - neutering can decrease a pet’s caloric needs. This effect can vary with breed and sex but it’s worth thinking about how much you are feeding and if any changes need to be made when your pet is neutered. 

  • Genetics and breed predispositions - certain breeds are predisposed to obesity for various reasons. Toy and mini breeds are susceptible because even small snacks have a big impact in relation to their lower caloric need. Dogs predisposed to mobility and breathing conditions may experience difficulty getting adequate exercise. Finally, genetics themselves can play a role. Labradors have been found to have several genetic links to obesity6,7 - some are even missing an entire section of a gene that is related to appetite control8! 

  • Disease - certain diseases, like hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease, can make dogs more likely to be overweight. These can be diagnosed with blood tests at the vet’s office. 


  1. Know your pet’s “normal”. Be proactive about discussing your pet’s weight with your veterinary team.

  • Know your pet’s ideal weight and how to check their body condition. Veterinary professionals usually use a 1-9 scientifically validated scale to assess a pet’s body condition, with 4-5 being ideal. The L.O.V.E. test is another easy to use online tool to determine if your pet is overweight based on their body shape. 

  • If you have a growing puppy or kitten, ask your veterinary team to alert you when your pet has reached their ideal adult body weight, so you’ll always know what their healthy weight set point is.


  1. Understand calories!

  • Ask your veterinary team how many calories your pet needs each day. Pets are (usually) much smaller than people, so their caloric needs are much less than ours. What we think of as a small titbit or just a little extra can be a significant amount of extra calories for a pet. For example, 1 Tablespoon of peanut butter can be 20% of a small dog’s daily calories. That would be the same as a human eating 5 Tablespoons of peanut butter! Check out the impact of other popular treat foods at this Pet Calorie Converter



How To Manage An Overweight Pet


If we do end up with an overweight or obese pet, what are the best ways to help them lose weight? There are a few nutritional strategies that work the best.


  1. Cut down your pet’s existing food - This might be a successful strategy if the pet is receiving a lot of extras on top of their complete pet food ration and are only a little bit overweight. Cutting out these extras may be enough to help slim the pet down. However, if the pet has a significant amount of weight to lose, it is not advisable to restrict the portion of their regular pet food far below the recommended feeding amount. Pet foods are formulated with the levels of essential macro- and micronutrients pets need based on the labeled feeding guide. Cutting back too far on the ration of a maintenance food will restrict calories, but it can also restrict important nutrients and lead to malnutrition.


  1. Low calorie, high fibre veterinary foods - Similar to advice for humans, this has been the traditional approach to obesity in pets. These foods are designed to be lower in calories, and often fat, while preserving adequate levels of essential nutrients. Fibre levels are typically higher, to help pets feel full and satiated. These foods can work, but they must be fed strictly. If extra calories are given on top of the weight loss foods, their effect will be negated. Some individual pets have slower-than-average metabolisms, and calorie restriction can slow them down further, resulting in difficulty losing weight. 


  1. Nutrigenomic weight management veterinary foods - Because not all pets succeed with weight loss on calorie-restriction foods alone, newer foods have been developed that help pets’ metabolisms to be healthier. As previously discussed, many factors of weight are influenced by genetics, including whether a pet is more prone to store or burn fat, glucose metabolism, appetite control, and creation of lean muscle mass. Nutrigenomic weight management foods shift the activity of these genes using natural ingredients, to mimic the metabolism of naturally lean pets. These foods can also lead to the development of more lean muscle mass, which helps to burn calories even while the pet is not active. These foods have been clinically proven to work in real world situations, even when owners have not been 100% compliant with the diet plan. In one at-home study, 88% of pets lost weight in 2 months10. 


Your veterinary team is the best source of support and recommendations for your pet’s weight loss journey and they’re more than happy to help. They will be delighted that you are concerned about keeping your pet at a healthy weight and can share their expertise to ensure you are successful. Many vets run regular weight clinics where you can get regular support and check-ins with the veterinary team. Your pet will thank you with more healthy, happy years to spend with you.


Hillary Pearce, DVM, MRCVS

Hill's Pet Nutrition, Ltd. | Associate Manager, Professional and Veterinary Affairs, United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland


References

  1. UK Pet Food Pet Obesity Statistics. November 2022. Accessed 4 April 2024. https://www.ukpetfood.org/information-centre/pet-obesity-statistics.html

  2. Kealy RD, Lawler DF, Ballam JM, et al. Effects of diet restriction on life span and age-related changes in dogs. JAm Vet Med Assoc. 2002;220(9):1315–1320. doi:10.2460/javma.2002.220.1315

  3. Lund EM, Armstrong PJ, Kirk CA, Klausner JS. Prevalence and risk factors for obesity in adult dogs from private US veterinary practices. Int J Appl Res Vet Med.2006;4(2):177–186.

  4. Lund EM, Armstrong PJ, Kirk CA, Klausner JS. Prevalence and risk factors for obesity in adult cats from private US. Vet Pract. 2005;3:4–6

  5. German AJ, Holden SL, Wiseman-Orr ML, et al. Quality of life is reduced in obese dogs but improves after successful weight loss. Vet J. 2012;192(3):428–434. doi:10.1016/j.tvjl.2011.09.015

  6. Wallis NJ, Sumanasekera NT, Raffan E. Obesity risk factors in British Labrador retrievers: Effect of sex, neuter status, age, chocolate coat colour and food motivation. Vet Rec. 2023;e3410. https://doi.org/10.1002/vetr.3410

  7. Kieler, I.N., Persson, S.M., Hagman, R. et al. Genome wide association study in Swedish Labrador retrievers identifies genetic loci associated with hip dysplasia and body weight. Sci Rep 14, 6090 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-024-56060-y

  8. Raffan et al., 2016, Cell Metabolism 23, 893–900.http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2016.04.012

  9. World Small Animal Veterinary Association. 2013. Accessed 4 April 2024. https://wsava.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Body-Condition-Score-Dog.pdf

  10. Towell TL, Forrester SD, Cross S, et al. Intern J Appl Res Vet Med 2015;13:14-22


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