Purrfectly Fit: Navigating the Importance of a Healthy Weight in Cats and Dogs

photo of person holding black and white dog

Author: Dr Katy Miller DVM, CVFT, CVNAN, CPFFCP, CPCQI, PAS

In the heart of every happy and thriving pet lies a commitment to their overall well-being. One fundamental aspect that often goes overlooked is the importance of maintaining a healthy weight. The results of a 2022 Pet Obesity Prevalence Survey suggest that 59% of dogs and 61% of cats are overweight or obese.1 This is likely underestimated as the survey also reports that 28-36% of cat and dog owners, respectively, considered their pets at a “normal” weight when their veterinary professional would classify them as overweight or obese. Like humans, pets benefit significantly from proper weight management, influencing their physical health, longevity, and overall quality of life. So let look at the benefits, how to evaluate, and how to achieve healthy weight in pets.

Just as excess weight can lead to health issues in humans, pets are also susceptible to a range of problems when carrying extra pounds. Conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, urinary tract disease, respiratory disease, reproductive disorders, and heart disease are more common in overweight pets.2 Maintaining a healthy weight can alleviate the risk and severity of these conditions. A healthy weight contributes to an improved quality of life for pets. They can enjoy a greater range of activities, experience less pain, and have an increased capacity for joy. Owners will find that their pets are more active, playful, and better able to engage with their surroundings.

The greatest news is that keeping pets at a healthy weight can increase their lifespan too! In the only study of its kind to date, the Purina Life Span Study, conducted from 1987 to 2001 with Labrador Retrievers, proved that maintaining dogs in lean body condition extended their average life span by nearly 2 years.3 It also demonstrated that the need for treatment of health conditions was delayed by almost 2 years as well.

So there are great health benefits to a healthy weight, but how do you determine if your pet is at a healthy weight or not? While the scale weight is a nice, straightforward measurement for people, dogs, and cats have too much variation in body shapes for the scale to be a good representation of a pet’s health in relation to weight. If you think about someone saying I have a 60 lbs mixed breed dog. If that dog is the size and shape of a male golden retriever, they may be at a healthy weight, but if that same dog is shaped like a Corgi with short legs and a long back, they may be grossly overweight. The same example can be made with cats. What might be a healthy 12 lbs on an average framed cat might be grossly overweight on a cat with a very small frame. By using an evaluation of a body condition score (BCS), we can level out the playing field and evaluate weight compared to body structure.

A pets BCS is a numerical scale used by veterinarians and pet owners to assess the body condition or weight of a pet. It helps determine whether a pet is underweight, overweight, or at an ideal weight. The scale usually ranges from 1 to 5 or 1-9, with 1 being emaciated and 5/9 being obese (see diagram below).

So how does one assign a BCS to a pet? First, you will need to look and feel your pet. You start by looking at the pet from above. Do they have an hourglass shape to them with a waistline that curves in behind the bibs, or do they have more of a round, egg-shaped body? Then you will observe the animal from the side. Does the belly slope up from the ribcage to the hind legs, or is there a pouch of fat hanging down? Next, you will feel the animal. Run your hand down their back. Can you feel the top of the vertebrae, or do you have to push down to find the bones? Finally, run your hand over the ribs does this feel like running your hand over the knuckles of a closed fist (too thin) does it feel like running your fingers over the back of your hand (perfect weight), or does it feel more like running your fingers over the palm of your hand (too much fat)?

Now assign a numerical value to that evaluation.

  1. Ribs (feel like your knuckles in a closed fist), Backbone, and pelvic bones stick out. There is minimal muscle mass. Severe and dramatic waistline.
  2. Ribs, Backbone, and pelvic bones are easily visible, but there is some muscle mass present
  3. Ribs feel like the back of your hand and are slightly visible, easily palpable Backbone and pelvic bones palpable but not as visible. There is an obvious waistline, and with cats, there may be a minimal abdominal fat pad in front of the hindlegs.
  4. Ribs, Backbone, and pelvic bones have a fat layer covering them but are still palpable. The tummy tuck is present but minimal, and the waistline is visible but not prominent. Cats have a fat pad in front of their back legs;
  5. Ribs feel like the palm of your hand, backbone, and pelvic bones are covered with a layer of fat and are hard to palpate; there is no tummy tuck or waistline. )

 The ideal is a 2.5-3

Now that a pet has a BCS what can you do if it is not ideal?

   Proper nutrition and portion control are key components of weight management. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the best diet for your pet’s breed, age, and health status. Ensure that you’re feeding them appropriate portions to maintain their ideal weight. Always keep in mind that feeding recommendations on the back of a bag or a can of pet food are just suggestions of where to start feeding your pet up to 50% of pets will need more or less than what is recommended on the back. Adjust the amount you feed based on your pets weight response to feeding that amount.

   Establishing a regular exercise routine is crucial for keeping your pet active and maintaining a healthy weight. Whether it’s daily walks, playtime, or interactive toys, find activities that your pet enjoys to keep them moving.

   Regular veterinary check-ups are essential for monitoring your pet’s weight and overall health. Your veterinarian can provide guidance on weight management, suggest dietary adjustments, and detect any potential health issues early on.

A healthy weight is not just a cosmetic concern; it’s a fundamental aspect of your pet’s overall well-being. By prioritizing their weight management, you’re investing in a longer, happier, and more active life for your beloved companion. Remember, a few small adjustments to their diet and exercise routine can make a world of difference in nurturing the health and happiness of your furry friend.

References

  1. “2022 — Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.” Association for Pet Obesity Prevention , https://www.petobesityprevention.org/2022. Accessed 26 Jan. 2024.
  2. German, Alexander J. “The growing problem of obesity in dogs and cats.” The Journal of nutrition 136.7 (2006): 1940S-1946S.
  3. Kealy, Richard D., et al. “Effects of diet restriction on life span and age-related changes in dogs.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 220.9 (2002): 1315-1320.

About the Author: Dr. Katy Miller works as the Director of Veterinary Services at BSM Partners. She brings her extensive background in companion animal nutrition (12 years) and her experience as a practicing veterinarian (7 years) together to help provide useful information to pet food manufacturers and pet parents. She shares a home with 2 cats, 9 dogs, and 5 horses.