Updated: Feb 18, 2021
Happy National Pet Week! Today’s theme is “Nutrition and Exercise Matters,” which is very timely given that I just finished up my 3rd year small animal nutrition course last week!
One of the most important topics we discussed in my nutrition class was pet obesity and weight management. Like in humans, obesity is one of the top problems in pets as well. A survey conducted by The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention in 2018 found that 55.8% of dogs and 59.5% of cats in the United States were obese.
As a veterinary professional, one of the ways I believe we can help pet owners identify signs of obesity or increases in weight are by teaching pet owners how to perform a Body Condition Score (BCS). BCS is a simple method that veterinarians perform on every animal during the physical exam and can easily be performed by the pet owner at home to track and monitor the pet’s weight loss. Before we discuss how to perform a BCS, let’s dive into pet obesity a little more.
Like mentioned earlier, obesity is one of the top problems in pets. A survey conducted by The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) in 2018 found that 55.8% of dogs and 59.5% of cats in the United States were obese (BCS ≥ 6/9) (1). APOP defines obesity as pets ≥ 30% of ideal body weight, and over-conditioned pets are defined as ≥ 15% of ideal body weight. There are many risk factors as to why pets become obese or over-conditioned. Multiple studies have concluded that gender/neuter status play a role, as spayed female dogs are 2x more likely to be overweight than intact females (2), and in cats, males are more likely to be obese than females (3). Some risk factors of obesity are associated with energy intake, others with energy expenditure, while several factors act on both intake and expenditure (3). Other food and feeding risk factors may include highly palatable foods, free choice feeding, excessive treats, and feeding diets that are high in fat.
Clinically, it is important to consider obesity as a disease and treat it as such. The greatest risk to an obese pet are the co-morbidities and other diseases associated with obesity. We see these co-morbidities with obesity because, at the root, obesity is an inflammatory condition and is thought to play a role in chronic diseases such as osteoarthritis, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, cranial cruciate ligament injury, respiratory disease, dermatitis and poor grooming (in cats) (4). While obesity itself may not appear harmful, these co-morbidities are ultimately what will cause deterioration of an animal’s health, leading to a decreased quality of life.
As a pet owner, how can you tell if your pet is gaining weight or becoming obese? The best method is by performing a Body Condition Score (BCS). BCS is a simple method that veterinarians perform on every animal during the physical exam and can even be performed by the pet owner at home to track and monitor the pet’s weight loss. Performing a BCS is done by gently (not pressing down!) palpating your pet with your fingertips over their ribs and checking for abdominal tuck. The results are then matched up to a 1-9 scale, and that helps us identify if the pet is obese, overweight, underweight, or at an ideal weight. My nutrition professor (credits to Dr. Nolie Parnell) once shared with us a great way to teach clients how to figure out what BCS their pet is, and it’s all based off your hand. Rub the top of your hand over the area from your wrist to first knuckle (the metacarpals), then make a fist and rub over your first knuckles, then finally, open your hand with your palm up, and feel over the base of your palm closest to the thumb (thumb metacarpal). When you palpate your pet over their ribs and it feels more like the area from your wrist to first knuckle, then your pet is ideal weight. If it feels like the fisted knuckles, then your pet is underweight. Finally, if it feels like the base of your palm, your pet is overweight.
Treatment and management of obesity is a multi-factorial and multi-step process that takes time and a lot of effort on both the veterinarians and owner’s parts. Depending on the significance of the condition, treatment and management is centered around dietary management and an exercise plan. If you believe your pet is overweight or obese, please consult your veterinarian to discuss further. You can also check out AVMA’s National Pet Week Resources Page on Nutrition and Exercise for more information as well.
Disclaimer: This blog post is meant to provide information in what I have learned from my nutrition class and the research I have conducted while learning. The information is specifically aimed at providing a background in pet obesity, weight management and educating the owner on how to perform a Body Condition Score. This post is not considered a client recommendation nor can be used as a diagnostic and/or treatment tool for a pet. All pet owners must consult their veterinarians if necessary.
Edney ATB, Smith PM. Study of obesity in dogs visiting veterinary practices in the United Kingdom. Vet Rec 1986;118:391–396.
Diez M, Nguyen P. The epidemiology of canine and feline obesity. WALTHAM Focus Vol. 2006;16(1).
Laflamme, D.P. "Obesity in Dogs and Cats: What Is Wrong with Being Fat?(Report)(Author Abstract)." Journal of Animal Science 90.5 (2012): 1653. Web.