Contributed by Dr. Tessa Sustacha

In North America, obesity is the most common preventable disease in dogs and cats. Approximately 25-30% of the general canine population is obese, with 40-45% of dogs aged 5-11 years old weighing higher than ideal body weight.

This is the most important question you must ask your veterinarian – and one your vet may not be eager to answer.  Believe it or not, many veterinarians are simply afraid to tell if your pet is overweight. This is primarily due to the fact your vet doesn’t want to inadvertently offend you. Weight issues are tricky and loaded with perceived judgment, strong emotions, and social stigmas. All of this leads to many vets remarking, “Maybe Scooter could drop a few pounds, but who shouldn’t?” As a concerned pet owner, you need to understand your pet’s weight is one of the most influential factors of longevity, quality of life, and disease prevention. To answer this question, your vet will likely conduct a couple of measurements, determine a Body Condition Score and determine your pet’s current weight status.

Obesity is an accumulation of excess body fat. Extra body weight and extra body fat tend to go hand in hand, so most overweight dogs will have excess body fat. Body weight is easy to measure when assessing if a dog is overweight or obese – easier than trying to measure body fat. Using body weight as a guide, dogs are considered to be overweight when they weigh 10-20% above their ideal body weight. They’re considered obese when they weigh 20% or more above their ideal body weight. Excess fat negatively impacts a dog’s health and longevity. It was always accepted that heavy dogs lived a shorter lifespan than lean dogs, usually by 6-12 months. But a large, lifetime study of Labrador retrievers has found that being even moderately overweight can reduce canine life expectancy by nearly two years compared to their leaner counterparts. It’s a sobering statistic. Previously, fat was considered to be relatively inert tissue, simply storing excess energy calories and adding to body mass. Scientific evidence now reveals that fat tissue is biologically active, however. It secretes inflammatory hormones and creates oxidative stress on the body’s tissue, both of which contribute to many diseases. Thinking of obesity as a chronic, low-level inflammatory condition is a new paradigm.

Obese pets develop an increased risk for:
– Cancers of all types, diabetes mellitus,heart disease and hypertension
– Osteoarthritis and a faster degeneration of affected joints
– Urinary bladder stones
– Anesthetic complications as they’reless heat tolerant
– Obesity may also be an indicator of disease, such as hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland) or Cushing’s disease

If you are concerned about your pet’s weight ask these specific questions. Demand a thorough assessment. Don’t be offended if the answer isn’t what you expected. This isn’t personal; it’s your pet’s future.

How many calories should I feed my pet each day?
We’ve got to be specific when it comes to feeding our pets. Don’t fall into the trap of inquiring, “How much should I feed?” You’ll probably get a generic, inaccurate response. We need precise numbers of calories and nutrients your pet needs. That way, regardless of the type, brand, or formulation of food you feed, you can determine how much to feed.

How much weight should my pet lose in a month?
In general terms, a dog can safely lose 1 to 3-percent of its body weight and cats 0.5 to 2-percent per month. Many dogs can lose 3 to 5-percent and most cats should aim for about a half-pound per month.

What kinds of exercise should my pet do?
Most vets and pet owners focus on how long a pet should exercise each day. Instead, ask your vet what types of activities are best based on your pet’s species, breed, age, gender, and current physical abilities. Walking, swimming, agility, chase, ball retrieving, and remote controlled toys – the opportunities for physical activity with your pet are limitless. The general recommendation is that dogs need at least 30-minutes of physical activity a day and cats should strive for three 5-minute intense play periods. Cat owners, please don’t forget to ask this question. Whether you play with a feather duster or laser pointer, move the food bowl, or use a hip, high-tech toy, engage your cat’s inner predator and encourage it to pounce, leap, and prowl every day.

Is my pet as risk for medical problem due to excess weight?
This is a very serious question that you need to understand for your pet’s future. Dogs and cats carrying extra fat are at greater risk for developing debilitating diabetes, crippling arthritis, deadly high blood pressure, kidney disease, and many forms of catastrophic cancer. You need to have a frank conversation with your vet to find out if your pet is potentially facing one of these conditions. If so, what can you do to cut those odds? The most important decision you make each day about your pet’s health is what you choose to feed it. Choose wisely; your pet’s life depends on it. It’s never too late to reduce your pet’s chances of contracting one of these grim disorders. Early recognition and awareness is the best defense against many diseases. Ask the question. The few minutes you spend on diet and weight could well be the difference between two additional years of high-quality life or a shortened, suffering final stage of life.