We’re too fat. This includes you, Fido and Fluffy

Farm Forum

Obesity in America is an epidemic. The percentage of population that is overweight or obese has never been higher. Along with this phenomenon go higher rates of diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and joint problems such as arthritis. Obesity is a major contributor to increased health costs.

Sounds familiar, right? But I’m not talking about people. I’m talking about our dogs and cats.

To be sure, the level of obesity among our citizens is discouraging. Over one-third of people in America today are considered obese. Worse yet, the statistics are not improving despite a high level of awareness of the situation.

The parallels between human obesity and animal obesity today are intriguing. Just like us, our pets are too fat. A survey last year conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found over 58 percent of cats and 53 percent of dogs to be overweight or obese. Ask your local veterinarian and they’ll back up this finding.

It’s interesting that overweight dogs and cats have the same health problems like diabetes and joint degeneration that people do. And I believe the underlying factors affecting obesity rates are the same between people and animals: more sedentary lifestyle, lack of exercise, and taking in more calories (do any of you share ice cream with your pooch?). One health, indeed.

Another common factor between people and animals is denial about being overweight. Just as we don’t want to admit we’re getting a little pudgy, we don’t want to admit our pets are, either. Another recent survey showed that 45% of pet owners considered their pets’ weight “just right” when the veterinarian’s assessment indicated the pets were overweight. (I’ve observed this phenomenon in the vet clinic exam room as well).

How can you tell if your pet is overweight? My rule of thumb has remained simple throughout my years as a veterinarian: When you feel over your pet’s ribcage, you should be able to feel the ribs with just a little layer of fat between the skin and ribcage. If you can’t feel ribs at all, your pet’s too fat.

After you’ve determined your pet is overweight, what then? The first step is a thorough veterinary exam, because sometimes weight gain can be due to medical conditions such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s Disease. After these are ruled out, a good discussion of how to shed the pounds should be next.

There are a couple of approaches to putting Fido on a doggy diet. Simply reducing the amount fed may work. Your veterinarian can advise you the proper amount to feed based on the diet and your animal’s condition. Do not put you pet on a crash diet, though. Make changes to the diet gradually, over a week’s time. Severe calorie restriction in a fat animal, especially cats, can result in severe problems like fatty liver disease. Another consideration may be low-calorie or “light” pet foods. These still have to be fed in the proper amount, however. Plan on a 6 to 8 month process of gradual weight loss. As with people, exercise is a critical part of weight reduction in pets, too.

Also like people, diets sometimes fail in animals. My dad’s Golden Retriever, Jack, exemplifies this. Despite Dad’s efforts to restrict his diet, it doesn’t work that well if Jack steals food from the neighbor dog’s dish! Treats need to be limited too. Multi-pet households where one needs to shed pounds and the others don’t can also present problems. I think many plans fail because of us, not the pet. “But he’s always hungry and begging,” is a common excuse from clients I’ve heard time and time again to explain the failure to rein in their dog’s weight. Of course! Healthy dogs are always hungry and don’t know when to quit eating. When we give in with extra food or treats, it’s a failure on our part, not the dog’s.

So my challenge to you is to give your pet’s weight an honest evaluation. If he’s too chubby, work with your vet on a plan to help your pet shed some pounds. And…a little exercise might do both of you good!

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.