Pet obesity: are we overfeeding our pets?

Irina Wells
7 February 2020 - 6 min read

Pet obesity is on the rise and animal organisations say owners should be more aware of what a healthy weight is and how to keep their pet in shape.

The PDSA is tackling the issue by working with the UK's heaviest pets in its Pet Fit Club competition.

Fifteen pets will be chosen to participate. They will be placed on a six-month diet and exercise programme, tailored to their needs and overseen by vets and nurses at their local PDSA Pet Hospital.

The pets will get free diet food for the duration of the competition. The winner gets a year's free pet food and a pet-friendly holiday. Pet owners can apply online by the 1 March.

Based on findings from a 2019 report by the Pet Foods Manufacturers' Association (PFMA), many pet owners might not even be aware their pet is overweight.

In 2019, PFMA's report showed that 51% of dogs and 44% of cats seen by vets are overweight or obese. This was a jump on their 2015 report when dogs were at 45% and cats were at 40%.

Seventy-three per cent of vets surveyed said pet obesity was “one of the most prevalent conditions" they see. However, 68% of pet owners that took part in the research said their pet was the right size. Of these, only 2% had weighed their pets, suggesting that many pet owners might not know what's healthy when it comes to their pets' weight and size.

Is your dog overweight?

“Pet owners need reminders of ‘[what] normal [weight is]’ to help counter the gradual change in perception as many people now believe that ‘overweight’ means ‘normal’,” says Pete Wedderburn, vet and journalist.

In their annual pet welfare report for 2018, the PDSA found that 80% of dog owners thought their pet was an ideal weight but only 40% knew their actual weight or BCS (body condition score - an equivalent of the human BMI).

And when the PDSA asked dog owners to match an outline of a dog’s body shape used to determine BCS to that of their dog’s, 5% scored BCS-5, which indicated obesity. However, only 1% of these pet owners described their dog as obese.

These findings suggest that there is not enough awareness of how to tell when a pet reaches an unhealthy weight or when it is at a risk of becoming overweight.

But with one study of 50,000 reporting that overweight dogs live up to 2 and a half years less than dogs whose weight is within the norm, and with pet obesity on the rise, it’s time to do something about it.

To tilt the scales in a healthier direction, it seems a good place to start would be diet and more importantly re-thinking how, why and how much we feed.

See our guide on the best pet insurance for dogs.

Do we love to overfeed our pets because we love them?

There’s an old adage that pets only love us because we provide them with food. Based on the responses in one international survey conducted by Better Cities For Pets in 2018, perhaps the problem is that we love to feed them.

Fifty-nine percent of cat and dog owners say they “feel rewarded when feeding their pet”, 77% said their pet “gets excited when they feed it” and a further 54% said that they’d give their pet food if it begged for it.

Feeding is an easy way to show affection and offers emotional benefits to both owners and pets. However, it can contribute to unhealthy weight gain in our pets.

Veterinary surgeon Dr Neerja Muncaster says that even owners who are aware of their pet's daily food allowance often overlook their consumption of treats.

She says: "It is important to include the treats in the daily food allowance so that you aren't inadvertently overfeeding, for example, when training a young dog."

And there are other ways to make pets happy.

In 2017, a neuroscientist studied dogs in functional MRI scans and concluded that they enjoy being praised by their owners at least as much as they enjoyed food and that 20% of the dogs preferred praise to food.

Among some of the food-free ways to show affection suggested by veterinary professionals are praise, showing affection by petting your pet, spending time together and playing with it.

This doesn’t mean never giving treats, but it does mean carefully measuring the amount of food you give your dog, based on its weight, and following the daily recommended amounts stated on food packaging and taking treats into account.

Another great way to show affection is active play and exercise.

How much exercise is the right amount of exercise?

"Exercise requirements will vary with age and breed but as a general rule most dogs enjoy going out for walks 2 to 3 times a day," says Dr Muncaster.

Working, herding and sporting breeds need at least an hour a day, whereas toy and small breeds need half.

If you’re unsure how much exercise your dog needs based on its breed and age consult your vet.

Luckily veterinary professionals are paying more and more attention to pets’ weight.

Dr Muncaster lists pet obesity as one of the main topics for pet owners to be aware of in 2019.

She says: "Most veterinary practices run weight clinics, which are a great source of support and help. At many clinics a qualified veterinary nurse can design a diet programme for the owner and support them throughout the journey."

How to check if your pet is overweight?

If your dog is a normal weight, you should be able to feel (but not see) the outline of its ribs, see its waist from above and its belly should seem tucked in when looking at it from the side.

For a cat, you should also be able to feel its spine and hip bones and there should only be a little bit of belly fat.

Obesity can contribute to other conditions such as diabetes, musculoskeletal problems, heart problems, arthritis or respiratory issues.

Having your pet’s weight and BCS checked as often as possible when you go to the vet is a good way to monitor its body condition.

"It is standard practice in most practices to record the weight at each consultation. Body conditions scores less so. Weight trends can be important indicators of underlying health problems, especially in cats," Dr Neerja Muncaster told us.

How to prevent pets from becoming obese?

Giving your pet the right amount of food and exercise for its size are key.

Try to avoid feeding your pet table scraps and ensure they get plenty of exercise. If you’re unsure how much exercise your dog needs based on its breed, age and weight, ask a veterinary professional.

Although prevention is better than cure, even if your pet is overweight or obese, there is still a lot you can do to help.

What to do if a pet is overweight?

If your pet is diagnosed as obese or overweight, your vet can recommend diets and the necessary level of exercise to help your cat or dog get to a healthy weight.

Reducing the amount of treats or introducing a restricted diet is often part of the efforts to return to normal weight.

Pets may seem happy when they get treats but studies show that overweight pets are not happy pets.

And don’t be afraid that your pet will like you less if you stop giving it snacks: “Walks and games are much better treats for dogs than food,” says the PDSA.

This article was written by ManyPets. We were not paid to write it but we will receive commission if clicking on a link to one of the named insurers results in a reader taking out a policy with that insurer. We also charge for advertising space so a particular insurer may be highlighted in the article and, where insurers are listed, it can dictate where they appear in the list.