Pet obesity: are we overfeeding our pets?

February 7, 2020 - 4 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
drawing of dog being fed

Pet obesity is on the rise, but many pet owners don't realize it. Animal organizations say owners should be more aware of what a healthy weight is, and how to keep their pets in shape.

Based on findings from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 56% of dogs and 60% of cats in the US are overweight or obese. This stands in stark contrast to Americans' perceptions of the problem: Only 39% of dog owners and 45% of cat owners consider their pets overweight or obese.

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“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, a veterinarian and journalist.

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

Do We 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% say their pet “gets excited when they feed it,” and a further 54% say 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.

Even owners who are aware of their pets 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 enjoy 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 them.

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

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

How Much Exercise Is the Right Amount?

"Exercise requirements will vary with age and breed, but as a general rule, most dogs enjoy going out for walks two to three 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 an hour.

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 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 program for the owner and support them throughout the journey."

How to Check If Your Pet Is Overweight

If your dog is of 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.

overweight long haired cat sitting on wood floor in front of bright red wall and wooden door

Having your pet’s weight and BCS (body condition score—sort of the pet equivalent of BMI) checked as often as possible when you go to the vet is a good way to monitor their body condition.

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

How to Prevent Pets From Becoming Obese

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

Try to avoid feeding your pet table scraps and ensure they get plenty of exercise.

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If you’re unsure how much exercise your dog needs based on its breed, age, and weight, ask a veterinary professional.

Although preventing health conditions is better than curing them, there is still a lot you can do to help even if your pet is already overweight or obese.

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 reach a healthy weight.

Reducing the amount of treats or introducing a restricted diet are often important parts of helping your pet return to a 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 them snacks: The truth is, exercise and games are much better treats than food.

Irina Wells
Content Marketing Executive

Irina is a former content marketing executive for ManyPets. She has contributed to a number of personal finance sites, including Loot Financial Services and Claro Money.