In developed countries, the proportion of pets who are overweight or even obese is almost as large as that of humans. However cute, a chubby little pet is not a healthy animal! Excess weight and obesity in dogs and cats are real issues that must be taken seriously as soon as they arise.

What's the ideal composition and quantity for avoiding obesity in dogs and cats?

Because we love them so much, we tend to overfeed our pets. We want to make them happy! However, on the contrary, overfeeding them is doing them a disservice... Obesity in dogs and cats poses the same health problems as in humans: it can become a real handicap and even reduce the lifespan of the animal considerably.

Obesity in dogs and cats is the number one reason for vet visits, and it's no surprise. A 2014 study by the Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA) estimated that 45% of domestic dogs and 40% of cats were not just overweight but downright obese. And 77% of vets interviewed for the study stated that the phenomenon worsened considerably between 2010 and 2015.

However, it can be extremely difficult for a practitioner to get an owner to come to terms with the fact that their pet is overweight. When it comes to detecting obesity in dogs and cats, there are many psychological triggers at play... Having to admit that you may have harmed your animal is never easy, especially when your intention was the complete opposite! However, acceptance is the first step to being able to set up the right diet and monitoring that will allow your pet to regain a healthy weight and return to better health.

What is obesity?

Obesity is a disease which affects humans and animals alike. The WHO explicitly states: "Overweight and obesity are defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health." However, while the manifestation of obesity in dogs and cats is obvious to even the most oblivious of people (an overweight pet is immediately visible), the cause of the disease can be more complex to determine.

Obesity is a multifactorial disease, which can have either genetic (certain breeds of dogs or cats are predisposed to weight gain - see box) or physiological origins (a metabolic or hormonal imbalance). Certain illnesses like diabetes can also cause obesity in dogs and cats. The human element and the animal's living environment must also be taken into account: in addition to overfeeding, stress linked to an owner's psychological distress, boredom, or unsuitable or cramped living space are all things that may cause an animal to take refuge in food (a bit like humans do!).

More generally, it's the consequence of eating disorders and an unsuitable diet combined with a sedentary lifestyle.

👉 Obesity in Dogs

Unlike cats, the prevalence of obesity in dogs increases with the age of the dog, and also that of the owner... 70% of obese dogs are over 9 years old. Females dogs are more predisposed to obesity than males (nearly 60% according to some studies), with sterilisation being an aggravating factor for both sexes.

More than with cats, the social aspect of meals is a risk factor for obesity in dogs. Humans and dogs often take their meals together, and when the animal becomes more of an emotional substitute than just a domestic companion, it's easy to abuse the use of treats and then obesity is never far away... Owners often translate their pet demanding attention into a request for food.

👉 Obesity in Cats

Adulthood is a particularly risky time for cats, especially between the ages of 5 and 11 years old. After the age of 13, their weight tends to decrease. Sterilisation is a major cause of obesity in cats, but also gender (males are more predisposed) and lifestyle. It is recognised that the use of progesterone as a contraceptive causes obesity in female cats.

But unlike dogs, metabolic disorders affect cats less and therefore do not cause obesity.


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Cats and Pâté: A Difficult History

Although food is necessary to survival, cats are often more reluctant than dogs to devour their food (not all cats, however!). This is because several factors need to be taken into account to appease their delicate palate: the smell of new food (don't hesitate to mix it with their old food to start with), the temperature (don't even think about giving them something fresh out of the fridge), the shape and texture (minced pâté will be eaten faster than a jelly, a large bowl is more comfortable, etc.), and the taste (throw away a can that has been open for too long - your kitty won't want it). Finally, you mustn't forget that any change, including a dietary change, can be a source of stress for your cat, and a good reason for them to despise the food associated with it. With cats, anything can happen, so you have to tread carefully!

The health risks of overweight and obesity in dogs and cats are numerous and have been scientifically demonstrated:

  • Premature mortality: 20% earlier in young dogs who are 20% overweight (Williams & Newberne, 1970), 2 years less life expectancy in Labradors (Kealy, 2002)

  • Musculoskeletal disorders: Risk of osteoarthritis, cruciate ligament rupture, herniated disc

  • Cardiorespiratory disorders: Hypertension, tracheal collapse in dwarf breeds, portal vein thrombosis. and myocardial hypoxia In brachycephalic breeds (bulldogs, pugs, etc.), being overweight exacerbates the clinical signs of laryngeal paralysis and airway obstruction syndrome

  • Endocrinological disorders: Metabolic disorders, acute pancreatitis, diabetes mellitus

  • A higher risk of cancer (bladder) and mammary tumours in bitches

  • Incontinence in neutered females

  • Reduced immunity: Obese animals are more sensitive to infections, even local ones, which become more frequentMore frequent anaesthetic complications

Detecting Obesity in Dogs and Cats

It may be difficult to judge the size of your pet yourself. Of course, they're perfect to you! To stay objective, it's best to refer to the (impartial) opinion of those around you, and especially of your vet. Moreover, determining the optimal weight of a dog or cat can be complicated, as it often depends on the individual and their breed, even if based on a few tangible elements.

Nevertheless, the optimal weight of any animal is around 20% body fat. You can start by comparing your dog or cat against the standard profile, and you can check yourself by feeling your animal:

  • While stroking your dog or cat's fur with your fingertips, can you easily feel their ribcage (without applying pressure)?

  • Likewise, are their spine, hips, and shoulder blades pronounced?

  • Can you feel the outline of their ribs?

  • If so, do they seem fat to you?

  • If not, stroke the sides of your pet with a flat hand. Do you feel their abdomen narrowing at the waist?

  • If so, do they have a flabby stomach?

  • If not, do they have any mobility issues?

What you're looking for: You should be able to easily feel their ribs, the outline of the pelvis, and the tubercle of certain vertebrae in dogs (the rounded point along the line of the back). The stomach should be raised with a clear waist, and there should be a small amount of abdominal fat.

How to Treat Obesity in Dogs and Cats

Overweight and obesity in dogs and cats should be systematically treated, ideally as soon as it appears (as soon as you notice any weight gain, even minor) with a complete medical check-up at the veterinarian (complete with tests for hyperthyroidism, diabetes, etc.). Once diagnosed, there's only one way to treat it: with a combination of nutritional correction, supervised physical activity, and, depending on the case, the management of an eating disorder, or even the prescription of specific medication in some scenarios.

The first step in the management of an obese dog is to assess the causes and consequences of overweight precisely with the help of your attending veterinarian. And diet has a vital role to play in the management of this disease. A weight loss regime should of course be implemented. For "simple" obesity in dogs and cats (excessive caloric intake in relation to expenditure), dietary measures and a simple lifestyle improvement may be sufficient.

And don't forget the importance of vegetables or even the quality of their food: healthy foods with high water content will help your pet to feel full while limiting calorie intake.

On the other hand, if hormonal disorders are evident, more specific treatment will be required. If your pet has an eating disorder, this must be addressed and managed. You can try making mealtimes more enjoyable with things like fun bowls, as described in our previous article. For greedy animals, systems like dispensing balls or search mats force them to exert effort and spend more time on their meal, as well as ingest smaller quantities of food with each bite.

The Rules for a Successful Weight-Loss Diet

Every animal is different, so every weight loss diet should be adapted to their individual needs! Nonetheless, there are some basic rules for dealing with obesity in dogs and cats, and three main methods for creating a weight loss diet: using less appetising food; keeping the same type of food but reducing the quantity; using less energising food which is rich in quality protein.

As for the composition of the food itself, there are several possible strategies: reducing the amount of carbohydrates or fat; increasing the fibre content; increasing the moisture content of the food. Take care to avoid protein deficiencies, and don't allow your pet to consume too many carbohydrates. An intake of L-Carnitine is also recommended because it promotes the oxidation of lipids.

In general, you should:

  • Weigh each ration on a scale, because measuring cups are often not precise enough

  • Note the quantity distributed and ingested throughout the diet

  • Split the food ration into 2 to 4 meals per day

  • Avoid treats and leftovers, and make sure that the whole (human) family follows this rule!

  • If your pet demands attention, offer them another form of interaction, such as playing a game, which will both distract them and force them to exercise!

In addition to changing their diet, and in the absence of medical contraindication, we highly recommend that you establish a physical exercise routine. When obesity in dogs and cats is complicated, for example, due to orthopaedic difficulties (osteoarthritis), treatment prescribed to relieve joint pain can significantly improve your pet's ability to move, thus allowing for walks, sports, games, etc. Synergistically, weight loss itself is a great way to decrease the handicap of osteoarthritis.

In any case, the objective is always the same: your vet will define the number of kilos your pet needs to lose with a timeline for achieving it.

What next?

Great news, your chubby little friend lost weight! The bad news is that they can also regain it pretty easily... if you allow them to slip back into bad habits. At the end of the treatment phase—which is often long and requires good motivation on the part of the owner, combined with monitoring by the vet—the journey is far from over! If you want to avoid the famous "rebound effect", which is particularly disheartening, you need to plan what happens next.

Keep Up the Good Work

Once they've lost those extra kilos, don't overfeed your pet again! And keep making sure they exercise. The key to success, and preventing the return of obesity in your dog or cat, is a lifestyle change for your pet... which is largely dependent on changing your own habits. The better your behaviour, the less risk your animal will have of gaining weight.

Prepare for a Return to Traditional Eating

To avoid your pet regaining weight too quickly, you must beware of two factors: don't administer too severe a diet during the weight-loss period and, above all, gradually prepare for a return to more traditional eating (still a reasonable amount of quality food, but not as low-calorie).

Low-calorie food (if used) should be replaced, in gradual increments of quantity, with regular pet food. Food intake can be increased by 10% every 2 weeks until no further weight loss is recorded. This will allow your vet to define the daily food requirement for your pet and avoid the rebound effect.


By the Hector Kitchen medical and scientific team


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