It’s the time of year where a lot of us are probably eyeing the bathroom scales and deciding on diets for the year ahead… But it might not just be the human members of the family who need to lose a few pounds! Did you know that 49% of dogs and 44% of cats in the UK are overweight or obese? And it’s not just dogs and cats – 32% of small mammals and, amazingly, 11% birds are too!

What’s the harm in being a bit overweight?

An overweight pet is at an increased risk of suffering from a range of conditions, especially:

  • Breathing difficulties, as the fat restricts their chest wall and diaphragm.
  • Arthritis, due to carrying excessive weight on joints adapted for a normal body size.
  • Certain tumours, especially lipomas.
  • Rabbits are also at increased risk of flystrike (a painful and often fatal condition as the bunny can suffer severe tissue damage from maggots).

How do I know if my pet is overweight, as they’re all different sizes?

You’re of course right, that the normal healthy weight of an animal will depend on their species and breed. The best way is to carry out a whole-body MRI scan and see how much body fat they have… However, as this isn’t usually practical, there’s a simpler option – it’s called the Body Condition Score (BCS). This is a hands-on approach (don’t rely on just looking, you need to feel your pet!) and can allow you to assess how much fat they’re carrying under the skin and inside the abdomen.

The system relies on looking at the pet’s overall body shape, and then feeling the amount of tissue that covers the ribs, pelvis and other bony parts. For dogs and cats, the scale runs from 1 (emaciated) to 9 (morbidly obese), with a healthy weight being about 4-5. The rabbit system is slightly different and is based on a scale of 1 (emaciated) to 5 (obese), with the normal healthy weight being about 3.

You can download the specialised charts for dogs, cats and rabbits.

There are two important reasons for using a BCS measurement. Firstly, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a long-haired pet or not, because you’re feeling them – their fluffiness is irrelevant. However, a major problem with talking about obesity in our modern culture is that it has become normalised; many people don’t know what a healthy dog, cat or rabbit should look like! The BCS system helps us to use an objective measurement, avoiding many of the cultural assumptions that we all hold.

How can I diet my pet if they’re too fat?

If your pet is overweight (6-7 for dogs and cats, 4 for rabbits), it’s definitely time for a diet! However, there are some important rules you need to bear in mind. You don’t want to starve them (dieting too fast can cause liver failure, especially in cats; and inadequate food intake can cause fatal gut stasis in rabbits). Instead, aim for 1% body weight loss per week until they reach their ideal weight.

Of course, your pets won’t thank you for putting them on a diet – no one likes it, and you can’t explain to them why you’re starving them! Many people find that using a specialist weight-loss diet is very helpful. These diets are specially formulated to be low calorie, but keep the animal feeling full for longer, so they don’t realise they’re on a low-calorie diet.

For rabbits, you need to be a little more careful – in most cases, it’s best to cut down the pellets or mix, but make sure they always have plenty of hay (a pile about the same size as they are is usually about right per day!).

If your pet is in the “obese” bracket (8-9 for dogs and cats, 5 for rabbits) you should always come in and see one of our vets or nurses, as this amount of excess weight can be hard to get rid of and have more severe medical consequences.

What about exercise?

Exercise is, of course, really important – although animals don’t always like it! Remember, though, that an overweight or obese animal may have a reduced ability to exercise, so little and often is usually the best approach, at least initially. However, they will see the benefits – muscle needs more energy to maintain than fat, so a fitter animal is likely to keep their weight down more easily!

Where can I get help or advice?

At any point you can make an appointment to see one of our vets to discuss your pet’s weight. Throughout March, our nurses are also running weight clinics with a FREE initial check-up. Any appointments, if needed after this, will be just £5. You can take advantage of this offer by calling to book, quoting ‘WEIGHT18’ when you do.

Whether your pet is overweight, obese, struggling to lose weight, or even underweight, they’ll be able to help you come up with a plan to move forward!