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The Weight Escape (Importance Of Maintaining Ideal Weight For Dogs & Cats)

Obesity is the most common nutritional problem in dogs and cats in industrial nations, with experts estimating that 20-50% of cats and 25-30% of dogs are overweight.

When I first started researching weight loss diets for dogs and cats, I was surprised to learn that there is no such thing as one perfect weight-management food for all cats or all dogs. Matching the best diet with each dog or cat is key. It turns out that what works well for one animal, might not work well for another. In fact, there is a lot of variety in “light” pet foods, which you’ll see when reading the Guaranteed Analysis on the food labels.

There are basically two conflicting approaches: (1) high-protein, low-fat and (2) low-protein, low-fat. (There are diseases that can cause animals to gain weight even when you control their diet. This is one of the many reasons why it’s important to consult a veterinarian before and during your attempts to reduce your pet’s weight.)

How to tell if a dog or cat is overweight

Veterinarians consider cats obese if they weigh 25% or more above optimum weight. With Dogs, however, there’s a lot more variation in how vets define obesity: usually around 15% or more above ideal weight.

The images on the right (from Assisi Animal Health) shows cats and dogs at various stages of fitness. (Click to enlarge.) Dogs and cats at an optimum weight usually have an hourglass figure when you look down at them from above, they have a slight indentation in the loin, and you can feel their ribs without seeing them. However, some breeds – particularly dog breeds – do not have an hourglass figure at their optimum weight.

When cats and dogs are slightly overweight, you can feel a thin layer of excess fat over their ribs, you can see fat on their waist and stomach, and their abdominal area is not indented.

Obese dogs and cats have a heavy fat layer so thick that you can’t feel their ribs at all. You’ll also see and feel fat deposits on their face, limbs, stomach, and at the base of their tail. In addition, obese cats and dogs have a distended abdomen and no visible waist.

Obesity leads to shorter life spans

Obesity in dogs and cats is a big deal because there are many health problems caused (or made worse) by obesity. This includes a shorter life expectancy, heart problems, arthritis, diabetes, thyroid problems, liver disease, hypertension, intervertebral disk disease, urinary incontinence, skin problems, increased risk of infections, and an increased cancer.

Weight-loss diets

Before changing the diet of an overweight cat or dog, work with your veterinarian to rule out health conditions that might affect weight and weight loss strategies, such as thyroid disease, diabetes, and even age. Your vet will also provide guidance in choosing the ideal diet for your pet.

Also, please go slow. It’s dangerous for pets to lose weight too fast because it puts them at a greater risk of developing fatty liver disease. Dogs and cats should lose no more than 1-2% of their total body weight per week.

Like humans, pets lose weight when we feed them a diet that meets their daily nutrient requirements with as few calories as necessary. This is why most veterinarians recommend starting off by simply feeding smaller amounts of a dog’s or cat’s usual diet in addition to trying the techniques listed in the next section. If this doesn’t work, your vet might suggest switching to a different food.

Research shows that feeding dogs and cats canned or raw food instead of dry kibble helps them lose weight and maintain an ideal weight. So if you switch your pet to a different food, try giving them more wet food and less kibble to see if that helps.

In general, dog and cat food formulated for weight loss tend to contain:

  • Low to moderate levels of fat to limit calories.
  • Higher fiber to help them feel full. This also helps control blood sugar.
  • Lower in calories to help them burn stored fat.
  • Supplemental L-carnitine to increase metabolism, maintain lean muscle mass while losing weight, and decrease the risk of developing fatty liver disease.

Veterinarians may recommend very different feeding objectives for pets with certain veterinary conditions.

Other ways to help cats and dogs lose weight

There are many ways to help your pet lose weight aside from changing their diet.

Establish mealtimes instead of allowing them to free-feed. Calculate how many cups of food they’ve been eating, then use a measuring cup to very gradually decrease the amount of food you give them. Research has found that even feeding the same amount of food, but dividing it into two or more meals per day, makes it easier for pets to lose weight and keep it off than it is for pets who are fed only once a day or who always have access to food.

Reducing or eliminating treats and snacks can go a long way towards helping them shed extra pounds. Sometimes we don’t realize how many extra calories we’re giving our pets because of these little extras. Most dogs and cats like playtime as much as (or more than) they like treat-time, so consider reaching for a toy instead of a bag of treats.

Increase their activity by playing more. If your dog is social, take her to a dog park or doggie day care and she will naturally get more exercise by running around with her buddies. Many cats prefer vertical space, so providing more cat perches or adding cat beds to shelves is an easy way to entice them to get more exercise.

Additional considerations

Remember that gradual weight loss is ideal. Going too fast is dangerous for cats and dogs.

In multi-pet homes, there is usually at least one overweight pet who is dominating the food source. Feeding each animal in a different area (such as separate rooms or crates) can usually help prevent overeating. That’s because they stop seeing food as a resource they’re in competition over. Also, since overweight pets are often less active and agile, try putting food beyond their reach: on cat trees, windowsills, side tables, or shelves. Find ways for the overweight pet to get exercise when they eat. For pets who eat dry kibble, try using puzzle toys and treat balls instead of food bowls. If they can’t get up high, divide the meals into smaller portions and place the dishes throughout the house. If they are able to jump or climb, put the food in higher places so they get a work-out as they approach their food dish. For pets who live in houses with stairs, move their food dishes to different levels of the house so they have to go up and down the stairs every time they want to eat.

(Note: Nonexclusive use of this article has been granted to other pet industry organizations but Kari Kells retains copyright.)

Select sources

  • Butterwick, Richard Fl and Hawthorne, Amanda J. “Advances in Dietary Management of Obesity in Dogs and Cats.” The Journal of Nutrition. 128.12S (Dec 1998).
  • Case, Linda. The Cat : Its Behavior Nutrition and Health. Ames, IA: Blackwell. 2003.
  • Case, Linda. The Dog: Its Behavior Nutrition and Health. Ames, IA: Blackwell. 2005.
  • Diez, Marianne and Patrick Nguyen. “Obesity: Epidemiology, Pathophysiology and management of the Obese Dog.” Encyclopedia of Canine Clinical Nutrition. Ed. Pibot, Pascale, Vincent Biourge, and Denise Elliott. Aimargues, France: Royal Canin Centre de Recherche, 2006.
  • Donoghue, Susan and Scarlett, Janet M. “Diet and Feline Obesity.” The Journal of Nutrition. 128.12 (Dec 1998).
  • Kane, Ed. “Is Your Dog Overweight?” 29 Dec 2012.
  • “Obesity in Cats.” PetMD. 26 Dec 2012.
  • “Obesity in Dogs” PetMD. 26 Dec 2012.
  • Pibot, Pascale, Vincent Biourge, and Denise Elliot, eds. “Feline Obesity: Epidemiology, Pathophysiology and Management.” Encyclopedia of Feline Clinical Nutrition. Ithaca NY: Royal Canin, 2008.
  • Subcommittee on Dog and Cat Nutrition, Committee on Animal Nutrition, National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2006.



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