Pet Obesity Prevention: How Exercise and Portion Control Affect Your Pet

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

Overweight & Obese Pets

For more than a decade there has been a spotlight on the fact that, along with their owners, most pets are overweight or obese. According to a 2014 study, by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), 57.6% of cats are overweight or obese. Dogs are close behind with 52.6% of them weighing more than the desired weight for their breed and age. Generally, an animal is obese if it is 15% or more than its optimum weight. To regard this epidemic of excess weight as a normal occurrence is a monumental disservice to the animals that have become a part of our families. Overweight pets are predisposed to many health concerns such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, joint injury and osteoarthritis. They are also at risk for heart and respiratory diseases that lead to decreased life expectancy if not corrected. Further, various forms of cancer have been linked to obesity in pets. Obesity reduces a pet’s life expectancy by up to 15%.


Over ten years ago, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) joined forces with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to mount a campaign called, “Walk your dog, it will do you both good!” This campaign was an acknowledgement of the excess weight in both people and their pets, and encouraged people to get out and walk with their pets. Almost ten years later, a 2013 review concluded that dog owners spend almost an hour more per week walking than people without dogs.

Even so, a survey from 2008 that was conducted in Australia found that nearly a quarter of all dog owners reported never walking their dogs. This population of dog owners actually engaged in less physical activity each week than people with a dog.

In another study, veterinarians, physicians and scientists at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland recruited dog owners to visit a specific veterinary clinic for observation. These dogs varied widely in age, breed and size, but all were overweight or obese. Most of them were also sedentary. Many of their owners were overweight as well even though this was not a part of the criteria for the study. Half of the volunteers were told to watch their dog’s nutrition and monitor its health. The rest were told that their dog was overweight and needed more exercise. These owners were given specific directions to walk their dog for at least 30 minutes a day in addition to play periods. Three months later all the volunteers in the dog walking group and their dogs were evaluated. The findings were very encouraging in that all had lost weight. The pet owners reported walking far more often than they did before the warnings, and both they and their pets were thinner.

The conclusions of these studies supports what most of us already know: A nutritionally balanced diet and increased exercise will usually cause weight loss and return the animal to its optimum weight.

What is a dog or cats optimum weight?

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) developed a Body Condition Scoring system based on a five-point scale that classifies pets as underweight, ideal, overweight or obese. This system of evaluation is being used today by pet owners and clinical practitioners to assess the weight of their pets and patients, respectively. Gain the expertise to measure your own pet for comparison to optimum weight here here.

Most animal hospitals have placed pet scales in their hospitals to encourage pet owners to weigh their pets on a regular basis. It’s almost impossible to determine the exact weight of a 10-12 pound dog or cat without a proper scale to measure the pet’s weight. It’s important to visit your veterinarian for professional advice on how to best schedule your dog or cat for weight assessment. As a clinical practitioner many years ago, I stress the importance of knowing a pet’s exact weight for reasons other than determining obesity. Medication doses, anesthesia administration, parasite control and general health conditions are all dependent upon a pet’s correct weight. It is important, and a few pounds here or there does matter!

Around the animal hospital where I worked for 25 years, the phrase, “I never saw a dog or cat that could open the refrigerator or a closed pantry door without the help of a human being,” was a frequent saying. Both dogs and cats are grossly overfed! There are many and various reasons for overfeeding your pet; however, most of those reasons are based on lack of knowledge. Most pet owners do not know what the optimal weight of their pet should be, nor do they know how much to feed their pet to reach optimal weight. An extra three pounds on a 20 pound dog is difficult to observe to the untrained eye. Another frequent finding is a pet that is fed by more than one or two members of the family, and eats way more calories each day than they can burn off. This is especially true in dogs and cats that are fed continuously with an open bag of dry food or food from the table. It comes down to the same formula as human weight control. The calories taken in must be measured in concert with the calories burned through exercise by walking or playing. Feed your pet according to the instructions of your veterinarian and adhere to the exact plan for both the type of food and amount recommended.

Pet Food

Most major pet food manufacturers have spent mega-dollars on research to determine the formulation of pet foods. The protein, fat and carbohydrate makeup is carefully measured and formulated to serve the nutritional needs of your pet in relation to life stages, such as puppy, growth stage, adult maintenance and senior age. Reducing diets are now available at most pet food markets. If you follow your veterinarian’s advice and the instructions on the pet food label then it will be much easier to maintain your pet’s optimal weight and body condition. Extra treats and multiple family members passing out treats for being a “good dog” may not be in the best interest of the pet.

Make pets work for their food. There are multiple ways to make pets search for their food. Pet supply stores carry a wide variety of pet feeders that make dogs or cats work to get their food. Treat Maze feeders are structures, where pet owners can hide cat treats. Cats will work frantically to get the treats out once they learn there is a “treat” reward for their work. Also, a cat feeder as simple as an egg carton, where the dry cat food is placed in the various small chambers causes the cat to slow down and work for their reward. The same is true for dog feeders, where the dog has to work to get the food out from beneath or around the obstacles. This slows the eating process and aids digestion. Pets also burn calories searching and recovering their meal.

Commit to Your Pet’s Health

Overweight and obese pets are not unlike their human counterparts, regarding the shedding of pounds. It takes discipline and commitment to accomplish the goal. It’s important to develop a plan and stick to it. The reward will be a more active, loveable and longer living pet with less trips to the veterinarian to treat conditions that develop due to excess weight. Always remember to, “walk your dog, it will do you both good!”

For more information on obesity in cats and dogs, go to:

Association for Pet Obesity Prevention
AAHA Nutritional Assessment Guidelines for Dogs and Cats
AAHA Weight Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats

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