After a Christmas holiday of feasting and relaxation, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s reluctant to face the bathroom scales this week…! After all, the British Nutrition Foundation reports that it’s disturbingly easy to eat as many as 6000 calories on Christmas Day alone (see here for the breakdown), so no wonder we’re facing an increasingly overweight future.

While this isn’t really a human health blog, I’d like to point out, in the spirit of One Health, that the same problems afflict our pets – especially our dogs. As part of the family, we want to indulge them – however, all those treats and extra snacks impact their health as much, or more, than ours. So in this blog, I’m hoping to harness all of our new-found New Year’s Resolutions to encourage us to work on our pets’ diets, as well as our own, and put some effort in to make all of us (human, canine, feline, whatever!) healthier, leaner and happier in 2018.

The Obesity Epidemic

The most common form of malnutrition in pet animals in the UK is over-feeding. This is borne out by the horrific statistics – the most recent data we have (published by the Pet Food Manufacturers Association in their 2017 Pet Data Report, surely the last body to scaremonger about OVER-feeding!) suggests that…

  • 49% of dogs,
  • 44% of cats,
  • 32% of small mammals (rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats etc.), and
  • 11% of birds,

…are overweight or obese. That’s about 9 million animals! It really isn’t an exaggeration to call this an epidemic.

Of course, there are a wide range of factors. Probably the most important are…

  • Poor education – many pet owners never see an underweight animal in the flesh, and therefore assume that being overweight is “normal”.
  • Overfeeding due to ignorance – a large number (43%) of pet owners do not read the labelling on the food they’re feeding. These labels include recommended feeding quantities, which of course vary dramatically from feed to feed. If you’re not reading the guidelines, you’re unlikely to accidentally strike the right balance!
  • Overfeeding due to guilt – sadly, we live in a high-stress, low-time society. As a result, we often don’t have as much free time to spend with our pets as we would like. One consequence of this can be that we often find it easier to give them a food reward than spend time with them (despite the fact that recent studies suggest that only a minority of dogs would choose food over attention – see the paper here).
  • Central heating – no, this isn’t a joke! But it’s long been known that most of the calories consumed by a mammal in northern temperate climes (like here!) are used to generate heat. Since we’re now providing that heat externally, those “spare” calories are simply stored as fat. When I was at vet school, one very eminent professor ran through all the calculations to prove that central heating was the underlying cause of what he called “the coming epidemic of obesity” – and although he might have oversimplified the argument, events have proved him at least partially right.


Why is this a “One Health” issue?

Because obesity is a major health issue for both animals and humans, and the solutions are likely to be similar in all species. I’ll be exploring One Health in more detail in a future blog, but if you’re interested, you can learn more about the concept here.


How do we decide whether a pet is overweight?

There are a range of tools for humans, including waist measurement/weight indices and BMI. However, given the remarkable range of body shapes and sizes even within animal species (compare a 2kg Chihuahua with an 80kg Newfoundland, for example!), these methods aren’t terribly useful. Instead, we use a system called the Body Condition Score, which is an easy way to, quite accurately, estimate the amount of body fat an animal is carrying. Vets and vet nurses are often trained to use a 1-9 scale for cats and dogs, where 1 is emaciated, 4-5 is perfect and 9 is morbidly obese. However, there are also 1-5 scales designed for owners to use, for a range of species, available here.

I’d strongly advise you to download the form for your pet and get used to checking them over using it – and be honest with yourself! If your pet’s a little heavy, now’s the time to do something about it.


What are the health benefits of weight loss?

Obese and overweight animals are at an increased risk of a wide range of health problems, including arthritis, respiratory difficulties (especially in short-nosed animals such as Pugs or Persian cats, and pets with tracheal collapse disorder like many small and toy breed dogs), and an increased risk of certain cancers, high blood pressure, diabetes, and, in cats, cystitis. There is also some data suggesting an increased risk of heart and kidney disease, although this is less conclusive than the other health issues. Overall, it is thought that obese animals have a significantly reduced lifespan, compared to those of a healthy-weight (see this summary from Hill’s Pet Food in America, or the great review article from the Vet Record).


If they are overweight, how can we approach it?

There are two main drivers – reduced calorie intake and increased calorie expenditure. In other words, eat less, do more!

Eating fewer calories is really important, and there are a number of ways we can do this:

  • Measure out food rather than feeding ad-lib or giving extra.
  • Minimise treats (and ideally, take them out of the food ration for the day).
  • Feed a low-calorie “weight loss”, “reduction” or “metabolic” diet – these are formulated to have low calorie counts, but to feel filling, so the pet doesn’t feel like you’re starving them.

The goal is a weight loss of about 1% per week – much faster and you can risk causing liver problems.

For many years, we have assumed that “dieting” side was far more important – it is very hard, for example, to get an animal to lose weight just by increasing their exercise levels. However, we now know that many of the health risks of obesity are still present in apparently skinny but unfit animals (a phenomenon known as “skinny fat” or “sarcopenic obesity” – see the Vet Record article above). As a result, we now believe that both dietary control and increased exercise are vitally important…

And that goes for us as well!

So going for a run with your dog, or playing an active pouncing game with your cat, are actually going to be helpful in managing their weight – but also in improving your mental health, and theirs! The vast majority of dogs are either equally happy, or actually prefer, praise and attention to food according to modern research, and so do not need additional treats to make them happy, when spending time with you is just as effective (and healthier!).


Where can I get support?

Your vets – many practices run free weight-clinics to help you manage your pet’s weight. In addition, if your pet is in the “obese” category, or is significantly underweight, I’d strongly suggest that you seek veterinary advice to rule out other health issues. However, the majority of pets can be restored to a healthy weight, with better mental health and fitness, by the application of dietary care and a little extra time – and it’ll probably help you hit your 2018 Resolutions as well!


Happy New Year to all our readers, and all the best for 2018!