Tackling the obesity epidemic - Veterinary Practice
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Tackling the obesity epidemic

How do we manage the growing numbers of overweight companion animals?

Latest research shows that 65 percent of dogs and 39 percent of cats are overweight or obese, meaning that vets and nurses are more likely to see a patient with a body condition score (BCS) of six or above (on a nine-point scale) than one at ideal weight and shape (BCS 4-5).

In response to the growing numbers of overweight and obese patients, the BSAVA released its position statement, recognising obesity as a disease in cats and dogs and encouraging both veterinary surgeons and owners to be “proactive in addressing obesity and its consequences, in order to improve the health and welfare of pets”.

Consequences of obesity

The links between obesity and increased incidence of other conditions such as joint disease, diabetes mellitus, urinary disease, skin disease and tumours are well documented. It is no surprise then that research has found that owners of overweight cats and dogs spend more on healthcare costs than owners whose pets are at an ideal weight. However, what some owners may not be aware of are the hidden costs associated with obesity.

Overweight cats and dogs may have a reduced life expectancy, with studies indicating that it may be as much as two and a half years less in overweight dogs, and just under two years in cats (Figures 1 and 2). By encouraging these owners and their pets to undertake a weight management programme, we can help them live longer, healthier lives.

FIGURE (1) Overweight dogs have a reduced life expectancy of up to two and a half years

Owner education

In a recent survey by the PFMA, 67 percent of owners admitted they are not concerned about obesity, whilst 68 percent of owners think their pet is exactly the right size. However, owners often misperceive their pet’s body condition score, with studies highlighting they are more likely to underestimate the BCS of an overweight pet. The first step in the patient’s weight management programme is therefore to help the client recognise their pet is overweight.

FIGURE (2) Overweight cats have a reduced life expectancy of just under two years 2

For veterinary professionals, BCS is not only a basis for diagnoses and calculating the cat or dog’s ideal weight but crucially provides a method of guiding and communicating to the pet owner to understand the impact of this disease on their pet. The now well-established nine-point BCS model has been further adapted by Royal Canin to include six dog morphologies and one cat morphology (Figure 3), to make communication about obesity even more specific.

Once the client has recognised their pet is overweight or obese, they can be referred to a weight management clinic, where they can receive additional support to help their pet reach their ideal weight and shape.

Focus on energy intake

To encourage the management of overweight and obese cats and dogs, a vital area of focus for weight clinics should be reducing calorie intake.

A detailed history of the pet’s current diet and eating habits should be taken. Using a food diary or questionnaire at the outset will provide valuable information and can be very helpful for owners to document their pets’ food history and begin to understand the impact of extra calories.

Given the nature of obesity and how drastically calories need to be cut to induce weight loss, it is no wonder that a major concern for owners is that their pets will be hungry and the impact this will have on begging behaviour.

FIGURE (3) The Royal Canin cat body condition score sheet is used to communicate with owners about obesity

Human studies show that some foods are more effective than others in reducing hunger, and foods high in protein, fibre, carbohydrates or water are the most satiating. Results from a trial performed by Weber et al. (2007) indicated that a diet containing high protein and high fibre had a greater satiating effect than either protein or fibre alone.

In a series of studies, Seriser et al. (2014) demonstrated that using air to increase the volume of dry dog food decreases energy intake and increases meal duration in ad libitum fed dogs. The exact reason for this was not fully understood, but the suggestion was that an increased meal volume resulted in a longer meal duration, allowing a greater time for release and effect of gastrointestinal hormones.

To this end, feeding a specifically formulated weight management diet (such as Royal Canin Satiety) is recommended and has been shown to support safe weight loss and reduce begging behaviour.

Long-term management

Once the patient has reached their ideal weight and shape, how can we help them maintain this long term?

Weight regain after a successful weight loss programme is common in cats and dogs. In fact, the results of a 2012 study suggest that nearly 50 percent of dogs who successfully complete a weight loss programme will regain weight. This is because the energy requirements needed to maintain an ideal weight and shape post-weight loss are lower than the energy requirements of cats and dogs who have never been obese. It is therefore recommended that patients remain on their weight management diet long term in order to prevent weight regain.

Risk factors for obesity

Given that these patients will face a lifelong challenge to maintain their ideal weight and shape, it is vital that veterinary professionals start to identify those at risk of obesity as early as possible. Common risk factors for obesity such as breed, sex and neutering are well documented, but what other risk factors are there?

In a letter to the editor in 2018, Alex German highlighted the prevalence of obesity in growing dogs, with 37 percent of dogs less than two years of age classified as overweight or obese.

In a 2017 paper, Leclerc et al. (2017) found that Beagle puppies with a high BCS at seven months of age were more likely to develop obesity as an adult, which indicates that similar to humans, a major risk factor for obesity in adulthood is obesity during a young age.

As with their adult counterparts, reviewing calorie intake is important in helping prevent obesity in puppies and kittens. Ensuring owners are feeding an appropriate diet and volume of food for the age and life-stage is recommended. Measuring cups are commonly used by owners; however, studies have highlighted the inaccuracies of measuring cups, with results ranging from under-feeding by 20 percent to overfeeding by 80 percent. Using digital food scales is always recommended, in particular for growing cats and dogs where inaccuracies due to smaller feeding volumes can be greater.

Putting a treat strategy in place is also vital as these are commonly used in training for kittens and puppies. However, many owners don’t realise the amount of additional calories these treats equate to. It is recommended that treats make up no more than 10 percent of a pet’s daily food ration, and providing advice on low calorie options can help prevent excess weight gain. It is suggested to use part of their daily food allowance or use half a treat rather than the full one.

Monthly weight consults for kittens and puppies are therefore recommended to educate owners on how to maintain a healthy growth curve for their pet and allow for early intervention when necessary.


Obesity is a complex disease and one that presents clear health and welfare issues for cats and dogs. By promoting a healthy weight and shape at a young age, as well as having a strong practice protocol in place for weight management, practices can help owners make long-term changes that benefit their pet.


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Caroline Burke


Caroline Burke, BSc, RVN, qualified in 2008 from the University of Bristol. She worked in practices across the UK and Australia before joining Royal Canin. Caroline began as Veterinary Business Manager in 2012 and moved to the Royal Canin Weight Management team in 2016.

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