Health & Wellness
Dr. Evan Antin explains: How to tell if a pet is a healthy weight
These are the first steps to helping pets lose extra, unnecessary weight.
You might appreciate the extra rolls on your pet’s back — it means there’s more of them to love. But, sometimes, those loveable pounds signify a health risk, like obesity. Pet obesity doesn’t look the same for every animal, though.
That’s why we spoke to Dr. Evan Antin, a practicing small animal, exotics and wildlife veterinarian at Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital and member of Fetch’s Veterinary Advisory Board. He’s sharing ways to determine if a pet is overweight and the first steps to helping them lose unnecessary pounds.
How heavy should a dog be?
Like people, dog breeds vary dramatically, so it really depends on the individual. For most dogs, I evaluate their stature and lean body mass (aka muscle that I can see and feel) and consult with pet parents from that. For most dogs, it's more about what you see visually, not what the scale says. The weight scale is a great way to gauge weight goals and progress, but there's no black-and-white number that a pet needs to weigh.
If there’s not a specific weight goal that pets should aspire to, how can parents tell if their pet is a healthy size?
For dogs, I tell the parents to look at their pets from two important angles. The first is an overhead bird's-eye view, and the second is a profile view — both when the pet is standing on all four legs. In the overhead view, I like to see an “hourglass” figure, where the shoulders are pronounced, the caudal ribs and abdomen taper nicely and then the hips and thigh muscles are pronounced.
Overweight dogs don't taper. They look more like looking down at a corndog. For the lateral profile view, I'm focused on the underside of the chest and abdomen. A healthy-weight dog's abdomen is higher off of the ground than their chest. A chubby dog still looks like a corndog.
Of course, both of these views can vary dramatically across breeds. For example, a German Shepherd’s chest is significantly lower/deeper compared to a French Bulldog’s. But even French and English Bulldogs should have a chest deeper than their abdomen and an apparent hourglass shape from above. I apply this visual method to breeds of all sizes, from Chihuahua to Great Dane.
What about cats?
I use the same approach on cats with even more attention to the lateral profile view. Cats' abdomens aren't higher off of the ground than their chest, but they shouldn't be too much lower. And from above, the midsection/abdominal area shouldn't be much wider than the cat's shoulder or hip regions. When cats are overweight, the majority of unneeded fat accumulates in their abdominal region — so my focus is all on the kitty belly. It's not as straightforward to evaluate cats’ body condition compared to dogs, and I also think more pet parents are surprised when I tell them they have a fat cat compared to when I tell dog parents, as most of them are already aware of their overweight canine.
For all pets, I always recommend weighing your pet regularly at home. Visually observing weight gain is more challenging when you see an individual every day. It's hard to observe those gradual changes that creep up on you. However, when the scale is showing progressively increasing numbers, then that's a great tip-off that we need to modify the diet and/or activity level of pets or potentially discuss further with your local vet. It’s important to get pets of any species on the scale regularly, at least 1 to 2 times a month.
Why is it important to regularly check your pet’s body condition and weight?
Pretty much all the obesity-related concerns we have as people can be applied to pets, including early-onset osteoarthritis, heart disease, liver disease, endocrine (hormone) disease, skin disease and so on. So being obese isn't good for basically every system in the body.
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What should pet parents do if they think their cat or dog is overweight?
Consult with your local vet. It's also important to differentiate between inappropriate diet and lifestyle leading to obesity versus underlying health issues. Talk to your vet if your pet has demonstrated inexplicable weight loss, as that can be equal-or-greater in concern regarding your pet's health.
Modifying a pet's diet is the first thing to address. Activity and exercise are the next. Evaluating overall health, especially for older pets, should also be discussed, and wellness diagnostics, including bloodwork, may be indicated.
Do you have any diet recommendations for pets trying to lose weight?
A high-quality commercial cat or dog food is a great option for cats and dogs. They're readily available, have good science behind them nutritionally speaking and are a safe option for your pet.
Low-quality treats are best avoided. They’re usually mostly carbs and filler and aren’t worthwhile. If you insist on feeding people food, then keep it to lean proteins and safe vegetables. Baby peeled carrots are low in sugar and carbs and help slow down the progression of dental disease and more dogs love them. Green beans are another good option for dog “treats”. Of course, always stay away from garlic, onion, chocolate, grapes, macadamia nuts or other toxic foods.
How much exercise should pets that are trying to lose weight have?
That’s completely dependent on your pet’s overall health and abilities. Young, healthy pets with an active background, such as an Australian Shepherd, should have and want rigorous exercise for 2 (or more) hours daily. Older pets with less stamina and perhaps some degree of osteoarthritis should have low-impact and shorter-duration regular activity. There's no perfect answer but consulting about your specific pet's needs is best approached by consulting with your local veterinarian.
The same concept applies to cats, but they should have some degree of exercise daily. The approach to their activity is very different compared to dogs, though. Cats are predators and love practicing their kill skills. Luckily, this can be achieved excellently with no loss of life. A variety of cat toys are super important to keep your cat engaged and enriched, including feather wands, laser pointers, catnip and catnip-infused little furry toys, and of course, playing with their fellow cat housemates.
Yes, believe it or not, most cats do like having fellow cat friends in the home. Cats love to groom each other, play, cuddle and ambush. Having a multi-cat household is an extremely helpful means of getting your cat to engage in regular activity and exercise. Cats are also endlessly entertaining when they play and honestly don’t need anything fancy at all when it comes to toys. Crinkling up a wad of paper and throwing it across the room is enough to get their predatory mind to work.
Cats often love the cardboard boxes their toys were delivered in as much or more than the toys themselves. Cats will readily hunt the "monster under the blanket" (aka your hand). The key to getting cats engaged is all about giving them a taste but never too much. Let them catch your hand or the feather at the end of the cat wand, but not for too long. Make them work for it, which keeps the chase going and them active.
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Image source: @drevanantin Instagram