The Fat Pet Reality Gap: Why Good Owners Let Their Pets Gain Weight

Overweight Pug
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Wellness is my thing. As I’ve told my veterinary colleagues for many years, wellness is not the absence of illness. In fact, in many of my articles, I’ve explored why defining health in terms of illness is making us lose sight of the true goal of living — optimal wellness.

An important aspect of wellness is maintaining a healthy body weight. As a veterinarian, I see firsthand the distressing effect that obesity has on my patients, not only robbing them of their quality of life but also stealing years that could have been spent with loved ones.

Shocking Pet Obesity Survey Findings

To help combat this burgeoning problem, I founded the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) in 2005. For the past five years, we’ve conducted nationwide veterinary surveys to gauge the plight of portly pets. And the news hasn’t been good.

This year, our survey found that 54 percent of dogs and cats in the U.S. were classified as overweight or obese by their veterinarians. That amounts to more than 88 million pets who are at risk for developing osteoarthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease and many forms of cancer.

But this is only half the problem.

Our survey also concluded that many pet owners are in denial about their pet’s weight. When we asked them to assess their pet’s weight, 22 percent of dog owners and 15 percent of cat owners characterized their pet as at a normal weight — when they were actually overweight or obese! This is what I refer to as the “fat pet gap” or the normalization of obesity by pet owners. In simple terms, we’ve made fat pets the new normal.

When pet parents accept overweight as normal, they’re less likely to accept veterinary advice about their pet’s weight. If I had a nickel for every time that an owner says, “She’s big-boned,” and “I don’t like skinny animals,” I’d be able to buy myself a fancy suit. 

I believe overweight pets mirror another epidemic I’m also worried about: childhood obesity. In both cases, the causative agent is the same — parents. It’s time that we take this sacred responsibility more seriously and understand that what we feed our kids and pets directly impacts their health and longevity.

How To Get Your Pet's Weight Assessed

Owners need to work closely with their veterinarians and ask to conduct a body condition score (BCS) assessment to determine if their pet is packing too many pounds. Don’t be shy about asking — many vets fear discussing the topic of obesity because they're afraid to upset you. And if your vet tells you that your pet is too heavy, don’t take it personally.

The truth is that it can be tough to evaluate what is normal for some pets, especially large dogs. For domestic cats, eight to 10 pounds is a healthy range for the vast majority of adults. A healthy weight for most Labrador Retrievers ranges between 65 and 80 pounds, while Chihuahuas are best suited at four to six pounds.

Skinny isn’t the new healthy — healthy is the new healthy. And health isn’t about chasing a number on a scale, either. It’s about reaching an optimal state of wellness. This starts by recognizing what your pet's weight is today, and then creating a diet and exercise plan for tomorrow with your vet, so you can spend many more years cuddling with your beloved warm critter.

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