Dog on Scale
Our furry family members depend on us to help them stay happy and healthy.

And with so much talk of obesity and its effect on both quality and quantity of life, it’s only natural to aim for an ideal weight.

But is there such a thing when it comes to pets?

Why Owners Need to Look Beyond the Number on the Scale

Obesity in cats and dogs has been linked to numerous health problems — like heart, musculoskeletal and skin diseases — but not tipping the scales can have an equally detrimental effect on pets.

Dr. Tony Buffington, DVM, MS, PhD Diplomate ACVN, a professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Ohio State University and a board member, recalls seeing one pet who was so thin that everyone assumed it was a medical problem.

“A thousand dollars later, we realized that no one had done a dietary history, [which is when] we found out that the owner had been feeding the animal half of what it needed for fear of making the pet obese,” he says.

So finding that middle ground is key, but plopping your pet on a bathroom scale isn’t the answer.

If you want to ensure optimal wellness for your dog or cat, keep in mind that weight by itself is not an accurate gauge of health — it’s only one factor.

According to Dr. Buffington, dogs and cats do best at moderate weights, but he stresses that an ideal weight can also depend on such additional factors as age, adding that “different animals in different situations are in better health at some weights than others.”

How Your Vet Gauges a Good Weight for Your Pet

At any age, muscle condition, as well as fat, must be taken into account when determining whether a pet’s poundage falls within the right range.

Dr. Joe Bartges, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DACVN, a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, agrees with Dr. Buffington that cats and dogs do better at moderate weights “as long as muscle condition (lean body mass) is also ideal.”

"Body condition scoring is a better gauge than body weight because of the huge variability in body composition and size in dogs,” Dr. Bartges says. “An 80-pound male Labrador may be ideally conditioned in the same way that a 120-pound male Labrador may be ideally conditioned because of their differing body frames.”

Veterinarians determine a pet’s body condition using visual and tactile cues, which are then plotted on a scale. The resulting score gives the owner a good idea of whether a pet could stand to lose or even gain weight.

Ultimately, the goal is to see a somewhat hourglass figure when you view a standing animal from above. You should also be able to feel (but not see) a pet’s ribs beneath a modest layer of fat.

Although pet owners can perform a condition check themselves, it’s best to consult with a vet — especially before taking any steps to alter a dog or cat’s current diet.

“Maintaining the health of a pet is a team effort,” Dr. Bartges says, adding that veterinary professionals need to also rule out potential medical causes for weight changes.

Steps You Can Take to Maintain Your Pet’s Healthy Weight

Nutrition plays a big role not just in body weight but also body condition, Dr. Bartges notes, adding that this applies to both pet food and your critter’s treats.

Optimal health “involves eating a balanced and complete diet,” he says. “For example, you can eat adequate calories and still not enough protein or vitamins and minerals.”

According to Dr. Bartges, food quality affects body condition because lesser-quality food means that dogs and cats must typically eat more in order to be able to digest, absorb and properly utilize the nutrients in the meal. 

While Dr. Buffington and Dr. Bartges admit that there are no studies on the topic, they point to anecdotal evidence suggesting that mental and social stimulation are also key when it comes to weight management.

“Playing, exercising and interacting with other pets and people are important for overall health, including body weight and body condition,” Dr. Bartges explains. 

One tool that Dr. Buffington recommends to “hit all three” — physical, mental and social well-being — is a food puzzle, which offers both physical and mental exercise.

Ultimately, Dr. Buffington stresses that owners shouldn’t obsess about an ideal weight for pets. “There is no perfect. There is no ideal,” he says. “We want people to get into the ZIP code of healthy.”

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