The dangers of pet obesity: causes, treatment, and prevention

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Pet obesity is an epidemic with a 108% increase in dogs diagnosed as overweight or obese from 2011 to 2020, according to a Banfield Pet Hospital report. The news was worse for cats — a 114% increase in obesity diagnoses from 2011 to 2020. And the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help with a 2.3% uptick in dogs diagnosed as overweight or obese from March to December 2020.

If you have an overweight pet, solutions may be a bit more complicated than cutting back on human food or other treats, but they’ll pay off in the long run. Keeping your pet at a healthy weight reduces the likelihood they’ll develop medical conditions like arthritis and diabetes.

What is pet obesity?

Obesity occurs when a pet has excessive body fat. Typically, a vet will diagnose a dog as obese if their weight is 15% above the ideal body weight, and a cat if their weight is 20% more than their ideal body weight.

Though obesity is common among cats and dogs, that doesn’t mean it’s any less serious. According to researchers and vets, obesity is linked to several health risks, including heart disease, muscle and joint issues, and diabetes. If your pet is obese, a veterinarian can help you develop a plan.

Causes of pet obesity

There are a variety of factors that make your pet prone to obesity, including feeding them people food. We love our pets. When their big, hopeful eyes lock with ours as we rummage through our pantry, it’s natural to give in and let them have a little bit of the food we’re going to eat. But feeding your pets people food in addition to their pet food increases the number of calories and fat that they consume. Too much food, along with other factors, can cause serious health problems.


American bulldogs, Dachshunds, Labrador retrievers, and basset hounds are among the breeds with an increased chance of being overweight. Some of it is genetics, but dachshunds and basset hounds, in particular, also have a unique body shape and size that adds to their risk.


Humans’ risk for obesity rises with age, and the same goes for our pets. As pets age, they don’t have as much energy for long walks and games of fetch. They prefer to take more naps during the day. However, it’s still important to encourage senior pets to exercise. Take your dog on a shorter walk more frequently, or have your cat chase a laser-pointer light up and down the hallway a few times a week. Exercise for pets of all ages is important to help maintain a healthy weight and keep their muscles toned. Senior pets also may require some lifestyle tweaks to make up for less exercise.


Spaying and neutering your pet has many benefits, including decreasing the risk of unwanted animals in shelters. However, recent research linked spaying and neutering to pet obesity later in life. Pet owners can combat this risk by adhering to a healthy diet.

Food type

Pets need a well-balanced high-quality diet. Foods with too many kilocalories per cup (kcals per cup), can up a pet’s obesity risk. An Association for American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) label signifies a well-balanced high-quality pet food. Make sure you check for this label when looking for food for your pet.

Food amount

Overeating is a common factor contributing to obesity, whether it’s feeding too much human food, kibble, or treats. Gradually reducing a pet’s food intake may help. However, consult with your local veterinarian first to see if you are feeding your pet too much. Sometimes, a pet eats too fast to digest the food, so they miss hunger cues. You can pace their consumption with slow-feed bowls.

Underlying health conditions

Specific issues, including hypothyroidism and osteoarthritis, can raise a pet’s obesity risk. If your pet has these risks, pay close attention to their diet, body condition, and weight. Pet parents can access body condition charts to assess their dog or cat.

Risks of pet obesity

Obesity isn’t a standalone condition. It has a ripple effect that can lower our fur babies’ quality of life. Obese pets are more prone to certain diseases, immobility, and a shorter lifespan.

  • Diabetes. Overweight cats are more likely to develop diabetes mellitus, specifically Type II diabetes. The good news is that this disease can go into remission with the proper care and lifestyle tweaks.
  • Arthritis. Too many extra pounds and excess body fat can damage our pet’s joints. Obesity can contribute to a dog or cat developing arthritis, a painful joint condition that can make it challenging to move.
  • Insulin resistance. Obesity may lead to insulin resistance in both dogs and cats. However, when cats develop insulin resistance, this causes diabetes type II to develop. If a cat’s diabetes is not diagnosed and managed quickly, it can become life-threatening.
  • Heart disease. Researchers say obese dogs that are overweight around their abdomen have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular issues.

How to know if your pet is obese: 3 steps

The sooner you catch weight troubles in your pet, the more likely it is that you can help them get the number on the scale back to normal. Only a vet can provide a formal obesity diagnosis, but proactive pet owners can take a few steps to get ahead of the issue before an annual check-up. Early detection can go a long way in preventing painful and potentially fatal conditions.

Step 1: Check your pet’s body condition

You may struggle to weigh your dog at home, but looking at their figure can provide clues into what the scale would say. A dog’s waist should be defined and slightly raised near their backside. The tummy should not sag. Obese dogs will have a plump or oval-shaped figure.


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