Pet obesity has grown into a U.S. epidemic

Q: I heard a news reporter talking about the obesity epidemic in pets. Is it really that serious? P.L., Farragut

A: Yes, you heard correctly. Unfortunately, obesity has become an epidemic in America. For our pets, obesity is medically defined as being more than 20 percent more than the ideal weight. It is estimated that between 30-40 percent of all pets fall into this category. Our pets can and do develop secondary medical problems due to obesity, such as heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. In cats, obesity can lead to a severe, even fatal, liver condition called hepatic lipidosis.

One recent study by Purina followed 48 Labrador Retrievers for 14 years. Dogs fed a calorie-restricted diet lived almost two years longer and had fewer chronic diseases as compared to dogs allowed to free-feed.

In the veterinary community, it is often said that if you think your dog or cat is overweight, he/she probably is. Because of the great differences in sizes and breeds of dogs, we use some generalities to gauge ideal weight [instead of the BMI scale]. If you stand behind your pet, you should be able to see a waist. You should be able to feel his/her ribs easily, but they should not be visible. Neither dogs nor cats should have a rounded or enlarged abdomen.

Obesity in our pets is occurring from multiple reasons. Our pets are sedentary, with more and more pets being kept indoors and thus exercising less. Some pet owners mistakenly believe that love equals food, so we give extra snacks and overfeed them to pamper them. There can be medical reasons, such as hypothyroidism, that can cause pets to gain weight. Most of the time, it’s quite simple – our pets are consuming more calories than they burn.

If you think your pet is overweight or obese, see your veterinarian to rule out medical problems. Your veterinarian can also help you set a target weight for your pet and plan a safe diet and exercise program for him/her. As we have all heard before, less calories and more exercise are ultimately necessary for weight loss.

A healthy pet is a happy pet. It will take time and effort to help your pet become healthy and stay healthy. Your pet may beg for more food, so please remember that giving into those demands will only reinforce that behavior. Distract them by engaging in more play behavior. Provide healthy, low-calorie snacks such as small bites of lean meat or vegetables. Exercise with your pet several times a week and more if possible — it’s great bonding time with your pet that you will both enjoy.

If you have questions about your pet, you may e-mail Dr. Myers at