Big cats… and dogs: Obesity among pets in the UK

In May, the British Equine Veterinary Association said it was ‘extremely disappointed’ to see big horses not only compete, but also place highly at the Royal Windsor Horse Show. Well, that’s no surprise to vets. It is estimated that 50% of horses are overweight. I’ve read similar stats for dogs and only slightly less for cats. From what I see, people now think “fat” is normal.

The weight of a pet – horse, dog, cat or goldfish – depends on many factors, most of which are directly under our control. Genetics is certainly a less controllable factor, and certain types of horses – such as draft, cob, native and Welsh – are known to be at higher risk of obesity, for example.

Among dogs, Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and flat-faced varieties, such as Bulldogs and Pugs, are genetically predisposed to obesity. But we can control almost every other reason why I see animals so big they are unhealthy. We know that the way to maintain stable body size is to balance the number of incoming calories with the number of calories consumed as energy. We love our pets and tend to show that love by giving them ever tastier foods and treats. And snacks. And table scraps.

We know that a typical dog thrives on exercise, and that’s how they burn calories efficiently. But as we get busier, our dogs get less and less daily exercise. From what I’ve read the average British dog, in good weather, gets less than an hour of activity a day. More calories and less exercise has an obvious result. My vet clinic is in the heart of London, so most of the cats (and rabbits) I see stay indoors. Cats can release pent-up energy with a quick “wall of death” run around rooms, and rabbits can jump down hallways, but they’re unlikely to burn calories unless we help them by encouraging the physical game.

As a veterinarian, I’m also an unexpected factor in why pets are overweight. Most pets are neutered for health or social reasons, but neutering lowers an animal’s metabolic rate, so it’s another risk factor for obesity.

Ultimately, we’re responsible for the obesity epidemic in pets (and us, too). And in dogs and cats, it can lead to diabetes and arthritis.

For our native horses, here is a suggestion. Our ponies and horses have evolved to withstand British weather conditions, so don’t cover them too much. Carpets limit energy loss. Weight loss in winter is normal. Learn what a healthy weight looks like and aim for it.

But, for dogs and cats, it all comes down to not overfeeding them and making sure they get exercise.

How to Maintain Your Pet’s Healthy Weight

1 If you can’t feel your dog’s ribs easily, he’s probably overweight.

2 To monitor your cat, weigh yourself on your scale while holding it, then subtract your weight and record the result. Do this every few months.

3 Goldfish get bigger too! Feed only what they can eat in two minutes.

4 Whatever the species, when neutering your dog, cat or rabbit, anticipate weight gain and reduce food by 10%.

Learn more

For Saga Pet Insurance provided by Acromas Insurance Co Ltd (AICL) for the over 50s, call 0800 092 6328 quoting SM22PT, or visit saga.co.uk/pet-article

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