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Obesity in Dogs and Cats

There are some medical causes of obesity in dogs and cats, however the vast majority of cases are due to overfeeding and lack of exercise.
The best way to help your pet lose weight is to control the amount of calories they are eating and increase physical activity. If you have tried this method and not seen a successful reduction in your pet’s weight it is best to make a consult with a veterinarian. Our vet will not judge you or the animal, but work with you to develop a weight loss plan that is safe and effective for your pet.

Common Issues with Obesity

There are a number of issues that are directly linked to obesity, more common ones are:

  • Joint disease including arthritis, cruciate ligament injury and spinal disease
  • Diabetes
  • Exercise intolerance and respiratory disorders
  • Reduced lifespan
  • Increased anaesthetic and surgical risks
  • Unwillingness to accept certain food and diets 

Medical causes of obesity:

Obesity is not always diet related, it can be a symptom of a medical issue such as:

  • Hormonal disorders – hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease, growth hormone issues
  • Musculoskeletal pain or dysfunction causing inactivity
  • Some medications

If you suspect there could be a medical cause for your pet’s obesity, particularly if the weight gain has been sudden, cannot be explained by a change in feeding or activity levels, or you have noticed other symptoms, please make an appointment with one of our vets prior to undertaking a new diet or exercise regime.

Obesity without medical causes is generally always within the control of the owner. There are very few situations where a dog or cat has unlimited access to food, and of course food is almost always the main contributing factor to pet obesity, as they don’t, and shouldn’t, do enough exercise to compensate for excessive calorie intake.

Australian Pet obesity levels study in 2005:

  • 33.5% of dogs were overweight
  • 7.6% of dogs obese
  • overall prevalence 41%
  • of these, approximately half were female, and 74.7% were neutered


Giving treats to your dog, particularly as a reward for good behavior or performing tricks or tasks that you have asked for, is a very important part of the human animal bond.
Receiving treats does improve your pet’s quality of life if it is associated with positive interactions, so it is important to consider the type of treats being fed.
Vegetables and some fruit can make tasty treats eg. Small cubes of pumpkin, sweet potato, frozen peas, small pieces of banana or apple. Alternatively, you could save a few kibble from the morning meal allocation, and give these to the dog as a treat throughout the day.
From personal experience, it pays to ask your pet to do something prior to receiving a treat, and to ‘schedule’ these interactions so that the dog does not learn to beg for food on their own schedule.

Always purchase products such as dried jerky-style treats including liver, and rawhide chews, from reputable sources. It is best to avoid cheap products made overseas as there have been incidences of contamination and toxicity including acute kidney failure reported in Australia.

Tools for Success:

  • Schedule 2 meals for the day – this spreads the calorie intake and keeps the metabolic rate elevated throughout the day; it improves satiety, and allows absolute control over the volume of food the pet consumes. Ad-lib feeding for most domestic dogs and many cats is not recommended
  • Commit to a diet designed for weight loss (prescription diets such as Hills Metabolic, or Royal Canin Obesity are fantastic) – the advantage of these foods is they are calorie-restricted, but still provide a complete balanced diet in a reasonable volume of food. By simply cutting back the volume of a normal adult dog or cat food enough to achieve weight loss, your pet may be missing out on essential nutrients, and be left hungry – this increases begging and scavenging behavior
  • Regular weigh-ins – these are essential; they provide an objective measurement of progress, which increases motivation levels, and allow us to adjust the diet once a healthy body weight has been achieved, or if results are not being seen.
  • Separate pets for meal time if there are multiple in the house
  • Prevent access to other food – eg. Put your dog outside when it is time to feed toddlers and children, this is a notorious source of ‘extra’ food being consumed by your dog (and some cats!)

Exercise/activity levels:

Regular walks are great for dogs and us! It is important if your dog has been previously inactive, or has medical conditions which may impact its ability to exercise safely that you seek veterinary advice prior to increasing your dog’s activity levels suddenly.

Regular play and interaction breaks the day up for your dog, and increases incidental exercise. Again for very overweight dogs, or those with respiratory or joint issues certain activities or games such as ball chasing, jumping may be dangerous so let us help you design an exercise/activity program which will be safe and effective.

Make them work for it:

Toys and games which increase activity levels when you are not present are also valuable – treat balls such as Kongs for dogs (and cats) are fantastic; treasure hunts for food left in the backyard, or food mazes for playful cats are also fantastic. If your lazy cat is spending the day indoors try scattering some of his daily dry food portion around the kitchen or hallway and encourage him to move for his breakfast. One of the best toys we have found for cats is the “Da Bird’, and its off-shoot, “Da Mouse”.  Call into the clinic for a demo. There are many ‘slow feeding’ products on the market, but one of the simplest is to divide your dog’s dry food into smaller portions such as in a muffin tray, then secure this to the ground. Eating slower improves mental and physical satisfaction.

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