Keep your pet healthy, not round!

People are often surprised when I point out that their dog is a little “round.” I’m not sure what they think “healthy” looks like in a pet – but it looks surprisingly similar to markers of good health in people: lean body with good muscle tone. Yet people often fail to notice when one of these health indicators slips in their beloved pets.

Leanness = Health. Many studies, including a pioneering canine life span study by Purina, show that dogs that have controlled food intake and are maintained at lean body condition outlive their overweight siblings by an average of 20 months, with a similar delay in the onset of serious disease. Studies in mice support these findings, as well.

The Problem with Excess Weight. Those pets that are allowed to remain overweight are at increased risk for many undesirable conditions:

  • Orthopedic problems like arthritis and knee injury
  • Intervertebral disk disease
  • Endocrine disorders like diabetes, Cushing’s, or hypothyroidism
  • Cancers like mammary and bladder tumors
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Laryngeal paralysis or tracheal collapse
  • Urinary incontinence or bladder infection.

As if those reasons weren’t enough to keep your pet lean, overweight animals are also more difficult to anesthetize safely and are open to more surgical complications based on the physical and metabolic interference of the fat.

The Best Weight for Your Pet. In the veterinary community, we discuss a pet’s body condition in terms of a 5-point or 9-point rating scale. I prefer the 9-point scale because I think it gives a more precise picture of the pet’s shape. The links for the Purina model for the 9-point scale in cats and dogs are: for dogs and for cats. On these charts, the ideal body condition is a 4.5 to 5. This is on the lean side for all the reasons I’ve presented here.

Helping Your Pet to Become Lean. If your cat or dog has a body condition score above a 5, your veterinarian can work with you to get the extra weight off. Typically, you start with simple calorie restriction (either less of the current diet or the same amount of a lower-calorie diet) in combination with increased activity. If that combination falls short of the goal, there are several prescription diets that can be used for 6 months or less and are often successful in getting the pounds off. Finally, for dogs, there is a pharmaceutical alternative called Slentrol, which reduces the absorption of fat in the dog’s small intestine.

If you change your pet’s diet, you’ll need to know the right amount to feed. The calculations can be a bit tricky – but, if you know your pet’s weight, you can use the calculator at to find out how much to feed. If the diet you’ve chosen is not on the list, look for the kcal/cup on the side of the bag and calculate that part yourself. You’ll want to change the diet gradually to avoid digestive issues. Ideally, you will make the meals ¼ new diet and ¾ current diet for the first few days. Then, ½ and ½ for another few days, followed by ¾ and ¼ for a final few days.

 In a society that boasts an ever-higher rate of obesity among its human population, it is not surprising to see overweight pets. The difference is that the humans elect to maintain an unhealthy body condition and the pets are simply eating whatever they can get their teeth on. So, it’s really up to us, the owners, to make sure that the types and amounts of food we feed our pets make them healthy – not round.