Fit Or Fat?

February 8th, 2012


Posted by Dr. Pamela Barker

We all want the very best for our pets — but these days it seems that our pets may be getting too much of a good thing, in the form of food and treats. Obesity in dogs and cats has reached epidemic proportions in recent years. No longer required to burn calories by hunting game, herding livestock or ridding the farm of unwanted rodents, most pets are now creatures of leisure. Little energy is expended lounging on the couch, and modern pet foods are densely packed with protein, fats and carbohydrates. For many pets, this combination of dietary excess and inactivity is a recipe for disaster.

Really, though, what’s a few extra pounds? How bad can that be? Turns out, over the course of the pet’s lifetime, it can have serious — sometimes fatal — consequences.

First, let’s put things in perspective. Let’s say your 5.5 kg (12-pound) pet should actually weigh closer to 4.5 kg (10 pounds). That’s only one little kilogram, right? But for your pet, that’s an extra 20 percent on top of their ideal weight. That’s the equivalent of adding 30 extra pounds on a person who should weigh about 150 pounds. In my practice, I commonly see 45 kg dogs whose ideal body weight should be around 34 kg. These poor dogs are tired, sore and don’t like to do much. And no wonder! It’s like a person carrying around a 40 pound backpack, 24/7.

And the story is even worse for those dogs with short legs and long backs — the extra weight on their frame puts tremendous stress on the spine. Think of it as being like putting several pairs of wet jeans on a coat hanger. The vertebral column sags and puts pressure on the soft disks between the bones. This crushing effect causes pain, arthritis of the spine and — not uncommonly — paralysis. This condition, known as intervertebral disk disease, often requires expensive surgery to prevent permanent paralysis.

Cats don’t get off so easily, either. Excess weight in these pets — just as in humans and in dogs —dramatically raises the risk of diabetes. And diabetic pets require the same kind of treatment as diabetic people. They must receive insulin injections at strictly spaced intervals, usually once or twice a day. Their blood sugar must be monitored frequently (yes, with a needle!), and they must eat special food when they receive their medication. And, since there is no known cure for diabetes, the disease must be managed for life. Some lucky felines — if they are diagnosed early and their blood sugar is brought under control quickly — will go into remission. Even these cats, however, must be monitored closely for recurrence. And if they remain overweight, the problem may recur.

In addition, overweight cats are at risk of a life-threatening condition called “fatty liver syndrome” or hepatic lipidosis. This can occur quite suddenly when an overweight cat stops eating regularly, for whatever reason. The liver becomes overwhelmed when the cat’s body starts using its stored fat as a source of energy. This process can quickly prove fatal without hospitalization and intensive treatment. Serious cases may require the surgical placement of a feeding tube, which may need to stay in place for weeks until the cat recovers.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, some evidence suggests that overweight animals are more susceptible to certain kinds of cancers. And we know for a fact that one of the best pain-relief remedies for arthritic pets is to maintain them at their ideal body weight.

So how do you know if your pet is overweight? Like watching the grass grow, it can be difficult to notice, since it happens so gradually and we see our pets every day. Plus, our concept of what a slim, fit pet looks like has changed over time. We see so many overweight animals now that it skews our perception of what normal actually looks like.

Determining your pet’s level of fitness — officially known as the Body Condition Score, or BCS — requires a hands-on approach. You need to work your fingers through the coat and feel for fat deposits that indicate that your pet is packing a few extra pounds. There are different BCS scoring charts available online to help guide you through the process.

Your veterinarian is the best resource for determining if your pet’s weight is appropriate, or if there are steps you need to take to help your pet achieve an active, healthy life.

Dr. Pamela Barker is a professional veterinarian with more than 15 years of experience, currently practicing in 100 Mile House, B.C. Her special areas of interest include animal behaviour and training, nutrition and condition for canine athletes, and public education about animal health and care. If you’d like to suggest a topic for one of her future blog posts, please feel free to leave a comment below.



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