Educating the Veterinary Students of Tomorrow

Obesity in Companion Animals

What is Obesity?

Obesity is the most common nutritional disorder in companion animals. It can be defined as an excess amount of body fat that is great enough to impair health, welfare and quality of life. It is the result of an accumulation of adipose tissue in the body, where simply there is a greater calorie intake than expenditure over an extended length of time and the excess calories are stored as fat. Current research is revealing that 40% of cats and 45% of dogs are now regarded by vets as overweight in the UK alone (PFMA Report, 2014), and it is a problem seen in other pets such as rabbits and hamsters too.

Why is obesity a problem for our pets?

Obesity is a serious welfare issue in pets because it can cause long term unnecessary suffering and extremely disabling. For owners and vets alike, this is frustrating because it is a preventable problem. The primary medical concern towards obesity relates to the numerous conditions that are associated with the disease, accompanying the gained adipose tissue. Veterinary professionals see the impacts of obesity in a number of patients on a daily basis, including its ability to make existing problems worse. Clinical problems that are at higher risk of developing in overweight patients include Pickwickian syndrome, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, arthritis and coat problems.

What causes obesity?

Individual animal obesity factors include age, breed and whether the animal is neutered. Age is a pressing obesity factor in dogs because as animals get older their metabolism slows down which makes them more vulnerable to weight gain. Also, many older dogs have pre-existing orthopaedic conditions which means their mobility is reduced which may lower their daily calorie requirements. With improved and encouraged medical veterinary attention it is also clear that many pets are now often living longer which will have contributed to the increase in cases in obesity over time. Some breeds of dog, such as Labrador Retrievers and Cocker Spaniels, are genetically predisposed to weight gain. Neutering both male and female dogs often causes weight gain as their metabolism is slowed by up to 30 percent and so the pet’s calorie intake should be also be reduced, but many owners are not aware of this.

To make the problem worse, many pet owners find it difficult to accurately access their pet’s body condition. PFMA carried out a study in 2009 titled “Pet Obesity – The Reality in 2009” which showed that an astonishing 90% of owners were not concerned about their pet’s weight (PFMA, 2009), and despite campaigns and raising awareness of the problem, the following study in 2014 found that a third of pet owners still don’t know how to check if their pet is overweight (PFMA, 2014), and the prevalence of obesity has continued to increase. Therefore, it is clear that client education and monitoring is a major part of a vet’s role in practice to highlight the consequences associated with the condition including health risks, financial costs and animal welfare. Other factors that contribute to the prevalence of obesity include owners feeding their pets “human” food, not weighing out correct portions and exercising them too little. This is especially true for cats who often lead a sedentary life style and may not be encouraged to exercise. Perhaps these are all reasons for it being such a huge problem among companion animals in this country.

Plans for the future…

A number of schemes are in place to try and combat the problem, but the most significant thing is that the vet in a consulting room is likely to be the first person to tell the owner that their animal is overweight. Educating clients about what diet to feed before obesity is a problem, and afterwards if it already is, is therefore a critically important part of managing a pet’s health. Some vets have put posters up with “how to body condition score” charts in their waiting rooms which may have a positive impact on awareness of the problem. Other companies, including PFMA, have run nationwide campaigns. In recent years it has also been considered an important part of the “One Health” scheme across the nation that is calling for the medical and veterinary professions to work together to combat issues seen in both animals and humans. It is likely that a number of different strategies will be necessary to reduce the prevalence of obesity in companion animals but the role played by veterinary surgeon’s across the country in the communication with the general public, i.e. pet owners, is crucial.

For current statistics and recommendations visit www.pfma.org.uk.
You can read more on the BVA's website: https://www.bva.co.uk/news-campaigns-and-policy/newsroom/news-releases/pet-obesity-epidemic-is-top-welfare-concern-for-vets/

PFMA (2009) - Pet Obesity: The reality in 2009. Available at: https://www.pfma.org.uk/_assets/docs/PFMA_WhitePaper%20Final.pdf (Accessed: 4 February 2018).
PFMA (2014) - PET OBESITY, FIVE YEARS ON. Available at: https://www.pfma.org.uk/_assets/docs/PFMA_WhitePaper_2014.pdf (Accessed: 4 February 2018).