Do you know your pet's ideal weight? The answer is not something you can look up in a book. Common sense tells us we do not want our pets to be too thin, nor too fat, but it may not be so easy to tell when our pet's weight is just right. Dogs vary in size and weight more than any other species on earth, domesticated cats too have large differences across breeds. Therefore we can not use scales alone to judge an ideal weight, an obese chihuahua is never going to weigh more than an underweight Dobermann, and a muscular Norwegian Forest Cat will always tip the scales compared to a delicate Siamese. Body shape is not a reliable guide either, after all an overweight greyhound looks quite different to a slender Saint Bernard.
Body Condition Score
Universal guidelines have been developed to help us to see beyond the number on the scales; using observation and touch they help us to judge whether an animal is within their ideal body weight range. Vets refer to this 9-point system as the body condition score (BCS), 1 point for emaciation and 9 points for extreme obesity. A score of 4 or 5 is considered ideal. Attached is the WSAVA (World Small Animal Veterinary Association) BCS guide – how many points would you give your pet?
BCS is useful for vets when reviewing case notes, if an animal has lost 2kg of weight and moved from a BCS of 9 to 7; then this is likely to be a positive change. If however, this 2kg weight loss has caused the animal to move from a BCS of 4 to 2; then this is more likely to be a negative change and the vet may wish to investigate.
Weight and Wellness
We all want our pets to live their best life possible. Thinking about weight in relation to wellness is a refreshingly positive new attitude. Modern science has proven a strong link between wellness and weight. Your pet's weight will affect their health, but equally, poor health will affect weight, either increasing or decreasing it. Whilst most disease processes, such as organ failure or cancer will cause weight loss, there are endocrine diseases, such as hypothyroidism or Cushing's disease, that will cause weight gain. You should speak to your vet about any noticeable changes in your pet's weight.
What If My Pet Is...Underweight?
To help keep our pets healthy we should aim to keep their body condition score within the optimal 4 to 5 range. Animals that are underweight (BCS 3 or less) should be examined by a vet to ensure that their weight is not caused by a disease process. If no illness is present, then your vet can help guide you in making a change to more energy dense food, feeding more and more often to meet your pet's energy demands. Undernutrition is uncommon.
Just Slightly Overweight?
The health benefits of restricting food intake is gathering increasing scientific interest, the idea has also been demonstrated to have benefits for dogs. A study1 of 48 Labrador Retrievers found that dogs fed a restricted amount lived longer and had fewer chronic health problems than dogs that were moderately overweight (average BCS 6.5). This is not to say that we should not feed our pets enough, it simply demonstrates the clear benefits of not feeding too much.
On The Chubby Side?
Obesity is a growing problem for UK pets, in 2010 studies2,3 found 59% of dogs and 39% of cats were overweight or obese. We now understand that excessive body fat increases the risk of health problems, including diabetes, arthritis, cancers, cardiovascular and liver disease. These diseases do not only shorten lifespan, but also reduce quality of life.
As our pets get older too, a trim waist means that they have less pressure through their joints, and therefore arthritis symptoms will be less severe. Maintaining an ideal weight becomes more difficult when arthritis is present, as the activity will be reduced. Feeding less to reflect the reduced activity will help to ensure that arthritis symptoms are not made worse.
How Do I Help My Pet Lose Weight?
Starting a weight loss regime and sticking to it can be difficult when your pet is looking up at you lovingly, pleading for another treat. When we love our pets, food is often used as a way of communicating that love to them. An effective weight loss program requires total commitment from all members of the family.
Feeding a balanced diet appropriate for your pet's lifestyle is the most important step and many low-calorie high-fibre diets are now available. Your pet should be regularly weighed and their diet adjusted as required.
Exercise too is an important factor and for people exercising their dogs, the benefits are mutual. For cats, engaging them in play activities can help to keep their bodies moving.
Many veterinary practices offer complementary weight clinics, where target weights and monthly goals can be discussed. A slow and controlled rate of weight loss is key. Rapid weight loss can be dangerous, particularly for very obese patients, as a sudden reduction in calories can cause liver damage. Obese cats put on a crash diet, or that stop eating due to another illness, are at risk of their liver becoming overwhelmed with the quantity of fat reserves arriving in the liver to produce energy.
Ongoing Weight Checks
Being mindful about your pet's weight will help you to keep them within a healthy body condition score of 4 or 5. Your pet should be weighed regularly, at least twice a year, this will help you to quickly address any weight losses or gains.
Here at Protect My Pet accurate and up-to-date weights are essential to ensure we are sending your pet the correct dose of flea and worm preventatives. Please take a moment to check the weights we have for your pet are correct. If you need to update us with your pet's most recent weight, you can contact us here.
Written by Lindsay Rose MA VetMB CertAVP CertVBM MRCVS
Body Condition Score for Cats:
Body Condition Score for Dogs:
1. Kealy et al. (2002). Effects of diet restriction on life span and age-related changes in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 220. 1315-20.
2. Courcier et al. (2010) An epidemiological study of environmental factors associated with canine obesity. J Small Anim Pract 51:362–7
3. Courcier et al. (2010). Prevalence and risk factors for feline obesity in a first opinion practice in Glasgow, Scotland. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 12(10), 746–753.