Turns out, there’s more than one Princess Chunk. Just last week, another overweight cat–clocking in at 34 lbs.–made headlines when it turned up at a Washington animal shelter. Thankfully, the full-figured feline was adopted into a loving home that’s pro-diet.
But the fat cat isn’t alone in its weight struggle: Close to half of all household pets in the U.S. are obese, and it’s not always so obvious. Since we see our pets every day, it’s sometimes hard to notice when Mr. Fluffykins has grown too big for his britches.
So, how do you know when your cat or dog is overweight? Dr. Louise Murray, the Director of Medicine for the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York, gave PEOPLE Pets the skinny on pet obesity.
How can you tell if your pet is overweight?
If you feel your pet’s body, you shouldn’t be able to see their ribs or their backbone but you should be able to feel them pretty easily. So if you can’t feel your pet’s ribs or you can’t feel their backbone, they may be obese.
Another way to tell is if you look down at them from above and they actually have a bulge at their waistline [or] have a circular shape. When cats have a little bit of loose skin, that’s okay. Lions have it, too–it’s just part of the cat’s anatomy. [But] if the pet’s midsection is rounded, that’s a good indicator that your pet may be overweight.
What kinds of health problems can obesity cause?
One of the most common problems we see in obese cats is diabetes. You can also see problems like constipation, problems with the liver. And if they do get arthritis as they get older it can certainly worsen it. We also see skin problems because they can’t groom properly – and that can get pretty bad. They can actually get skin infections because they can’t keep themselves clean, especially at their rear ends.
And in dogs we see a lot of problems with the joints, like arthritis. Any joint problem they have is going to be greatly exacerbated. We can see torn cruciate ligaments in the knees of overweight dogs. It’s the same ligaments that you’re always hearing about with football players; they call it an ACL. Dogs can also have trouble breathing because they just can’t ventilate normally. It puts a lot of stress on their cardiovascular system. We can also pancreatitis, an inflamed pancreas, [which is] more common in obese dogs.
Does obesity definitely shorten a pet’s life?
Do you think most pet owners feed their pets too much?
The general answer is yes. What we find most often with dogs is that what’s really contributing the most to their weight is the in-between meal snacks, and that might mean dog biscuits. People don’t realize sometimes how much those are adding up.
For cats it’s completely different. Cats are really pure carnivores. Any kind of dry food has too many carbs for a cat. They can’t convert carbs to energy very readily like we do. So the main culprit for feline obesity in this country is dry food. The worst possible way to feed a cat is free-choice dry food, where they have that bowl of food down all the time and they just keep it full. That’s akin to putting a big bowl of potato chips on the kitchen table.
How can you help your dog or cat lose weight if they’re obese?
For dogs, the trick is to cut out all the between-meal snacks, all the miscellaneous dog treats. The trick for cats is to try carefully to feed your cat a high-quality moist food–it could be canned or it could be pouched. If you have a cat that’s on dry food, try to carefully and slowly switch your cat over to being on a non-dry food diet. You do have to be careful because cats can get very, very sick if they lose weight too quickly and they can get very, very sick if they go on a hunger strike. You have to make sure your cat is always eating and that your cat isn’t losing weight too quickly.
Check with your veterinarian how much of your particular pet food is appropriate for your particular pet. What I tell people with dogs and cats is to read pet food labels and to avoid any foods where the first ingredient is corn.
Of course, for both dogs and cats you want to gradually increase their exercise, too. A lot of American pets don’t get any exercise. So for dogs, nice long walks or interactive play is good. For indoor cats, there are interactive toys where you can sit in one spot and have your cat jumping all around. You want to slowly increase the amount of activity that the pet is having and then you want to make sure that they have regular physical activity.
Tell us: What are your healthy-eating tricks for your pet?