Fit, Fat, or Fluffy?

These days, obesity is not just an epidemic among humans: it is also widespread among our pets. Is your dog or cat fit, fat, or fluffy? Read on to learn more.

What’s an Extra Pound or Two?

Many people wonder: “What’s the harm in Fido or Garfield being a bit overweight?” After all, many people love sharing their favorite snacks with their furry friend.

Unfortunately, obesity in pets comes with many risk factors. In cats, obesity is associated with increased risk of cancer, bone and joint problems, urinary bladder stones, anesthetic complications, heat intolerance, skin problems, reduced immune system function, and liver problems.

In dogs, obesity is associated with increased cancer risk, bone and joint problems, urinary bladder stones, higher risk of anesthetic complications, and heat intolerance. In fact, a lifetime study of Labrador Retrievers showed that being even somewhat overweight decreased dogs’ life expectancy by two years.

I don’t know about you, but I want my pet to be happy, healthy, and long-lived, so these risks alone are enough to make me want to maintain her weight at a healthy level!

Those extra pounds can really creep up on you. For instance, for a cat whose appropriate weight is about 13 pounds, if this cat gains just two pounds, she has already experienced an approximate weight gain of 15%. That’s the equivalent of a 150 pound human packing on 22 pounds! As you can see, an extra pound or two can make a significant difference in your pet’s well-being.

embarassed kitty

Those pounds really sneaked up on me!

Does This Harness Make Me Look Fluffy?

How do you know if your pet is at the proper weight? The best way to find out is to check in with your vet, who can assess your pet’s body condition. While vets may be tentative to bring up a pet’s weight to owners, they will be happy to discuss your pet’s weight and diet with you when asked.

Until your next vet visit, you can check out the World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s Body Condition Score charts for cats and dogs to get an idea of whether your pet is thin, fit, or overweight. The standard Body Condition Score chart ranges from 1 (very thin) to 9 (very obese). This scale provides a helpful way to assess your pet’s overall weight and determine with your veterinarian whether weight loss, weight maintenance, or weight gain is needed. However, this scale may vary a bit in its descriptors between sites (for instance, one source may describe a 4-5 as ideal body weight, while another source may describe 3 as ideal and a 4-5 as overweight).

If your dog or cat is fluffy, you will need to feel their body to see how much you can feel ribs, a waistline, etc. under their fur to determine their body condition score.

Here is a brief overview:

Score Summary Description
1-3 Very thin to thin

Pet needs to gain weight

Ribs, backbone, and hip bones visible. Little or no fat visible. Pronounced abdominal tuck. There may be some degree of loss of muscle mass.
~4 Appropriate weight

Pet should maintain weight

Rib cage can be detected by feeling/palpating pet. Viewed from above, waist is visible. Viewed from the side, abdominal tuck is visible. In cats, no abdominal fat pad.
6-9 Overweight to very obese

Pet needs to lose weight

Ribs not easy to detect by feeling/palpating pet. Waist absent when viewed from above. Abdominal tuck not visible when viewed from the side; rounding of abdomen may be present.

These images by Dr. Sophia Yin depict a dog that is too thin. Reference: REFERENCE: Laflamme DP. Development and Validation of a Body Condition Score System for Dogs. Canine Practice July/August 1997, 22:10-15.


These images by Dr. Sophia Yin depict a dog that is at an appropriate weight. Reference: REFERENCE: Laflamme DP. Development and Validation of a Body Condition Score System for Dogs. Canine Practice July/August 1997, 22:10-15.


These images by Dr. Sophia Yin depict a dog that is overweight. Reference: REFERENCE: Laflamme DP. Development and Validation of a Body Condition Score System for Dogs. Canine Practice July/August 1997, 22:10-15.

How to Lose the Lard

First, if your pet is significantly overweight, check with your vet before embarking on any kind of major weight loss plan. You should never make drastic cuts or changes to your pet’s food; doing so can cause anything from diarrhea to an upset tummy to hepatic lipidosis (in cats).

For some dogs that seem to be gaining a lot of unexplained weight, the weight gain can actually be caused by a condition such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease. Your vet will be able to detect whether your dog’s weight is likely due to disease or lifestyle.

Extra Exercise?

For many dog owners, their initial ideas for weight loss in their pups revolve around increasing exercise. While adequately exercising your dog is critically important for maintaining good health, increasing exercise may not be the most efficient means to lose weight. Think about it: a 155 pound person would need to run for about 30 minutes to burn 300 calories. That thirty minutes of huffing and puffing can easily be erased by eating one brownie or drinking one pumpkin spice latte!


There goes that hour of kickboxing at the gym. Photo credit: zliving.

Upping your dog’s exercise is a good start, but exercise in and of itself will likely not achieve significant weight loss. For cats, getting them to exercise is even more difficult! Toys are a great start, and some people train their cats to run in a wheel or walk on a leash. However, many of our modern indoor house cats tend towards a sedentary lifestyle.

Cut out Scraps

While it’s fun to share a snack with our furry friends, many of our human foods are just not good for our pets. Fatty foods can cause episodes of pancreatitis in some dogs. Other human foods, such as raisins or chocolate, can be toxic to dogs. Furthermore, pets who get frequent scraps are often getting a lot of calories added to the meals they are already eating.

If that’s not enough to convince you, consider that pets who get in the habit of eating “people food” are more likely to beg for food and counter surf to get at it: so, you’re not exactly improving Fido’s manners! One of the best ways to get a dog that never “mooches” from humans is to simply never feed him human food: from the table or otherwise. That’s one less pesky behavior problem you’ll need to fix later!

If you must share your snack with Lassie or Tigger, make sure you are well versed in what people foods are toxic to pets. Generally, fruits and vegetables can be a great snack to share that won’t pack on the calories. Make sure you ask your pet to “say please” or do something in order to earn their treat (and yes, you can teach cats behaviors too!)

Check your Food

Not all food is created equal. Discussing pet food is really a blog post in itself, so I won’t go into great detail here. However, the food you are feeding can have a huge impact on your pet’s weight and behavior. Some foods are much more calorically dense than others. If you are trying to get your pet to lose weight, consider opting for a less calorically dense food.

Also, be aware that the guidelines on the side of the food bag that tell you how much to feed your pet are exactly that: guidelines. Your pet may need to eat somewhat more or less than what the bag says to maintain a healthy weight based on your pet’s metabolism, activity level, etc.

silly cat

What? I can’t eat everything, all day, every day?

Ration the Food

I am a strong advocate against free feeding, which I define as setting down a bowl with an unmeasured amount of food, and letting your pet eat when she pleases. Free feeding often leads to picky eaters who are prone to obesity.

Instead, measure out how much food Kitty or Rover should be getting at the beginning of the day. Yes, use a measuring cup! Place that food in a bowl: up on a high shelf or in a cupboard, if need be, to keep your pet out of it.

This food should be fed in two or more installments throughout the day. When you place Kitty or Rover’s food down, don’t leave it there for more than 15 minutes. If Rover or Kitty has not finished the food within 15 minutes, pick it up and store it. They will have a chance to eat it again later. While many owners cringe at first about their pet missing a meal, many people find that within several feedings, their pet is much less picky about eating!

I am also a strong proponent pets working for their food. There are a wide variety of feeder toys available for both cats and dogs, and this can be a great way to both feed your pet and give them some mental enrichment (something that many of our pets do not get enough of!) It’s also a great idea to have your dog or cat work for some of their daily food ration during training. While some types of training will require high value treats (think cheese or hot dogs), for daily training around the house, many dogs will happily work for kibble if their owner avoids feeding table scraps and is not free feeding.

Seasons Change, and so can Waistlines

Be aware that even if you are feeding the same amount of the same food over a long period of time, you may need to occasionally tweak the amount or type of food you are feeding. For instance, if your pet matures from a puppy to an adult, or an adult to a senior, changes in nutrition will likely be needed. Also, pet activity levels can vary from season to season.

Let’s use my dog Ada as an example.


Don’t let the fluff fool you: if you look closely, Ada has a very pronounced waist in this picture. If she were to lose any more weight, she would be too thin.

In the picture above, Ada has a very pronounced waist and looks a bit thin. Our vet agreed that Ada was about a 3.5/9 on the body condition scale at this point and would benefit from gaining a little bit of weight. I had started taking Ada to the dog park 2-3 times a week instead of about once a week, and she needed more calories to account for all that zooming around. We increased her feed slightly, and she gained an appropriate amount of weight.


Ada still has a waist when viewed from above here, but it is less pronounced. Her weight is acceptable here, but she would be overweight if she gained any more weight.

In the picture above, Ada still has a visible tuck in her abdomen when viewed from the side, and a waist when viewed from above. However, the tuck/waist is not so severe. When Ada visited the vet around when this photo was taken, the vet rated her a 4.5/9: a healthy weight, but she should not gain any more. Ada likely gained some weight because we were using quite a few high value treats to work on behavior modification with her around this time. We reduced her feed ever so slightly to make sure she did not continue to gain weight, and so that we could allot more calories to the high value treats needed to get Ada excited about getting those back toenails trimmed!

In summary, your vet is the best person to talk to about diet, nutrition, and weight issues for your pet! However, hopefully this post will give you some ideas around which to generate discussion.


DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not intended to provide professional dog training or medical advice. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this website are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this website is to promote understanding and knowledge of various pet-related topics. 


Thank you for the free photos!



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