Your pet’s weight weighs heavily on their overall health and longevity. Overweight pets are at increased risk for numerous health conditions and complications, including chronic pain, delayed recovery, and poorer quality of life. Every pet owner should understand how to assess their pet’s body condition, and know the strategies for safe weight management, and when to seek veterinary guidance. You’ll find all this and more in our guide from the Animal Rehabilitation Center team.

A weighty matter—why your pet’s pounds are more than a number

Fat is a natural and necessary part of your pet’s balanced diet that provides concentrated and easily digestible energy, aids in hormone production and vitamin absorption, serves as insulation, and maintains normal cellular development and function. Generally speaking, a healthy adult pet diet should contain 10% to 15% fat to provide appropriate nourishment. However, overfeeding, table scraps, high-fat pet foods, and inadequate physical activity have created a pet obesity epidemic that is crippling dog and cat health.

Fat intake that exceeds the body’s needs is stored as adipose tissue, but too much adipose tissue creates inflammation and puts pets at an increased risk for debilitating—often painful—conditions, including:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Orthopedic disease (e.g., cruciate ligament rupture, luxating patella, hip dysplasia)
  • Skin disorders
  • Reduced immune health
  • Kidney failure
  • Diabetes

Big boned? Breed impact on pet body weight

Jokes aside, while all pets can become obese, some dog breeds are prone to weight gain. The reason remains unclear, but likely is a combination of genetics, diet, physical structure, behavior, and environment. At-risk breeds include:

  • Labrador retrievers
  • Beagles
  • Basset Hounds
  • Brachycephalic breeds (e.g., bulldog, pug)
  • Dachshunds

Weight management is imperative in these breeds, since many are already prone to orthopedic disease and back injuries because of their body conformation (e.g., long back, short or straight legs). 

How body weight impacts your pet’s rehabilitation

When your pet is injured or ill, their weight directly influences their recovery and rehabilitation. Overweight and obese pets will require a prolonged rehabilitation period that can impact their outcome, with weight-related challenges that include:

  • Decreased immunity — Excessive fat disrupts the immune system and decreases healthy cellular function, putting convalescing pets at risk for illness and opportunistic infections. 
  • Increased pain — Inflammation is painful, and pain delays healing and return to proper function. If injury and obesity-related pain aren’t well-controlled with medication or pain-relieving therapy, pets may refuse to participate in the rehabilitation process.
  • Poor cardiovascular stamina — Overweight pets tire more quickly and may struggle to breathe normally during exercise, so keep sessions short to protect the pet from respiratory distress or collapse.
  • Delayed healing — Chronic inflammation and dietary deficiencies can disrupt or delay tissue healing in post-operative patients, and put your pet at greater risk for dangerous infections and dehiscence.
  • Risk for bilateral injury or strain — Pets with orthopedic injuries naturally shift their weight to protect the weakened or post-operative joint. However, this increases the weight-bearing on vulnerable joints and soft tissue—especially in overweight pets. The heavier your pet, and the longer they resist weight-bearing on the affected limb, the greater their bilateral injury risk.

How to assess your pet’s body condition

Because dogs and cats vary greatly in size and shape, assigning accurate numerical weight ranges is impossible. Instead, pets are evaluated for their body condition score (BCS)—similar to a human body mass index (BMI)—using visual and hands-on assessments that are compared to a BCS chart, which scores them from one to five or one to nine. Key assessment points include:

  • Ribs — You should easily feel your pet’s ribs—your pet is overweight if you need to apply pressure or cannot feel the ribs at all. 
  • Waist — When viewed from above, your pet’s waistline should be visible between the last rib and the hips, giving them an hourglass shape. If your pet is long coated, smooth their hair with your hands so you can see.
  • Silhouette — Finally, look at your pet’s side profile. When your pet is standing, you should see a slight upward curve or “tuck up” after the last rib that extends up to the abdomen. As before, long coated pets may require a hands-on assessment.

Once you’ve evaluated your pet, consult the appropriate dog or cat chart. If your pet scores outside the ideal range, contact your regular veterinarian to first rule out a medical cause. 

How rehabilitation can help your pet lose weight

Pet weight loss should be attempted only under veterinary guidance, which not only ensures success, but also protects the pet from unintentional harm, including illness related to calorie restriction, and injuries such as ligament tears, soft tissue strains, and heat stroke.

You will need to not only follow your veterinarian’s nutrition recommendations, but also to get your pet moving. The Animal Rehabilitation Center can provide low-impact exercises and therapies that promote safe weight loss and address pain, including:

  • Underwater treadmill therapy — Water’s buoyancy and hydrostatic pressure create a weightless exercise environment that accelerates weight loss and builds cardiovascular strength and stamina. The warm water also relaxes sore muscles and stiff joints, which encourages reluctant pets to move.
  • Therapeutic exercise — Balance and coordination exercises are fun, and can effectively engage your dog’s core muscles, improve body awareness, and burn calories.
  • Customized exercise plans — We’ll design an exercise plan that suits your pet’s current health and skill level, and promotes steady weight loss and builds strength.

Pets’ lives are already too short—don’t let weight-related complications steal more precious time. Discuss your pet’s body condition with your regular veterinarian and learn whether an Animal Rehabilitation Center referral is the right step for your pet. Contact our caring team for additional information.