The Challenge of Obesity

by Louise Brennan BBs BSc RVN, Caroline Burke BSc RVN, Shelley Holden RVN CertSAN

Obesity in cats and dogs is one of the most common diseases seen in Veterinary Practice and is often defined as an excess accumulation of body fat. Obesity may increase the incidence of other conditions occurring such as osteoarthritis and diabetes mellitus [1] [2][3]. Research has also shown that it can reduce the pets’ lifespan and more importantly, their quality of life.[4][5]

A recent letter to the Vet Record by Professor Alexander German of the Weight Management Clinic at the University of Liverpool, “Dangerous trends in pet obesity” highlighted the increasing prevalence of overweight and obese dogs in the UK, now at 65%, and even more concerning that almost 40% of juvenile dogs were at least overweight.[6]

The PAW report (2012)[7] showed that 56% of cat owners with an overweight cat believe their cat’s shape is as it should be, whilst 97% of dog owners struggled to identify a healthy body shape, demonstrating that owner education is not only important but necessary to help combat this growing disease.

Recognising Obesity

One of the starting points for vet professionals is Body Condition Scoring (BCS). This tool can be used for diagnosis, as well as calculating the cat or dog’s ideal weight, but crucially provides a method of guiding and communicating to the pet owner to understand the same disease problem being seen by Vets and Vet Nurses.

The now well- established 9 point BCS model has been further adapted by ROYAL CANIN® to include one cat and six dog morphologies to make communication about obesity even more specific to pet owners with different sized dogs.

Once the client has recognised their pet is overweight or obese they can be referred to a weight management clinic, where they can receive additional support to help their pet reach their ideal weight and shape.

A 30 minute consult is recommended for the first session, which allows for plenty of time to discuss the pets’ previous food and exercise history in detail. Whilst on some occasions pets may become overweight or obese as a result of a metabolic disorder, it is often other factors such as neutering, lifestyle, over feeding, too many treats/ rewards and too little exercise that result in a pet becoming overweight.


Cats and dogs need to be given enough food to maintain them at a healthy weight and shape, but overfeeding plays a part in their weight gain. This may be as a result of the feeding volume, how food is measured out or extras/treats/rewards being given on top of the daily food allowance.

Owners’ motivations for feeding extras vary but are often a means of showing love, reward for training, and to stop begging. In fact, 3 out of 5 pet owners agree their pet begs all the time, or often.[8]

Begging behaviours are often misunderstood

In a recent survey, ROYAL CANIN® found that 58% of dog owners believe that their dog is begging for human food, whilst 51% believed their dog was begging for attention, and only 37% felt that their dog was begging for pet treats.[8][9][10]

Whereas for cats, 60% of owners believed their cat was begging for attention, 43% believed it was for pet treats, and 37% believed it was for cat food.[8][9][10]

These results indicate that owners often misinterpret their pets begging as a need for food/sign of hunger.[8][9][10] A major concern for owners whose pets are undertaking a weight management programme is that they will be hungry, and how to manage begging behaviours. These concerns may contribute towards the compliance issues many Veterinary professionals see in their practice.

Recommending a weight management diet that is specifically formulated to induce safe weight loss, by decreasing calories, whilst stimulating satiety, and contains all the micro nutrients a pet needs, can help increase owner compliance.[11][12][13]


The ROYAL CANIN® Satiety diets contain an adapted high fibre blend which increases gastric content/ volume and reduces feelings of hunger by delaying gastric emptying. This helps to increase the feeding volume; ensuring owner compliance is high and reduces the “undesirable” begging behaviours often seen by clients.[14][15] Satiety diets are available in both wet and dry formulations for both cat and dogs, allowing you to select the most appropriate feeding regime for your patients.

Whilst ROYAL CANIN® Satiety can help reduce begging, in order ensure long term changes that aid weight loss, you also need to consider how the owners are measuring out food.

Digital Food Scales

The importance of accurate portion control cannot be underestimated and one of the most common methods owners use to measure out food is measuring cups. However, a study highlighted how inaccurate this is, with results ranging from underfeeding by 20% to over feeding by 80%.[16] Using digital food scales is always recommended, in particular for cats and small dogs where inaccuracies due to smaller feeding volumes can be greater.

Introduce a new strategy

Once food portions have been accurately measured out, discussing feeding behaviours with pet owners can be very important in understanding individual pet – owner dynamics. Knowing that cats and dogs can be described as “contra-free loaders”, in other words they prefer to work for their food, is a great opportunity to introduce slow down bowls and interactive feeders using pre measured diet portions. There is now a wide variety of commercially available slow down bowls for both cats and dogs. Consider creating a homemade version that could provide activity and mental stimulation for a cat or dog.

By helping owners recognise their pets overweight status, educating them on begging behaviours and placing the pet on a specifically formulated weight management diet, we can help the owner make long term changes that help their pet reach their ideal weight and shape and maintain this over time.


[1] Kealy, R.D., Lawler, D.F., Ballam, J.M., Lust, G., Smith, G.K., Biery, D.N., Olsson, S.E. (1997). Five year longitudinal study on limited food consumption and development of osteoarthritis in coxofemoral joints of dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc; 210: 222-225

[2] Kealy, R.D., Lawler, D.F., Ballam, J.M., Lust, G., Biery, D.N., Smith, G.K., Mantz, S.L., (2002). Evaluation of the affect of limited food consumption on radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc; 217: 1678-1680

[3] Mattheeuws, D., Rottiers, R., Kaneko, J.J., (1984). Diabetes Mellitus in dogs: relationships of obesity to glucose tolerance and insulin response. Am J Vet Res; 45: 98-10

[4] Kealey, R.D., Lawler, D.F. , Ballam, J.M., Mantz, S.L., Biery, D.B., Greeley, E.H., Lust, G. , Segre, M. Smith, G.K., Stowe, H.D. (2002). Effects of diet restriction on life span and age-related changes in dogs. Journal of American Veterinary Medicine Association; 220 (9): 1315-1320

[5] German, A.J., Holden, S.L., Wiseman-Orr, M.L., Reid, J., Nolan, A.M., Biourge, V., Morris, P.J., Scott, E.M. (2012). Quality of life is reduced in obese dogs but improves after successful weight loss. Veterinary Journal; 192: 428-434

[6] German, A.J., Woods, G.T., Holden, S.L., Brennan, L. Burke, C. (2018). Dangerous trends in pet obesity. Veterinary Record; 182 (1).

[7] PDSA (2012). The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals: Animal Wellbeing (PAW) Report 2012 – the state of our pet nation.

[8] Satiety Consumer Study (11-21-14), IPSOS2014.

[9] Murphy, M. (2016). Obesity treatment. Environment and behaviour modification. Vet CVlin North Am Small Anim Pract; 46: 883-898

[10] Kienzle et al. (2006). Human-animal relationship of owners of normal and overweight cats. J Nutr;136:1947S-1950S

[11] German, A.J., Holden, S.L., Bissot, T., Hackett, M., Biourge, V. (2007). Dietary energy restriction and successful weight loss inn obese client owned dogs. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine; 21: 1174 –1180

[12] German, A.J., Holden, S.L., Bissot, T., Morris, P.J., Biourge, V. (2010). A high protein, high fibre diet improves weight loss in obese dogs. Vet Journal; 183: 294-297

[13] Weber, M., Bissot, T., Serve, E., Sergheraert, R., Biourge, V., German, A.J. (2017). A high protein, high-fibre diet designed for weight loss improves satiety in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine; 21:1203-1208

[14] Flanagan J et al. (2017). Success of a weight loss plan for overweight dogs: the results of an international weight loss study. ”PLoS One 2017; 12 (9): e018419

[15] Hours M.A. et al (2016). Factors affecting weight loss in client owned cats and dogs: data from an international weight loss study. Proc of 16th Annual Clinical Nutrition and Research Symposium, Denver; June 8 2016

[16] German, A.J., Holden, S.L., Mason, S.L., Byrner, C., Bouldoires, C., Morris, P.J., Deboise, M and Biourge, V (2011). Imprecision when using measuring cups to weigh out extruded dry kibbled food. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr; 95 (3): 368-373