Why are our pets so overweight

I was looking at my daily appointment book, and I knew something must have gone wrong. Someone from the fitness industry brought his cat to the Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals. Was he confused for another type of weight management clinic, or was he just confused? Does he want to put muscle on his cat, or perhaps kitty shakes for protein?

When I asked for an appointment in the lobby, an athletic man walked up, holding a cat weighing almost 20 pounds! I asked him if I could be blunt with him. Why would someone who is clearly very knowledgeable about staying healthy bring his cat to see a veterinary nutritionist? What would he have said if he was helping the cat to stay fit every day, just like he does with other people? The conversation went like this…

“Well, I would tell her to suck up, Buttercup.” Do some kitty pushing-ups, and stop giving treats!

What’s stopping you?

He replied with a guilty look on his face: “Well, Dr. Linder… I mean… She meows at ME …”

It was then that I realized I had been treating obesity in pets incorrectly. I had to put less emphasis on the animal and more focus on the relationship that people have with their pets. It’s this that’s literally snuffing out the lives of our beloved dogs and cats.

A pet that is overweight will not be happy.

obesity is a global epidemic in both humans and pets. More than half of dogs and cats in the world struggle with obesity.

Do not fall for the puppy dog eyes. Liliya Kulianionak/shutterstock.com

Obesity in animals can cause complications for almost every system of the body. Animals that are overweight can suffer from complications in nearly every body system, ranging anywhere between osteoarthritis and Diabetes .

Owners say that they don’t mind if their pets are “fat” because there’s more to love. I have to let them know that there is less time for love. a landmark study on lifespan showed that Labradors with 10-20% overweight, not obese (defined as more than 20%) lived 1.8 years less than those who were trim and ideal weight.

A new study confirms that pets who are overweight suffer emotional effects. Overweight pets score lower in vitality and quality of life. They also have higher pain levels and more emotional disturbance. The good news is that these values can be improved with weight loss.

Pets and humans both struggle to achieve success, even under the best of circumstances. According to one study, only 63 percent (of the dogs) who were on a weight loss program succeeded.

Love through food

Where exactly is the problem? Are the foods high in calories or fat? Do pets get enough exercise? Is it genetics? Do we fall for the puppy dog looks and overfeed our dogs because they’ve actually trained us? My experience in the pet obesity clinic tells me that it’s all of these things.

Veterinarians and pet owners are a bit behind their human counterparts. According to, it does not matter how humans lose weight as long as it is done consistently. Many veterinary doctors focus on the traditional diets and exercise programs, but less on the reasons why these pets became obese. This should be simple. (The dogs don’t open the fridge themselves!)

The field is beginning to realize that pet obesity has more to do with the human-animal relationship than just the food bowl. In 2014, I was part of a team of pet obesity experts organized by the American Animal Hospital Association to create new guidelines for weight management. We recognized that it is important to address the human-animal relationship. Are pet owners willing to overcome obstacles that could slow their pet’s weight-loss?

An interesting editorial compared pet ownership to parenting styles. We treat our pets more like family. The emotional and psychological connection between the dog of the family is stronger than it was when the dog was only the dog of the family. We can teach pet parents how to express love without using food if we spot overindulgent pet parents.

A healthier relationship

To manage obesity in pets, veterinarians will need to work with psychologists.

Many veterinary hospitals and schools employ social workers to help vets better understand the human-animal relationship and its impact on the pet’s health. A dog owner who shares an ice-cream treat with their dog every night after losing their spouse may be trying replace a tradition that they shared with their partner. A social worker who has a background in psychology could prepare a plan to respect the bond between the owner and their pet, without negatively impacting its health.

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