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5 Ways Obesity is Killing Your Pet

02/25/2016 by Colleen Williams
February 25th, 2016 by Colleen Williams

It’s official: the majority of dogs and cats in the United States are fat. Well, overweight or obese that is; the distinction lies in the amount of excess body fat. If a pet’s weight is 10 to 15 percent higher than ideal, an official diagnosis of obesity is given. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention‘s annual study found 52.7% of U.S. dogs and 57.9% of cats are overweight or obese. It’s so common for American pets to be overweight that it’s ingrained in our culture through the politicized image of “fat cats” – smug, greedy and wealthy donors.

Adorable as an animal’s Michelin Man folds may be to some, these extra pounds can have extreme impacts on the health and welfare of a pet. In 2014, a Canadian woman was charged with animal cruelty after allowing her cat Napoleon to reach 25 pounds, despite vets’ warnings. Unable to groom himself, Napoleon developed painful and extensive skin irritation that proved incurable; euthanasia was deemed the most humane option.

A quick way to see if your pet may be obese is to feel their ribcage. If you can’t, it’s time to visit the vet for a more official weigh-in. Luckily for you and your pet, obesity is reversible! Changes to diet, exercise and overall lifestyle can help pets to shed pounds. Take action now to ensure your pet stays at a happy, healthy weight – before it’s too late.

1. Heart Disease

fat dogs

Coughing or wheezing while exercising are one indicator of heart disease, especially in obese dogs. (

The most significant obstacle for obese pets is their increased body mass. Although the animal may increase in size externally, the internal organs don’t and are forced to work harder to keep this bigger body going. An overworked heart pumps faster, leading to hypertension (high blood pressure), which increases the risk of developing dilated cardiomyopathy. This type of heart disease in dogs and cats is caused by thinning of the muscular heart wall. If left untreated, congestive heart failure and death will eventually result.

Coughing is an unusual but important sign of heart disease in pets and is caused by an enlarged heart compressing the lungs. (It’s also a symptom of heart worms!) For this same reason, difficulty breathing or avoidance of exercise may also indicate heart disease. Poor oxygen flow can also be visible in bluish gums or tongue as well as fainting. Abdominal swelling occurs as the condition advances, the result of fluid accumulating.

Treatment and prognosis for a pet with heart disease depends on its severity and the type of illness. As with most medical conditions, the earlier it is caught, the better chance a dog or cat has of surviving.

2. Joint Disease

hip dysplasia in dogs

Hydrotherapy is an emerging treatment for hip dysplasia in dogs, especially seniors. (

Obese pets are under pressure in more than one way; all that extra tissue weighs heavily on joints and ligaments, increasing the risk of injury and degenerative disease. Senior dogs and cats are especially susceptible to developing diseases of the joints, as their cartilage is already weakened by age. Osteoarthritis is one of these conditions, caused by a decrease of cartilage that results in bone on bone contact within joints. Extremely painful for pets, arthritis can rarely be cured but is manageable through a combination of surgery, medication and physical therapy.

Hip dysplasia, another degenerative joint disease, is caused by a congenital birth defect. Similar to arthritis, the hip’s ball-and-socket joint is ill-fitting as a result of malformation. Pet parents can’t prevent this disease, but they can reduce its severity and progression through lifestyle management, which includes healthy weight maintenance. More common in small dog breeds, intervertebral disc disease (IDD) occurs when one of the spine’s disc-like shock absorbers is compressed onto the spinal cord. This can be caused by trauma, such as a hard fall, or from the extra pressure of obesity. The anterior crucial ligament (ACL) in particular is also vulnerable to traumatic injury in obese dogs and cats, once again because of the increased strain it is under.

Obesity primarily exacerbates medical conditions, making a pet’s prognosis less positive. For example, age-related arthritis is common and easily manageable, but if worsened by obesity it can make exercise painful. This, in turn, increases the difficulty of weight loss and further compounds pets’ health issues.

3. Diabetes

Daily insulin injections are essential for managing Type I diabetes in dogs. (Thinkstock)

Daily insulin injections may be needed to manage diabetes in obese pets. (Thinkstock)

Fat dogs and cats have high blood sugar, a response to both their increased mass and poor diet. To counter the glucose, the pancreas continuously pumps out insulin. Eventually the organ becomes overwhelmed and burns out, resulting in diabetes mellitus, commonly known as insulin-resistant or “sugar” diabetes. This is different from Type I diabetes, which is present at birth and is the result of a hormonal deficiency or other congenital defect. Some dog breeds are believed to be more prone to developing diabetes, as are senior pets, making it especially important to keep an eye on your pet’s weight.

Symptoms of diabetes in dogs and cats include excessive thirst and urination, decreased appetite, weight loss, lethargy and vomiting. Depression can even result in some pets if diabetes is left untreated, as can cataracts and kidney disease. A prescription diet is typically required as part of diabetes management; insulin injections may be necessary if your vet finds your pet’s levels are too low or inconsistent.

4. Decreased Quality of Life

obese cat

Obese pets have limited mobility, especially when grooming. This can lead to skin irritation and matting. (

The effects of obesity in pets are far-reaching and impact every part of a dog or cat’s life. Exercise becomes difficult and breathing labored as lung capacity decreases and the diaphragm is pressured by excess fat. The bigger the body, the more oxygen it needs, placing the lungs under increased demand. Brachycephalic, or flat-faced, breeds – such as Pugs, Persians and French Bulldogs – may find breathing restricted even more with weight gain.

Poor body temperature regulation is another rarely-considered side effect of obesity. Overweight dogs are less capable of regulating their internal conditions because of their layer of insulating tissue. Constantly warm, this places overweight pets at an increased risk of developing heat stroke in the summer. Conversely, in the winter they may also struggle due to decreased circulation, making frostbite or hypothermia a possibility.

It’s the little things that really affect a pet’s quality of life. Fat dogs and cats are less flexible and able to maneuver themselves for full-body grooming, which can lead to skin and coat issues. If not properly distributed, the fur’s natural oils accumulate and cause fur matting or painful sores. An unhealthy, high-fat diet can contribute to coat troubles but also to gastrointestinal discomfort and flatulence – unpleasant for everyone involved.

Studies in both humans and animals have demonstrated that obesity leads to reduced immune function, making individuals more susceptible to infection. The Obesity Action Coalition posits this is due to poor diet and lack of exercise and even theorizes that obesity might make vaccines less effective. If your pet is constantly sick with the common cold or other infections, talk to your vet about immune-boosting supplements while you tackle shedding pounds with your pet.

5. Increased Risk During Medical Procedures

French bulldogs

Obese pets have a higher risk of complications during and after surgery. (

All of the previously discussed risks for obese pets are heightened when it’s time to go under the knife. Cardiovascular and respiratory systems are already stressed from supplying super-sized systems; introducing anesthesia as an extra stressor places obese pets at an increased risk during surgery. Anesthesia is metabolized through the body’s fat stores; because of this, obese pets are more difficult to dose and take longer to wake up afterwards. Often vets are forced to tell pet parents that the risk of surgery is higher than the medical condition itself, thanks to the animal’s extreme weight. Additional anesthesia, as well as extra staff to monitor an obese pet, can also drive up the cost of common surgeries for pet parents.

Increased fatty tissue lengthens pets’ time spent on the table, making the procedure more technically difficulty as well. Layers of fat obscure the intended surgical site – say, the bladder – and take longer to safely separate. This obfuscation of underlying health conditions can have dire consequences for obese dogs and cats, whose cancerous tumors or difficulty breathing may be chalked up to weight gain.