Pet obesity has been a recurring problem for as long as we’ve been practicing veterinary medicine. It has mostly increased in the last decades, and it is something that, as veterinarians, we discuss with our clients daily. This is an issue that can be frustrating yet rewarding, so to understand the underlying issues of pet obesity, we will address the following categories:

  • How to tell if a dog or cat is overweight 
  • What are the dangers of being overweight?
  • Pet weight loss: How do I get my dog to lose weight?
  • Cats, they are not small dogs.
  • Why is my dog overweight?


Other than your veterinarian telling you that your pet is overweight, how can you tell if your dog or cat is overweight? There is a lot of variability even between dogs of the same breed, and obviously significant body and size differences among different breeds. Having a number to shoot for is difficult, if not impossible. But there are some relatively simple guidelines to determine if a pet is overweight:

  1. Look and feel the pet’s chest. You should not be able to see a pet’s ribs, but with light pressure, you should be able to feel each individual rib.
  2. Look at the pet’s side profile. You should be able to see a deep chest, and as you move towards the back, you see the underside suck in, creating the “waist”.
  3. Look at the pet’s skyline profile. Similarly, you should see a wider chest area, and as you move back, the “waist” or flank region sucks in.

There are some exceptions to these, i.e., Scotties and English Bulldogs are both very stocky breeds that may not have much of a “waist”.  Whereas, Poodles, Pointers, and a few other sporting breeds are naturally very thin, so you may be able to see their ribs, and that would be normal. These are general guidelines.


So, you’ve admitted and accepted that your pet is overweight. Is that really a problem? Mildly overweight pets may not be at much risk of other diseases, but it will be hard on their joints as they age. Unfortunately, many pets are actually quite overweight.

There are two levels to the dangers of pet obesity. The first is the direct danger. Adipose tissue does secret hormones, and the more you have, the more is produced. One particular hormone, leptin, is produced by fat cells. Leptin is a hormone that reduces appetite; sounds like it should be a good feedback mechanism, right? The more leptin is produced, the less sensitive the body gets to it, so its effects are muted. This results in a pet that is both overweight and always hungry, which is evil. It also affects insulin levels, making obese pets more at risk for diabetes. Diabetes is often very difficult to control with hormone imbalances.

There are also secondary effects of pet obesity. Arthritis is often inevitable in some pets, but a pet that is overweight has its effects compounded. Pets that are obese are often unable to groom themselves and have skin issues due to excessive skin folds, which leads to infection. 


What should you actually do if your pet is overweight? Simply speaking, it truly does come down to a calorie intake issue. This can be difficult. Perhaps you are on board with feeding your pet less, but your family is not.  We also can’t ignore the fact that we often show our pets love by giving them food, unintentionally giving them unnecessary calories. 

We recommend owners attack a weight issue incrementally. Perhaps the pet’s meal size is four times more than it should be, and they are getting half a bag of dog treats a day. Our first suggestion in most cases is to eliminate treats. That usually results in visibly remarkable results.

Pro tip: you can replace the joy of giving a bag of treats with something like frozen green beans, mini snack carrots, or even ice cubes. Anything crunchy is often just as enjoyable to pets as whatever commercial treat you give them, but not in a calorically dense product.

We can’t ignore the other end of the spectrum, and that’s expanding more calories. Admittedly, that can be difficult and dangerous for many pets, especially overweight pets in the Texas heat. However, going for a regular 15-30 minute daily walk can do wonders. Don’t make it more difficult than it needs to be; go for a walk before work in the morning and give all your dog treats to a shelter.


Much of this post has been centered around dogs, but most of the advice translates to cats. However, there are some nuances with our feline companions. Obesity in cats is almost an exclusive indoor cat problem. We rarely see outdoor cats that are overweight. Cats are more active and stimulated outdoors, from patrolling their territory, hunting lizards and rodents, and climbing trees to avoid dangers. To that point, the outdoor cat’s mind is always working, as they must be acutely tuned to their environment to avoid dangers. It is important to acknowledge that while burning calories, those dangers put our cats at significantly higher risk of severe injury. Consequently (and wisely, in our opinion), many cats nowadays are primarily indoors. 

A primarily indoor cat will live a more sedentary lifestyle. A cat’s persistence in begging and crying for food is annoying at best and occasionally life-altering at worst. It is incredibly difficult to get cats to lose weight when exercising. It can be done through extensive playtime around the house, but a cat will rarely go on a walk. Emphasis should be placed on the prevention of cat obesity. This means feeding a good quality diet in appropriate volumes.

Another important aspect that is necessary to address with spayed or neutered cats is their “pooch”.  Spayed or neutered cats will almost inevitably develop a fat pad or “pooch” on their belly that is just a saggy, unattractive bit of tissue.  This is not a result of them being overweight but rather secondary to the removal of their hormonal influence because of the removal of their reproductive tissue. This develops in the most fit of all cats, even in larger cats, like lions and tigers in zoos after they have been altered.  So don’t confuse that “pooch” with a cat being overweight!


This is a valid question, and frankly, should be the first question addressed. There is just one dog-specific condition that can cause them to be overweight – hypothyroid disease. This disease is an underactive thyroid gland that consequently slows dogs’ metabolism down significantly. The hypothyroid disease can easily be tested for with a simple blood test. Dogs that are affected with hypothyroidism will not ever be able to lose weight until the thyroid gland is regulated. However, that is often not the case, and it truly is simply a fact that they are being fed too much. It is important that this is ruled out prior to attacking the weight issue with diet. Weight loss routines can be difficult and frustrating just because results take time, so don’t want to make it more difficult by trying to fight thyroid disease incorrectly. Conversely, don’t assume your overweight pet has thyroid disease and, in turn, do not limit the calories. 

The best course of action to prevent pet obesity is to regularly schedule check-ups with your veterinarian and be open to their feedback and suggestions. 

This article was written by Dr. Ryan Millington. You can book an appointment with him today