The Dangers of Obesity in Pets: An Interview with Veterinary Nutritionist Dr. Tammy Owens

April 7, 2021

An overview of obesity in pets, the dangers associated with it and how to lower the risks. From the perspective of Veterinary Nutritionist Dr. Tammy Owens.

Obesity is an epidemic. In veterinary clinics across the globe, over 50% of adult dogs are classified as obese after assessment. We’ve all seen the pictures, videos and memes online of chubby dogs doing hilarious things. However, it is important to realize that obesity is a very dangerous condition that can significantly lower the lifespan of your pet and letting an animal get to that point is actually considered a form of abuse. But what can be done to reduce the rate of obesity in dogs? We were fortunate enough to sit down with board certified veterinary nutritionist, Dr. Tammy Owens from the University of Saskatchewan at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, to discuss her thoughts on obesity in companion dogs and what can be done to mitigate the problem.

What do you love about the pet food industry and is there change that you believe this industry should be working towards?

Dr. Owens: “From a veterinary perspective, I appreciate the research that some companies put into the development of their products. Trends should not be pushed without research and differentiating between humans and animals is important. Pet owners should not always view nutrition from a human point of view.”

What is body condition score and how is it relevant to obesity?

Dr. Owens: “Body condition score is a scoring system developed as a means to reliably and repeatedly estimate the amount of body fat in a dog or cat. By comparing the findings on an individual pet to the scale, changes can be made to a diet or exercise regime if needed or kept the same if they are ideal. There are different versions of the scale, usually between 4 and 9 point scale. Using body condition score is better than solely looking at weight when considering if a dog is obese.”

Illustration of skinny, ideal, rounded, and chunky dogs with small description below
An example of a body condition score scale. Which one is your dog?

What does the term “obesity” mean and what causes it?

Dr. Owens: “Obesity is a condition where there is enough of an accumulation of excess body fat that it will have adverse health effects on an animal Obesity is a medical condition and occurs when there are more calories going in than going out (i.e. an animal eating more calories than they are burning). This is a simple explanation but the different factors contributing to obesity are more complex.”

Why do you think there is such a high proportion of obese pets?

Dr. Owens: “Pets have adopted a human lifestyle. As a result, pet obesity has followed the human obesity trend. Unfortunately, pets are getting high fat, high calorie treats, human food, toppers, etc, which are not healthy and promote a higher risk for developing obesity. Ultimately, dogs are just getting too many calories from unbalanced foods or “empty calories”. Furthermore, dogs also eat in the same pattern as people which is, too often and not balanced with enough exercise.”

What are some diseases that can be linked to obesity in dogs?

Dr. Owens: “So many. Diseases can start even just in overweight pets. The obvious ones are diabetes, cardiovascular disease, etc. Overweight pets are much more predisposed to have chronic diseases like arthritis and other joint problems. Obesity can also significantly reduce a dog’s life span by as much as 2 years.”

Beagle begging at the dinner table next to female owner with black socks, blue jeans, and blue flannel

Can obesity lead to cancer?

Dr Owens: “Although there is no research showing that obesity can directly cause cancer, there may be a correlation. Obesity can lead to a chronic inflammatory state in the body, which increases the risk for the development of certain types of cancers.”

Can obesity shorten a pet’s lifespan?

Dr. Owens: “Yes, for a variety of reasons. As I mentioned previously a dog’s life span can be reduced by up to 2 years and impacts not only lifespan but quality of life as well. For instance, some obese pets may be euthanized to reduce suffering.”

Can obesity be reduced or “cured”?

Dr. Owens: “Yes, obesity can be reduced or reversed. An effective plan is a great first step. A combination of proper diet and exercise can greatly improve quality of life. Sometimes pets can even be improved to an ideal body condition score but any sort of improvement is good. Obesity cannot be cured necessarily. This is because once an animal becomes obese, they are probably already predisposed to certain diseases.”

Lethargic older beagle that is obese, lazy, and sleeping

How do you know if you are overfeeding your pet?

Dr. Owens: “The best way is by using body condition score. 

If your pet classifies as obese or over weight, don’t just reduce the amount of food that is fed. Re-evaluate what is being fed (high calorie food, treats, snacks, table scraps, etc.). Reduce empty calories like treats and increase physical and mental stimulation.”

What does the term “satiety” mean and how is it relevant?

Dr. Owens: “Satiety is related to the feeling of fullness or the suppression of hunger. It can be related to how often one eats. Satiety is influenced a lot by psychological factors, hormonal factors, and the nutrients an animal is eating.”

What are some ingredients in pet food that help to boost satiety throughout the day?

Dr. Owens: “Fibre!  Best food options for satiety are low in calories and high in fibre, which include ingredients such as whole grains and vegetables. Protein and water also play an influence on fullness. Nutritional density in the food also plays a role as well and if a diet is insufficient, the body will send signals saying that you are still hungry.”

Why is dietary fibre important for increasing satiety?

Dr. Owens: “Distention of the stomach will send signals for fullness. Fibre slows emptying of the stomach and affects transit time through the digestive tract. Certain types of fibre affect the gut microbiome, which may play a role in the gut/brain access.”

Can moisture in pet food affect satiety?

Dr. Owens: “Yes, more moisture adds volume and will increase satiety as a result.”

How can pet owners avoid over feeding?

Dr. Owens: “Paying attention to how many calories are coming from the diet versus from other food. 90% of a dog’s daily intake should be from a balanced diet and not treats/table scraps. Also, keep an eye on body condition score and weight gain. Nutrient dense food is better than calorie dense food. Avoid temptation as the only method of bonding or reinforcement. Instead, try walks, affection and play. If tempted to give treats, substitute high calorie treats with lower calorie options. For example, use a carrot or small sized treats rather than a dog biscuit.”

Overweight Pekingese teased into holding small puppy biscuit in their mouth

How can pet owners help their pets lose or maintain a healthy weight?

Dr. Owens: “Owners can work with their veterinarian on what a healthy body condition score would be in their pet. Since >50% of pets are obese, there has been an incorrect shift in what an ideal pet should look like. Pet owners should educate themselves on what their pet’s ideal body condition score is and work with a veterinarian to create a plan on how to lose weight.”

Do you think fresh-cooked pet food can help with proper weight maintenance?

Dr. Owens: “Yes, any diet that is nutritionally complete, balanced and works for that pet, then it is good. However, if it is not complete, balanced and digestible, then it is not as great. So yes and no. Avoid making fresh-cooked pet food at home as most pet owners do not know how to properly balance food for animals as is it a much different process than for humans.”

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