Are our animals fat?

Our animals really are fat, but most of us don’t think so!

Six out of every 10 dogs and cats in the US may be overweight, according to a recent study.

That overweight 60% of the pet population will live shorter lives and have much more ill health than the 40% that are lean.

In a study of 1,462 animals, over 60% scored 6 or higher on a 1-9 scale; 4 or 5 is considered ideal. The Purina Body Condition Score System, a tool designed to make it easier see the real condition of animals, was used to evaluate these animals. A body condition score of 6 is the equivalent of being 20-35% over your ideal weight. If your ideal weight is 180, for example, you would weigh 225 with a score of 6.

Veterinarians scored the animals – and so did the owners. The owners of the group of animals considered substantially overweight saw things differently—almost half thought their overweight dogs were at an ideal weight! (1)

This difference in perception costs our animals years of life.

It matters! Here’s why–

A 14-year life span study by Nestle Purina shows us that dogs kept lean live longer and have fewer health problems than those who are overweight. While this study included only dogs, cats show similar problems with obesity, and an even higher incidence of diabetes.  We think the results are also pertinent for cats.


The benefits seen by the lifespan study of dogs include:


  • Lean dogs live longer—up to two years longer

  • Lean dogs develop degenerative bone problems much later in life

  • Overweight dogs begin to lose muscle mass up to two years earlier than those kept lean

  • Immune systems in dogs kept lean had slower age-related declines

  • Dogs kept lean had lower blood pressure and pulse rates


Lean dogs live better, healthier lives, and live up to two years longer than those even somewhat overweight!

It doesn’t take much “overweight” to begin to cause problems. Fat tissues produce inflammatory chemicals which are related to all sorts of health problems, including:

  • Insulin resistance (beginning at body condition score of 6) and diabetes

  • Inflammatory diseases of all kinds

  • Heart disease

  • General aches and pains attributed to “old age”


Is your dog or cat fat?


Consult the Purina Body Condition System to find out—or ask a friend to help! If you evaluate each other’s dogs and cats, you may come up with different (more objective) answers.  If your animal is overweight, get a checkup to make sure that there is nothing medical contributing to the problem. Usually, it’s simple: a combination of lack of exercise with either the wrong balance of food, or just too much food.

Higher protein diets help to maintain muscle mass

There are many choices in “diet food” at pet food and grocery stores, and it’s a strong indicator of how many fat pets there are. Most “senior” or “lite” foods are higher carbohydrate, lower fat, and higher fiber versions of “adult” dry foods. They are far from the natural diet of dogs and cats. We advise you to reject them.

The natural diet of dogs and cats – high in protein and water, and moderate in fat – is perfect for keeping them in top condition. It’s composed of the meat, bone, and organs of prey animals, and some vegetables and fruits.

The muscles in the body are made up of protein. To maintain that muscle, the body needs protein.

  • Muscle burns more calories

  • Protein in the diet makes animals feel full faster

  • Protein helps to preserve lean body mass


Sufficient dietary protein helps the body keep making protein, which helps the immune system to work well, and decreases susceptibility to injury and infection.

In other Nestle Purina weight-loss studies, cats and dogs both lost less muscle mass and more fat on higher protein diets – diets in which the balance is closer to the natural diet we recommend. When we lose weight, we want to lose fat, and not muscle mass. The same is true for our dogs and cats.

You can see the difference in the type of weight loss in the charts below, one for cats and one for dogs. On lower protein diets, animals lost more muscle and less fat; on higher protein diets, animals lost more fat and less muscle (2, 3), which is much healthier.

Effect of Dietary Protein Composition of Weight Loss in Dogs

Composition of weight loss

20% protein diet

30% protein diet

39% protein diet

Muscle (lean)








Effect of Dietary Protein Composition of Weight Loss in Cats

Composition of weight loss

35% protein

45% protein

Muscle (lean)






The results are clear: higher protein foods allow more fat loss and less loss of muscle in animals on reduced calorie diets. These studies were done with grain-based dry foods. We think that the results would be even more striking if the animals were fed high-protein, fresh food diets.

What about dietary fat?

Fat has about twice as many calories per gram as protein and carbohydrate. A very high fat diet may contribute more calories than you want for an overweight animal. The natural – “prey” — diet of dogs and cats has a moderate fat content (20 – 25% on a dry matter basis).  Feeding a very high fat content diet can make the dog or cat gain weight, and may cause health problems. Even feeding natural meat-based diets, it’s easy to feed too much fat.

Bones, for example, may be good entertainment and exercise for your dog—but they are high fat.

Some frozen diets are very high in fat. The ingredient panel tells us the minimum percentage of fat, not the total amount of fat.  For example, a product may have 15% fat by weight, and the manufacturer can list it as 10% (minimum).  Judge the fat content of the food by its look and feel, not by the guaranteed analysis on the label.

Many overweight animals have trouble digesting fat, and are at risk for pancreatitis, so it’s wise to keep the fat level down. If meat is lightly cooked, it’s easy to drain the fat. If you are making your own raw diet, eliminate at least the visible fat.

Good fats, however, should always be included: sardines, fish oil, omega-3 or DHA eggs—all can provide your animals with essential pieces of a sound nutrition program.

Transform your “he’s just a little overweight” dog or cat in simple steps

Your animal should lose weight slowly:  Veterinary experts recommend aiming for 1% of body weight loss per week, with a maximum of 2%.  If the animal loses more than 2% per week, it’s likely that much of that weight loss will be muscle, not the fat loss that’s our goal.

First, evaluate and upgrade the treats you give your animals.

It’s likely that this step alone may help your animals lose weight.

Most treats (“Biscuits” or “Cookies”) are high in grain, a dietary component we want to minimize or eliminate. For example, one medium-sized biscuit may have 25% of a small dog’s calorie ration for the day. Even if they are expensive, organic products, biscuits are almost all grain.

We like to give our animals treats, and we don’t want you to stop. Use small pieces of meat or vegetables and fruit. There are good commercial choices: Charlee Bear Natural Nutrition Snacks provide both meat and vegetables, and freeze-dried or dehydrated meats are available at all pet food store. All these choices are very popular with pets, which don’t care if they aren’t shaped like little hot dogs.

Consider the treats as part of the diet, not extras. Most dogs are much smaller than we are, but we sometimes lose sight of that in handing out goodies: even the best treats still have calories!

Second, feed a fresh food diet appropriate to your animal’s species.


It’s our experience that most dogs and cats lose weight and feel better very quickly on a meat-based, fresh food, diet. However, no matter what you feed your dog or cat, if you feed too much the excess will be stored as fat!

Commercial fresh food diets make feeding a meat-based diet much easier (where they are available). Good canned foods, with no grain, are available in most areas. Canned foods are much closer than dry foods to the natural balance for dogs and cats, since they are higher in protein, fat, and water.

Third, exercise.

For overweight dogs and cats, lifestyle changes may be needed as well as dietary ones. Even a moderate increase in exercise will help improve fitness and energy metabolism.

To learn more about fresh food diets, read See Spot Live Longer.

(1) Purina Nutrition at Work Newsletter, October 2004

(2) Hannah SS, LaFlamme DP. Increased Dietary Protein Spares Lean Body Mass During Weight Loss in Dogs J Vet Int Med. 1998, 12: 224

(3) LaFlamme DP, Hannah SS. Effect of Dietary Protein on Composition of Weight Loss in Cats. Proc. Brit Sm Anim Vet Assoc, April 1998, Birmingham England


copyright Steve Brown and Beth Taylor See Spot Live Longer

this article may be reproduced for educational purposes with the above credits included


~ by naturalpaw on November 18, 2007.

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