Two years ago, I treated an eight year-old Cavachon called Susie. Her owners brought her in because she was sleeping all day, had lost her energy, and only got up to eat. It was clear to me immediately that Susie was grossly overweight – around 30 per cent heavier than she should have been.
If there’s an obesity epidemic amongst humans, it has spread to our pets. News this week revealed nearly half of Britain’s cats are obese, with more than 50,000 suffering from diabetes – a condition so complicated in felines that many are put down upon diagnosis. Another survey has shown that, since the pandemic, dogs have gained on average half a stone.
I see a similar trend every day in my vet clinic, where I measure pets with the body conditioning score (BCS), the animal version of our BMI. It ranges from one (emaciated), where you can see their ribs, spine and pelvis, to five (obese), where the animal has large fat deposits, a distended abdomen and, when you look from above, it bulges rather than narrows around the waist area.
So why are our pets getting so fat?
In the short term, the pandemic is to blame: it’s not just we humans who’ve gained the “lockdown pounds”.
According to a survey from the charity Guide Dogs, the average dog in London gained almost 11lb. Nearly a quarter of owners admitted they gave them extra treats to keep them quiet during Zoom calls or stop them barking at deliveries.
Even more admitted that they take their dog on fewer walks due to longer working hours and struggling with a lack of routine at home. For Labradors in particular, weight gain may have a biological cause. Research at Cambridge found a genetic mutation present in around a quarter, associated with obesity. For each copy of the mutation – which occurred in a gene called POMC – a dog was about 2kg heavier.
Could it be that this extra padding is also due to the emotional relationship we have with our pets? People confuse giving them food with showing them love. And no animal looks happier than when tucking into a tasty treat.
Many people now have a distorted view of what a normal body weight looks like in our pets. Owners of dogs at their optimal body weight are stopped by passers-by who tell them that they are starving their pets. People seem to believe that extra weight is a healthy sign of contentment, or perhaps a sign that their pet is especially cherished.