Got a Fat Cat? Big Dog?

Paunch IS powerful

. . . but not in a good way

obese cat.jpg

These terms — Fat Cat, Big Dog — have long been used to describe powerful people, and animals. Those at the top of their game. Running the show. Unfortunately, today they’re more often applied literally, describing the state of our beloved pets . . . many of whom are tipping the scales further than is good for them. 

Today, according to the Humane Society of the United States, 40% of dogs and 20-25% of cats are obese, defined as 20% over ideal body weight.

When it comes to excess weight, it’s the same with pets as with humans: it can sneak up on ya! We notice our own weight getting out of control when struggling to zip up our favorite jeans, but it can be harder to recognize the pounds stacking up on our beloved pets.

How to tell? Dogs’ body types vary depending on breed, but for the most part, you should be able to feel the ribs. “They should have a little bit of a waistline,” says Dr. Chea Hall of Murrayhill Veterinary Hospital in Beaverton, OR. With cats, a rounding of the abdomen is a clear sign of a chunky kitty.

Some portly pets may look cute for their roundness, but the risks are truly ugly. Imagine the strain on their joints, having to lug all that extra weight around. Even organs are taxed; they must work much harder to perform their intended functions. The list of health problems — just as with obese humans — is long, and can prematurely age and even kill. 

Just a few extra pounds on a pet can put his or her health at risk. Consider this: four extra pounds on a Siamese cat is like 45 extra pounds on an average woman. Yikes! Another parallel: a 90-pound female Labrador Retriever is like a 5’ 4” female . . . tippng the scales at 186 pounds.

Problems caused by obesity run the gamut, and can include orthopedic and respiratory problems, metabolic and hormonal disorders, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, urinary dysfunctions, and many forms of cancer. Overweight animals also frequently suffer skin discomforts, compromised immune systems, and increased vulnerability to heat. “It not only decreases their lifespan, but their quality of life as well,” says Dr. Hall. 

Genetics can play a role in a pet’s tendency to become overweight. Dog breeds especially at risk include Labs, Beagles, Bulldogs, Pugs, Dachshunds and small Terriers.  

Because neutering and spaying both dogs and cats lowers their metabolic rate, they require fewer calories. That, coupled with hormonal changes, means feeding needs change. Dr. Hall says, “Neutering or spaying in itself does not predispose an animal to obesity; it’s feeding pets the same caloric intake as before they were fixed that causes them to gain.” 

As with people, age also plays a role. Middle-aged pets are at greater risk of obesity than youngsters, and females tend to gain more than their male counterparts. Unfair maybe, but true.

The most common culprit in fat pets? Owner behavior. Dogs can’t resist scrumptious table scraps being offered; cats might not stop nibbling if the food bowl is perennially full. Basically, pets won’t intuitively cut back if they begin feeling less than fit and trim.  

“There is an emotional connection with mealtime,” says Dr. Hall, adding that the majority of weight problems stem from overfeeding with foods such as treats and table scraps. “A tiny bite of steak is like a 12-ouncer to a Chihuahua,” she points out. Owners need to look at everything they feed their pet in a day, says Dr. Hall, and find other ways to experience that emotional connection. 

When it comes to excess weight and obesity in cats and dogs, it’s often “like owner, like pet.”  The majority of pets are prisoners to their owners’ sedentary lifestyles. Remember: precious Fifi or Fido are essentially wild animals. They require activity to keep them stimulated and their metabolism going as it was designed to.  

The most effective treatment for weight loss? Decreasing caloric intake and increasing physical activity. Sound familiar? Yep! Same old story. 

Do have your pet checked by a veterinarian before embarking on a nutrition and/or fitness regime to rule out underlying medical causes of weight gain. And since obesity increases the workload on his heart, it’s vital to know his tolerance for exercise. 

Dr. Hall says your vet will be able to target your pet’s ideal weight for optimum health and how much she should be eating — whatever you’re currently feeding her. The adage, ‘you are what you eat’ holds true for our four-legged friends, so make sure you’re feeding complete, balanced, high-quality food.

“Foods high in fiber will make them feel fuller,” says Dr. Hall, explaining that can help them feel satisfied with less. She recommends scheduled rather than free-feeding (especially for cats) and making mealtime a game. Using Kongs or food bowls with obstacles requiring them to work a little can be helpful for pets who would otherwise bolt their food.

And treats? No, they needn’t be eliminated. Dr. Hall suggests: the ‘break-in-half’ (or thirds or more) reward system. 

Just like people, pets need and thrive with exercise. And it’s easy (and fun!) with a willing, enthusiastic exercise buddy. Get out and walk, play catch, fetch balls. Cats enjoy playing too, with or without cat toys. Swatting rolled-up paper or running up and down on a cat tree burns calories. “Small changes will make a huge difference,” says the doctor. 

Depending on the amount of excess weight, some dogs may tire more quickly, so it’s best to start slow. Swimming is an excellent option.  Being in water supports their body weight, reducing the impact on joints.   

With any strenuous activity, be careful. Some pets don’t know when to stop — it’s up to you to put the brakes on before he ends up sore or injured.

Years of over-indulgence and bad habits could have led to your pet’s pudge. Before you feed another table scrap or treat, consider pampering in a new way. Nothing says real love like a guardian committed to helping a companion get fit and healthy, right along with you.  

OVMA @ The Oregon State Fair 

Visit the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association at the Oregon State Fair (Aug. 27-Sept. 6). This year’s focus is pet obesity. Stop by for tips on getting them fit and trim. They will be giving away portion-control feeding cups and weight loss guides, and you can enter to win healthy food, treats & toys to help. Details:

Get fit with Spot!


The next Spot Walk is happening July 31 at 7pm at Multnomah County Animal Services’s ANIMAL HOUSE Toga Party and Adoptathon in Troutdale. Guest dog walker Alison Eberhard of Dog Scout Troop 192 has created an adventure complete with training stations. Spot’s shindigs are always a good time, and you’ll love Spot Walks and your doggie PETometer. When you’re not attending a Spot Walk, clip on the PETometer and hit the pavement in your own neighborhood. We’re getting fit . . . together! To learn more, contact


Vonnie Harris is a freelance writer, and operator of BowWows & Meows Pet Services of SW WA. She and her brood, Jake and Jessie, both yellow Labs, and parrots Pedro (Yellow-Nape Amazon) and Lorali (African Grey) reside in Vancouver. Vonnie also is “the face of Spot” at many Portland-area pet-related events. Contact her at