Advice for Pet Owners

(Courtesy of Dr. Ernie Ward)
Ernie Ward
President of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention
Wednesday, January 21, 2009; 12:00 PM

Overweight pets increase their risk of heart disease, osteoarthritis, several types of cancer and a host of other illnesses.

Ernie Ward,a veterinarian and president of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, will discuss how to maintain a healthy weight for your pet and possibly lengthen his life. Ward is also an Ironman triathlete, certified personal trainer and an accredited USA triathlon coach.

He was online Wednesday, January 21, at noon ET to discuss weight control for pets.

Please join us again Wednesday, January 28, for another discussion on pet care with the Animal Doctor Michael W. Fox at 11 a.m. ET. And check out's pets section any time!


Dr. Ernie Ward: I'd like to thank you for your interest in this important pet tropic. Pet obesity is now the second most common medical condition seen in veterinary practices in the US. It's second to periodontal disease, or poor oral health.

How Big is Pet Obesity?

The numbers are staggering. Veterinary industry estimates calculate that pet obesity costs pet owners almost $20 million per year. That's a lot of dog biscuits! In our nationwide 2007 study, we found the following results:

All Dogs and Cats

-An Estimated 48% of All Pets in the United States are Overweight or Obese

-An Estimated 15% of All US Pets are Obese

-An Estimated 78 million US Dogs and Cats are Overweight or Obese

-An Estimated 25 million US Pets are Obese


-An Estimated 43% of US Dogs are Overweight or Obese (BCS 3-4)

-An Estimated 10% of US Dogs are Obese (BCS 4)

-Over 32 million US Dogs are Overweight or Obese

-Almost 8 million US Dogs are Obese


-An Estimated 53% of US Cats are Overweight or Obese (BCS 3-4)

-An Estimated 19% of US Cats are Obese (BCS 4)

-Over 46 million US Cats are Overweight or Obese

-Almost 17 million US Cats are Obese

Our 2008 study was conducted in October 2008. The preliminary results are very similar to 2007. The final study results should be available by the end of February at .

But why should you worry if your cat or dog is slightly heavy? Excess weight, even as little as two pounds in a cat or small dog and five pounds in a larger dog, increase that pet's risk of developing:

-Type 2 diabetes

-Cancer - especially cats

-Pancreatitis - especially dogs

-Lower urinary tract problems

-Arthritis and other musculoskeletal disorders

-Respiratory issues

-Delayed wound healing

-Increased anesthetic risk

-Reduced life expectancy

The bottom line: if you want your pet to live a long and healthy life (and save money on medical bills), you'll keep them lean.

Is My Pet Fat?

How can you tell if your pet is overweight? Here are some simple guidelines you can perform at home or with your veterinarian:

Body Condition Scoring

There are two common body condition score (BCS) systems used by veterinarians to help determine a pet's ideal weight. One is based on a scale of 1 to 9 (1=emaciated, 9=morbidly obese) and the other is a 1 to 5 scale (1=emaciated, 5=obese). I prefer a 1 to 5 scale because of its simplicity. Whatever scale you use, be sure to ask your veterinarian to perform a BCS on your pet during each examination.

1 - Ribs, spine and bony protrusions are easily seen at a distance. These pets have lost muscle mass and there is no observable body fat. Emaciated, bony, and starved in appearance.

2 - Ribs, spine and other bones are easily felt. These pets have an obvious waist when viewed from above and an abdominal tuck. Thin, lean or skinny in appearance.

3 - Ribs and spine are easily felt but not necessarily seen. There is a waist when viewed from above and the abdomen is raised and not sagging when viewed from the side. Normal, ideal, and often muscular in appearance.

4 - Ribs and spine are hard to feel or count underneath fat deposits. Waist is distended or often pear-shaped when viewed from above. The abdomen sags when seen from the side. There are typically fat deposits on the hips, base of tail and chest. Overweight, heavy, husky or stout.

5 - Large fat deposits over the chest, back, tail base and hindquarters. The abdomen sags prominently and there is no waist when viewed from above. The chest and abdomen often appear distended or swollen. Obese.

Shedding Excess Pounds

Most pets will benefit from a specially-formulated reduced calorie food. It is important to note that safe and sustainable weight loss does not involve starvation or deprivation. If a pet owner decides to simply reduce the amount of food they're feeding, they may inadvertently create nutritional deficiencies or provide inadequate protein or essential nutrients that can result in muscle loss and illness. Your veterinarian will guide you through a safe weight loss program designed to improve lean muscle mass and overall health.

I prefer canned foods for cats that need to slim down. As few as 10 extra kibbles per day can add up to a pound of weight gain over a year. Cats benefit from the additional water found in wet foods and you are able to more accurately control the number of calories you're feeding. And did I mention most cats love a juicy meal?

Aerobic exercise is another important aspect of safe weight loss, especially for dogs. You should strive to take your dog for a brisk walk for twenty to thirty minutes per day. Avoid excessive stops to check the "pee-mail" or investigate a curious smell. Walking for fitness is different than a leisurely stroll. If you break a light sweat you're at the right pace!

For cats, try playing with feather-dancers, remote-controlled toys or play "find the food." Divide your cat's food into small soy sauce bowls and distribute them around your house. This will force lazy cats to get moving. Place the bowls high and low to make them jump or climb to reach their reward.

The final simple step to weight loss is also the easiest: stop feeding high-calorie treats! Even tiny treats can contain one-quarter to one-half a pet's total daily calories! Substitute vegetables such as baby-carrots, broccoli, celery, and other crunchy healthy treats. For cats, I recommend discontinuing all treats. Due to their low daily calorie requirements, even tiny treats can sabotage your weight loss plans.


"Flabrador" Retriever question: A neighbor has one of the stocky Labs who is a terrible mooch, pestering constantly for food/snacks. She generally gives in...He has many joint issues due to his weight -- most recently 105 lbs. He also pants and huffs at even minor exertion. Other than starvation, do you have any guidance?

Dr. Ernie Ward: Weight loss is never about starvation or deprivation. Treats, snacks and assorted goodies will sabotage even the best diets. This dog's joints, heart and respiratory health are all in danger. She should have the dog tested for hypothyroidism and other underlying medical conditions before starting a weight loss program. No starving allowed!


St. Louis, Mo.: My dog is overweight, and I've been cutting back on her food based on my vet's recommendation. Last night she got into her food and ate about a week's worth of food. Now I'm not sure what to do about feeding her -- do I feed her the same amount in spite of her overeating, or should I give her just a little bit over the next week because she's eaten so much at one time? I don't want to starve her, but I don't want her to be overeating.

Dr. Ernie Ward: Great question, one we get often! When dogs "binge eat", you really can't undo the damage by restricting excessive calories the following week. The best advice is to adhere to your dietary guidelines and try to increase aerobic exercise by 20 - 30 percent each day the following week. In other words, burn those "binge calories".


Jack Sprat and His Cage Mate: Thanks for taking my question! Back in August, my partner and I adopted two kittens from a shelter (they were four months old then, one male and one female, both fixed, not litter mates but cage mates). The male kitten has grown as expected, and is thinnish but very active and healthy. The female cat is... obese is putting it lightly. She looks like she swallowed my dog. I wish I could post a picture. She's not a year old yet, but should we switch her to weight-management food and feed them separately and all that? At the moment they're on Iams Kitten kibble and we fill the bowls a couple of times a day. Fat Girl doesn't play as much as the other cat; she mostly lies around, but she's extremely sweet and loves attention. What should we do? Thanks again!

Dr. Ernie Ward: Thanks for sharing your story -- you're not alone.

First bit of advice -- have your kitty examined by your veterinarian. You want to be safe and ensure that you're not dealing with a medical issue.

The fact is that we are seeing overweight and obese pets as young as 8 to 10 months of age. For this discussion, because I can't examine your kitty, I'll assume she's reached skeletal maturity.

I recommend separate feeding for most multi-cat households. It's not as hard as your might think. Simply pour the alloted amount of food into each bowl, separate them by a foot or more, and observe. The first few days they may continue to "graze" or slowly eat. After 20 to 30 minutes, pick up the bowls until the next feeding. Sure, you'll have to endure some complaints, but cats are intelligent beings. They'll catch on quickly. This will also prevent "bowl-bullies" from preventing a smaller or subordinate cat to eat. This is more common than you'd imagine. For most cats, twice daily feeding is adequate. For obese patients, I'll often increase the number of small feedings to four to six per day, based on the owner's schedule.

If your kitty is skeletally mature, I would recommend changing to one of the calorically-restricted diets. This should only be done under the supervision of your veterinarian. Obese cats can have serious complications if they don't eat or consume too few calories.

Also, avoid any cat treats. I call them "calorie grenades" because they contain so much energy or calories in such a small package. If you must give a treat, give a pinch (PINCH = 3/4-inch flake, not chunk) or salmon or tuna. Healthy, protein, not too many calories.

As for activity, try to engage your cat in play for five minutes two to three times per day. Feather-dancers, remote-controlled toys, balls, paper bags, whatever floats your kitty's boat! Just get them moving!

If you get your cat down to a normal weight of 8 to 10 pounds, she's much more likely to live a long life -- 15 to 20 years -- and avoid much suffering and cost associated with weight-related disorders such as diabetes, cancer and arthritis. Think of your efforts today as an investment in all the purrs and scratches you'll share in the future. Good luck!


Somerset, Mass.: Is it safe to feed a dog canned sardines packed only in water? They seem to be a good source of calcium and fish oil. We have two pit terriers and they already eat blueberries, chopped apples and canned pumpkin along with Pinnacle dry kibble. I give them omega 3 oil tabs daily but thought the sardines could be a tasty treat. Thank you!

Dr. Ernie Ward: Great snack and one I personally recommend. Just be sure to keep the portions small, even in larger dogs. Feed more veggies! Keep the fruit portions small because that is where the calories can come from. Keep up the good work.


Charlottesville, Va.: My two male mix dogs (one mix beagle, one mix ?), each weigh a little over 40 lbs. and get moderate excercise, get the following to eat daily: 1 1/4 c.low cal. lamb/rice dry food (Calif. Natural) 1 big spoonful lamb/rice canned meat (Whole Foods) 1 T. oil blend for coat (safflower,sunflower) 1 T. lo-fat plain organic yogurt 1 t. brewers yeast That is in the morning. In the evening, they get two 100 percent dried sweet potato treats and one to two rawhide chewies. They are both large in the chest and appear to be somewhat overweight. Is there something I need to stop giving them?

Dr. Ernie Ward: Without knowing your specific pets, the caloric quantities seem high. I like your overall approach. I'm just concerned about the total volume and number of calories. You definitely want to have them evaluated by your vet and tested for hypothyroidism. Also, carefully (and truthfully) evaluate the actual amount of aerobic (brisk walk, working up a sweat) activity they are actually receiving. Add up those calories, visit your vet and keep up the exercise.


Overweight cat: Hello. Thanks so much for doing this chat. I have a 4-year-old female short hair cat who is overweight. I have a multiple cat household but do my best to feed her separately (so that she doesn't have access to food throughout the day). She gets about 1 1/2 cans of wet food (Wellness) a day, split up between morning and evening and a sprinkling of dry food at night. I live in a small apartment so exercise is limited. Any suggestions as to how I can try and get her to lose weight? Thank you.

Dr. Ernie Ward: First of all, we need to look at the caloric content of the food. Most cats only need about 160 - 180 kcals per day. As for exercise, refer to my intro and visit Try feeding the food on elevated surfaces to make them jump. It is vital that you separate the food. (see other response) Cats are the big story when it comes to obesity.


Arlington, Va.: My cat is 12+ years-old and falls into the overweight/obese category. I've been feeding him Science Diet's dry low cal/low hairball food. Would he be getter off eating something for "mature" cats?

Dr. Ernie Ward: Yes, but more importantly from a restricted calorie diet. Remember that "low cal" diets are still formulated for maintenance. When we restrict maintenance diets, we run the risk of reducing vital micronutrients.


Washington, DC: My cat is the sweetest and very affectionate. However, sometimes after petting her for awhile she begins to bite. It is usually playful and affectionate biting but it hurts. Why do cats do that and how do I get her to understand that it hurts?

Dr. Ernie Ward: This is typically normal cat behavior. If you e-mail me at, I can give you more information. If she is obese and biting you, well, that's another story...


Cleveland, OH: On the advice of my vet, I work hard to limit my cat's food intake to help him maintain a healthy weight. It's just that it seems he's so -hungry- all the time! Breaking into the pantry, jumping on the counters to get food, whining for food, etc. Is that just regular mischievous cat behavior, or should I take another look at the makeup of his food?

Dr. Ernie Ward: Many of these cats do have abnormal behaviors when it comes to feeding habits. One of the simplest tactics I use is small, frequent feedings. Some of my patients will be fed 6-8 times a day. Make sure that your cat is tested for hyperthyroidism. Sometimes it takes tough love (and a lot of patience) with these cats. You can do it! Maybe it's time to start a fat cat support group.


Phoenix, Ariz.: I have a 1-year-old mutt, mid-size, 50+ pounds, that has a propensity to be chunky as that's everyone's comment when they first see her, even her vet. I feed her three cups of dry food split between two feedings, less if I combine with human food. I limit her treats to one to two per day. She eats everything and always appears hungry. Is it okay to have a chunky dog because she seems healthy otherwise. Am I overfeeding her? I try to walk her every day -- but often its only around the block (15 minutes). She would love more exercise, but its a resolution I'm working on for 2009. Question: should I reduce what I give her to eat?

Dr. Ernie Ward: Even a few excess pounds can have serious health consequences. In the past decade, we have learned that fat isn't just a "lump" of inert tissue that is unsightly but rather a highly dynamic tissue that secretes numerous, potentially dangerous hormones. "Chunky" is not healthy. I like your resolution about increased exercise. That is probably the key with your dog. Replace the treats with veggies such as carrots, broccoli, asparagus, etc. and try to get in 30 minutes of brisk walking each day, more on the weekends.


Clifton, Va.: Both my rough collies herd, and I monitor their weight weekly as does my herding instructor. If I cant feel their ribs running my hands down their sides then its time to cut back on food and treats. Some folks believe my collies are under weight. My boy just turned 10 years old, is 24 inches at the shoulder and weighs 54 pounds, and my girl is 22 inches at the shoulder and weighs 43 pounds at 3 years old. Once at my vets we met another collie owner who had a collie male about the same height as my boy and he weighed 102 pounds. Both my collies are elite athletes and working dogs. Unlike agility they need to be able to work at a trial for 10 minutes to 30 minutes, not 45 seconds and if need be all day. If you cant feel your dogs ribs he/she is overweight.

Dr. Ernie Ward: This is what I call the normalization of obesity. We've become so used to seeing overweight pets and people that when we see a normal, lean individual they appear "skinny" to us. Sounds like you are doing a great job and I bet your dogs love you for all the play.


Silver Spring, Md.: My cat is almost 2 years old. He plays and runs around the apartment and when I last saw my vet, she said I was feeding him the right amount. When I do feed him dry food, I toss it so he has to run for the food. My question is regarding the physical signs of obesity. My cat looks fit except for a lack of abdominal tuck. He has a little "waddle" that hangs down. It isn't round like I would expect. Is this leftover from when his previous owner overfed him or is it a sign that I'm still overfeeding/under exercising him?

Dr. Ernie Ward: Great question and hard to answer without seeing your pet. I rely on a cat's length which is similar to a human's height and their weight. Most cats are 19-21 inches long and should weigh 8-10 pounds. I'm amazed at the number of 20 inch cats that weigh 14 pounds -- clearly obese. Good luck. Hopefully "kitty tummy tucks" won't be the next big thing.


Beagles: My friend had two obese Beagles and her vet was really on her case to get them to slim down, even though she swore she was following his feeding advice exactly. Then they put in an electric fence and the dogs started slimming down. It turned out they had been getting handouts/getting into the neighbors' garbage and so supplementing their diet with things that weren't on the list!

Dr. Ernie Ward: Very common and thanks for bringing that up. People need to let their friends, family and neighbors know when they are trying to shed excess pounds from their pets. Tell the neighbor or friend to take them for a walk around the block or play with them whenever they feel compelled to give them goodies.


Arlington, Va.: I have two male overweight cats; they are brothers. One is really overweight, the other is only slightly overweight. We used to let them graze on dry food but now have a timed, wet food diet for them. We feed them a half a can in the morning and a half a can in the evening each. We feed them separately, and different canned food based on each of their individual needs. The problem is, now, all they do is beg for food. It never seems to stop. I am worried that they are seriously hungry, but I am also annoyed that I cannot sleep past 4 am. Am I feeding them enough? How can I get them to relax and get used to this new routine? FYI: we made the switch approximately two months ago, but we recently moved which may have added to stress for the kitties. Thanks so much for taking my question.

Dr. Ernie Ward: You are doing a lot of good things here and this is a common complaint. Small, frequent feedings work well for many cats. Give them their last meal as late as possible to help curtail "midnight munchies." You have to close doors and be patient. Invest in a good white noise machine. You will get through this and their schedule will adjust once they stop getting their way.


Atlanta, Ga.: Dr. Ward, do you have any suggestions for a dog that just won't stop licking? My Dachshund is almost 2 and had developed the very annoying habit of licking the same spot over and over, to the point where his fur is totally soaking wet, as well as whatever surface he happens to be laying on. We did have fleas at one point, a few months back, but have since eradicated them. The licking started around that time, but shouldn't it have stopped with the elimination of the fleas? I'm worried that he'll lick himself bald. What can I do? Thank you!

Dr. Ernie Ward: Sounds like your dog is working on his "licker license." My concern is that this is a very common behavioral condition know as "acral lick granuloma." This is most often associated with anxiety disorders or secondary coping mechanism. See your veterinarian. Based on your exam findings and medical history, your veterinarian has a wide variety of treatment options available. Good luck!


Arlington, Va.: Dear Dr. Ward, thank you for taking my question. My boyfriend has two indoor male cats (each is about one year old), which he keeps in a glass-enclosed sunroom since I'm allergic. It gets very cold in that room, and we were wondering the best way to care for them in wintery temps. Do they need anything extra-warm to remain healthy? Should they be given specific foods or vitamins? One appeared to be losing weight last week but has since seemed to gain it back. Thanks in advance for your help!

Dr. Ernie Ward: I'm in North Carolina and I get concerned when our patients are exposed to temperatures less than 40F. Provide ample bedding, a box or other carrier and perhaps a heat lamp (safely out of reach) to warm the room. Cooler temperatures require more calories to maintain body temperature so you may need to increase calories slightly if they are chronically exposed. Sounds like they are doing okay -- keep them warm. Omega 3 fatty acid supplements and a good multi-vitamin are recommended.


Fairfax, Va.: Vets don't recommend specific foods or servings. You have to assume the people who put the serving recommendations on pet food packaging know what they are doing. How do you know whether you are feeding your dog too much, too little or just the right amount?

Dr. Ernie Ward: Your veterinarian should recommend specific foods and serving sizes. As for food labels, you are correct. It's hard even for me to get information from some pet food manufacturers. The "proof is in the pudding" when it comes to whether or not you are feeding too many calories. Overweight dogs are simply receiving too many calories. Thanks for the great comment.


Cleveland, OH: I have a 15 pound (not actually fat, just large) tabby and I occasionally will give him bits of plain cooked chicken as a treat. Is that a good treat for him or could that be too high in calories?

Dr. Ernie Ward: It may be time for a get real moment. A healthy 15 pound cat is a really big cat. Think 23+ inches. Plain cooked chicken as a treat in very small amounts (1/2 inch cubes) is okay. Remember 1/2 of a chicken breast with no skin has over 140 calories. A better snack options is salmon or tuna in no more than 1" flakes. Refer to the other comments for weight loss tips.


New Jersey: My cat is not obese, but she absolutely will not eat any canned food. I've tried wetting her dry food too. I've tried mixing canned and dry. I've tried tempting with tuna. Nothing. It isn't a problem now, but getting medication down her, or getting her used to soft food in case she loses any more teeth (she was a shelter cat with gum disease), will be a problem. Any ideas? She is a very timid, and rigid, cat who is nevertheless good and loving.

Dr. Ernie Ward: Many medications can be formulated in transdermal or liquid formulations that may help you. Talk to your veterinarian about alternatives to pills. We avoid pills in cats whenever possible.


Alexandria, Va.: When you say you recommend discontinuing all treats for cats, does that include freeze-dried salmon? This has no other ingredients except salmon, so it seems to me that it wouldn't have any more calories than regular food if integrated as part of a sensible diet.

Dr. Ernie Ward: I am a firm believer in treats. As you have seen from many of my answers salmon and tuna are great treat choices for cats. The key is to keep it in small portions. Many times the treats people are giving have the same number of calories as a meal.


Follow-up question on Overweight Cat: Hello. Thank you for answering my question about my overweight cat in a multi-cat household. You recommend low calorie foods, however I am torn with using the low calorie foods because I don't really trust what the cat food makers are putting in those low calorie foods (I think low calorie food contributed to my dog's death a few years ago due to cancer). I like using Wellness because they use good quality (human grade) ingredients. You said that 160 to 180 is a good amount of kcals for a cat -- can I just try and feed her that amount of kcals (the food label says that a 5.5 oz can contains approximately 220 calories, so use that as a guide). Again, I am not a fan of the low calorie foods. Thanks!

Dr. Ernie Ward: Sorry to hear about your dog. You should be feeding the correct number of calories based on your cat's size and needs. That is a lot of calories in a small amount so be careful. I wish cat foods were formulated with realistic caloric contents that better reflect today's primarily indoor cat needs. Good luck.


Arlington, Va.: I think the cat weight guidelines need to have a footnote that there is variation amongst breeds. People that own Maine Coons for example know that these giants can get significantly bigger than your typical house cat.

Dr. Ernie Ward: Maine Coons are typically much longer than 19-21 inches. Thanks for the comment.


Washington DC: Hi Dr Ward. I have a 10-year-old female spayed Scottie. She gets dry skin in winter (her weight is good -- 18 pounds, and a nice "waist"). Any recommendations? Thanks!

Dr. Ernie Ward: Omega 3 Fatty Acid supplements are a great start. Most cases of dry skin are related to diet. Make sure it is not due to hypothyroidism or other hormonal imbalance. Sounds like she has a nice waist!


Dr. Ernie Ward: Thank you again for your interest in bettering your pets' lives.

The love you share with your pet is a special and unique bond. As a veterinarian, it is our duty to uphold that bond and help you enjoy your pet for as long as possible. I feel so fortunate to be able to work with people such as yourselves who care so much for our furry friends. Be safe and be well.

For more information on pet weight issues, visit

Caring for pets and helping people,

Dr. Ernie


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