Obesity and Diabetes: An Epidemic Amongst People and Pets



If you’re like me, you’ve become used to hearing about theastronomical incidence of obesity and diabetes within the United States. And, predictions of how many of our children will ultimately develop diabetes is downright scary. Given this information, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn that two recent surveys demonstrate that the incidence of obesity and diabetes is also on the rise in our dogs and cats.

Obesity survey

Every year, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) conducts a survey that tracks the prevalence of obesity in dogs and cats. The 2015 survey assessed 1,224 dogs and cats who received wellness examinations within 136 veterinary clinics. For every animal, a body condition score (BCS) was assessed and reported. This score was based on a five-point scale as well as the animal’s actual body weight. The animals were then classified as being ideal, underweight, overweight, or obese.

The APOP survey revealed that approximately 58% of the cats and 54% of the dogs evaluated were overweight or obese. Wow, these percentages are striking! Based on body size alone, more than half of our pets have a significant health issue!

The APOP defines obesity as an animal being 30 percent or more above ideal body weight. APOP board member, Dr. Steve Budsberg, notes that there is a lack of consensus amongst veterinarians about exactly how obesity is defined. “Our profession hasn’t agreed on what separates ‘obese” from ‘overweight.’ These words have significant clinical meaning and affect treatment recommendations.”

The APOP is pushing for the adoption of a universal pet BCS  system. Doing so would allow veterinarians to more consistently and accurately assess their patients, report their findings, interpret veterinary research, and communicate with colleagues and clients. According to Dr. Julie Churchill, another APOP board member, “There are currently three major BCS scales used worldwide. We need a single standard to ensure all veterinary health care team members are on the same page.”

Another APOP board member, Dr. Ernie Ward, takes this one step further. “By defining obesity as a disease, many veterinarians will take the condition more seriously and be compelled to act rather than ignore this serious health threat.” I couldn’t agree more. Having practiced veterinary medicine for over 30 years, it’s clear to me that there is a lack of consensus amongst my colleagues about exactly how to define pet obesity and what to do about it.

Diabetes survey

Every year for the past several years, Banfield Pet Hospital has issued forth a State of Pet Health Report. Their 2016 report, released on April 20, draws on data from approximately 2.5 million dogs and 500,000 cats in more than 900 hospitals across the United States. Now, that’s a whole lot of animals!

This report demonstrated a 79.7 percent increase in dogs with diabetes between 2006 and 2015 with 23.6 cases per 10,000 dogs. Over this same time frame, the incidence of feline diabetes increased by 18.1 percent. This translates into 67.6 cases per 10,000 cats.

The highest incidence of canine diabetes in 2015 was found in Kentucky, Wisconsin, Nevada, Montana, and Iowa. Feline diabetes rates were highest in Arkansas, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. That’s a double whammy for the state of Wisconsin!

The increased incidence of diabetes, particularly in dogs, is astounding to me. While there are a number of factors that may be responsible for this increase, I’ve no doubt that obesity plays a significant role.

Discussing obesity can be tricky

Frankly speaking, eating too much and exercising too little are traits sometimes shared between people and their pets. If my client isn’t exercising, it is likely that my patient isn’t either. For some folks, food becomes the “language of love,” the way they bestow affection upon their four-legged family members. Additionally, I believe many people develop blinders that prevent them from recognizing just how heavy their pet has become.

Now, picture this. A veterinarian is examining an obese patient. Alongside this patient is the client who is also overweight. Naming the diagnosis of obesity and recommending weight loss can be tricky business. The veterinarian likely has concerns about offending the overweight client, so much so that discussion about the pet’s weight problem may be limited or it may not happen at all. Imagine what you would say if you were in the veterinarian’s shoes.

My modus operandi has always been to have very frank conversation about what I know- being overweight is a significant health problem. I remind myself that the client before me truly loves their pet and, like me, wants that delightful animal to live just as long a life as possible. With this perspective I can boldly talk about the fact that their overweight pet is predisposed to a variety of maladies such as osteoarthritis, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. I discuss body condition scoring and as well as weight loss strategies. With this approach, I believe (hope) that I reduce the number of clients who are put off by the “weight loss conversation.” Bottom line, treatment followed by prevention of obesity translates into one of the best health insurance policies possible.

Check out how to assess your pet’s body condition score (BCS). Next, provide me with a photo of your dog or cat and the BCS you came up with. I will be sure to enter your name into a drawing for your choice of a copy of Speaking for Spot or Your Dog’s Best Health. I’ll also let you know if I think you are on the right track with the BCS you chose.

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.






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2 Comments on “Obesity and Diabetes: An Epidemic Amongst People and Pets

  1. It is amazing how little food it takes to keep a dog at a low, healthy weight. I think this is difficult for many owners to get their minds around. Putting down that little half cup of kibble twice a day can’t possibly be enough, so they throw in more.(Not to mention, most dog food bags recommend a serving size that is way too big as it makes the owner use up the food and buy more!). Also, dogs are consummate beggars, and work their owners quite well. So many factors go into an overweight dog.

  2. Pet overweight, like people’s is a chronic problem for the life of the pet. One of my dogs is going to need a reduced calorie kibble, or even a weight loss formula, indefinitely. When we use the same food for her and her svelte housemate she gains back whatever she’s lost. A vet has to make it clear that that pet’s weight is always going to have to be managed by the client-the pet can’t ever again be left to their own devices.

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