Talking with U of M

Talking healthy pet weight with U of M

Dog and owner walk through the snow
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Overeating can affect more than just humans — it can affect your pets too. Julie Churchill, DVM, Ph.D., DACVIM-Nutrition, shares her expert comment on how to prevent or treat unhealthy weight gain in pets during the winter season. 

Q. How can you tell the difference between a pet who is overweight instead of just large?  
Dr. Churchill:
In general, the best way to assess the healthy 'size' of a pet is by assessing the dog or cat's Body Condition Score (BCS). This is a system similar to humans when our health care team checks our BMI (body mass index) because it represents one aspect of a health assessment, or helps identify health risks. BCS is a nine-point scale and five points is a healthy ideal. Each score above five represents approximately 10% overweight. Pet parents can learn to check their pet's BCS and we recommend every pet owner do so once a month.

Q. What's the definition of pet obesity?
Dr. Churchill:
Obesity is defined as 30% above a pet's healthy ideal weight. Almost 60% of the U.S. cat population and 54% of dogs that seek regular veterinary care are overweight or obese. For small dogs or cats it doesn't take much weight gain for them to become overweight or obese. For example, a typical adult healthy domestic shorthair cat should weigh eight pounds. As little as two to two-and-a-half pounds in weight gain would mean this cat is obese, weighing in at just over 10 pounds.

Q. What are the most common health risks for overweight pets?  
Dr. Churchill:
There are many health risks associated with unhealthy weight gain because excess body fat produces inflammatory compounds in the body and creates a state of chronic inflammation. Overweight pets are at risk of other diseases such as arthritis and mobility problems, diabetes mellitus, lower urinary tract diseases, skin diseases and more. Simply put, an overweight pet is at risk of other health problems, reduced quality of life and even a significantly shortened life span.

Q.  What are your top tips for helping your pet lose weight safely?
Dr. Churchill: 

  • Have your pet’s healthcare team teach you to perform a body condition assessment and do this monthly. Also ask your pet's healthcare team to assess the pet's body weight and BCS at every veterinary visit. 
  • Ask for new food/feeding recommendations at the time of your pet’s spay or neuter surgery because this will lower their daily calorie needs by 25-30%.
  • Recognize unhealthy weight gain early, so you pick up small changes before they become big problems.
  • Measure and monitor the amount of food you give your pet each day. Ask your vet team for assistance. The feeding guides on the pet food bag may overestimate the amount an overweight-prone individual needs.
  • Keep pets active with 30-60 minutes of daily activity. Cats may increase their activity through feeding puzzles, toys, etc.
  • If your pet gains an unhealthy amount of weight, take them to a veterinarian for help with a healthy weight loss plan to assure healthy, slow weight loss.

Q. When is it time to connect with your vet and what can they do?
Dr. Churchill:
If your pet is 20% over their healthy weight, which is what they weighed at one year of age, it is important for the veterinary team to be consulted before beginning a weight loss plan. For instance, cats have unique nutrition needs and can develop other health problems if weight is lost too quickly. Because they are the expert in your individual pet's health needs, your veterinarian can make sure your pet will meet all of their nutritional needs while achieving healthy weight loss with an individualized feeding and exercise plan.

Julie Churchill, DVM, Ph.D. DACVIM-Nutrition, is a professor of nutrition in the College of Veterinary Medicine. 


About the College of Veterinary Medicine
The University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine affects the lives of animals and people every day through educational, research, service, and outreach programs. Established in 1947, the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine is Minnesota’s only veterinary college. Fully accredited, the college has graduated over 4,000 veterinarians and hundreds of scientists. The college is also home to the Veterinary Medical Center, the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, the Leatherdale Equine Center and The Raptor Center. To learn more, visit

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