Weighty matters: Why keeping your pet’s weight down is so important

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher / Photo

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

As you read my article last week about resolutions and pet exercise, I hope you got a vision in your head about me as a lean, mean fitness machine. Not only do I work as a veterinarian, I exercise my dogs every single day. Those of you who have met me know better, and for everyone else…..I’m not a lean, mean fitness machine. I do work as a veterinarian and I do exercise my dogs every day, but I am still fairly regular, and likely in worse shape than most.

I don’t have kids to take care of, so my full health focus falls on my pets (plus that’s my job!), so go back and re-read my article with this in mind: I have a body fraught with disaster. I’ve had more joint surgeries than I’d like. I don’t need to tell you my age, but rest assured that I’m not that old. I’ve had three femur fractures. So now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, remember that anyone can do it if I (orthopedic disaster that I am) can.

Often I feel like every day is a war between my body and I, but I also know that the way to find a cease-fire is to stay in the best shape that I can. For better or worse, I have two dogs that do not get tired. They could run for hours without a break, and that would just be their warm-up. They are the lean, mean fitness machines that I know I will never be. The good news is that I know that I can keep them that way, and that job is important to me. I don’t need to make fitness resolutions, because my dogs keep me 1000 percent accountable to daily exercise, and I know that my body and I remain at a delicate truce only because of this. I don’t run up mountainsides, I don’t do marathons, and I don’t cross train. I simply walk at whatever pace the day dictates while my dogs run laps and stay happy.

People often ask me how much their pet should weigh. I need to feel a pet, see their current body weight, and know what they are eating to answer this. We give pets a BCS (body condition score) that helps guide us. Ideal is 4-5 out of 9. Pets should have an abdominal tuck when viewed from the side and a waist when viewed from above. Ribs should be felt with minimal pressure, and the same with the spine. Often what people think is “too thin” is perfect. I can’t tell you the number of times that strangers have told me my animals are too skinny, when in fact I make sure to maintain them at an ideal. Start giving your pet a BCS. Some of this comes from practice, but you can find very good BCS guides online and start at home too. And these are the reasons why I keep my pets thin.

Joint health

Pets that are an ideal weight are less prone to developing arthritis. They also maintain better with less pain once arthritis is already present. Exercise also promotes strong muscles and ligaments, which decrease the strain on joints. Regular movement with less weight helps the bones, the cartilage and the joint fluid function more effectively.

Organ health

Increased fat leads to a higher workload on the heart. It also leads to more fat within the chest and abdomen, which makes it harder for organs to work as efficiently. Overweight cats who stop eating are prone to developing fatty liver disease. In these situations, the body starts mobilizing fat for energy at too high of a rate to make up for what the cat isn’t eating. This in turn leads to liver failure.

Fat itself is now recognized as an inflammatory organ. This means that by just being present, excess adipose increases the amount of inflammation the body has to deal with. This leads to many types of health problems, including general immunosuppression. I often feel that people don’t understand the significance of this when I tell them. Essentially, the extra fat that they carry is a ticking time bomb, and while it ticks, it throws off harmful rays.


Part of the role that fat plays in cancer isn’t understood, and part of it is from the inflammatory activities of fat cells. While cancer is a sad reality in far too many pets’ lives regardless of what we do, we also know that keeping pets at a lean body condition score does decrease their risk of cancer.

So, if you needed some extra motivation on those days you really don’t want to exercise, here is a synopsis: Your pet will live up to 25 percent longer and have less joint pain. They will have less chance of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and liver failure. Their immune system will be healthier, which in turn helps prevent a lot of diseases. I will keep this short and sweet, but put those reasons on flash cards to help motivate you on days when you need it. Keep a pet weight chart and an exercise chart, and keep their health in mind as you make 2018 the year that your resolutions stick.

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher is a veterinarian at All Points Animal Care in Rutland. Have a question on this or any animal health topic? E-MAIL: petdocanna@gmail.com

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