Is your pet fat? Yes … No … Are you sure?

A recent study into owners’ abilities to determine whether or not their pets are at an ideal weight showed that just about 44 percent of people misidentified their dog’s body condition. The researchers only looked at dog owners, but I suspect the finding would be similar for cat owners, too. This is a big deal because it’s difficult to deal with a problem when people don’t recognize that one exists in the first place.

Not surprisingly, owners most commonly thought that their dogs were thinner than they actually were — but the opposite was also true. Owners of excessively skinny dogs ranked their pet’s body condition closer to the ideal than was true. Oddly, men were almost twice as likely to underestimate their dogs’ body condition in comparison to women. Anyone got an explanation for that?

I’ve dealt with owner misperceptions about body weight all too often as a veterinarian. It happens most frequently with new clients and patients. When I’ve been seeing an adult animal for a while and every time he or she steps on the scale the numbers are a bit (or more than a bit) higher, the reality of the situation is hard to ignore. But with a new client I might say something along the lines of, "Let’s see here, Gizmo weighed in today at 46 pounds. I think his ideal weight is closer to 40. Can we go over some options for weight loss together?"

Sometimes, I’ll get a sheepish grin or a reply like, "I thought he was just big-boned," which indicates to me that the owner already suspected the problem but just didn’t want to deal with it or didn’t think it was a significant issue.

Of course, excess weight is a HUGE health concern for pets. It has been linked to shorter life spans, cancer, arthritis, cruciate ligament ruptures, skin problems, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and hepatic lipidosis in cats, and Cushing’s disease in dogs. Owners shouldn’t shoulder 100 percent of the blame for the pet obesity epidemic, though. Veterinarians generally don’t do a great job hammering home just how dangerous the extra weight can be. It’s an awkward conversation to initiate, particularly if the pet’s owner is overweight also.

Whatever the reason for not dealing with the issue, owners who have a sneaking suspicion that their pets could stand to lose some weight are usually receptive to starting a dialogue about how we should address it. On the other hand, I know I’m in for a loooong and oftentimes unfruitful discussion when an owner reacts with shock (sometimes combined with outrage) after I’ve brought up the topic of weight loss. At least I now know that many of these people honestly think their pets are skinnier than they are.

One of the best ways to objectively analyze your pet’s body shape is to compare it to a standardized chart of canine or feline body condition scores. Take a look. They’re easy to use and might just help you avoid an unpleasant surprise the next time you visit your veterinarian.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Steve Collender / via Shutterstock