Everyone knows fat cats are adorable. Don’t believe it? A quick browse through the #catsofinstagram hashtag should convince you. Unfortunately, pet obesity has become a growing concern for both veterinarians and pet owners.
Dogs and cats carrying too much extra weight is a widespread problem: a 2022 survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that over half of all domestic cats and dogs in the U.S. are overweight, with 61% and 59% of cats and dogs, respectively, classified as obese.
Animal obesity can hurt your pet's health, your emotional well-being and your finances — even if you have one of the best pet insurance policies. In light of this, responsible pet owners should understand the causes of pet obesity and take appropriate measures to care for their overweight pets.
Here’s a rundown of what an overweight dog or cat can cost you, along with ways you can cushion the blow.
Table of Contents
- What causes obesity in pets?
- The top 10 obesity-related medical issues for pets
- How to care for your overweight pet
- Can pet insurance relieve the costs of pet obesity?
- Buying pet insurance for your overweight cat or dog
- How to tell if your dog is overweight
- How to tell if your cat is overweight
- How to help an overweight dog lose weight
- How to help an overweight cat lose weight
- Summary of our guide on how to care for overweight dogs and cats
What causes obesity in pets?
Many factors can lead to obesity in cats and dogs, including age and being neutered. Certain breeds have a greater likelihood of being obese, such as popular dogs like Labrador and Golden retrievers and cats including Persians and Maine Coons.
If you have overweight pets, be sure to take them to a vet to rule out any underlying conditions that may cause weight gain.
Some of the most common causes of pet obesity include:
- Overeating: Like humans, feeding pets too much food, including frequent treats or table scraps, can lead to weight gain.
- Lack of exercise: Limited physical activity can significantly contribute to weight gain. If pets don't engage in regular playtime or exercise, they may not burn enough calories to maintain a healthy weight.
- Poor diet: Low-quality commercial pet foods or an unbalanced homemade diet may not meet your pet’s nutritional needs and provide an excess of calories that cause weight gain.
- Genetics: Some dog and cat breeds are at a higher risk of obesity, including Basset Hounds, Rottweilers and others
- Age: As pets age, their metabolism begins to slow and they may require fewer calories and some changes to their diet.
- Neutering/spaying: Neutering or spaying can slow down your pet’s metabolism, leading to weight gain.
The top 10 obesity-related medical issues for pets
Obese cats and obese dogs are prone to several health complications that can significantly impact your pet's quality of life.
2. Bladder/urinary tract disease
3. Soft tissue trauma (bruise or contusion)
4. Torn ligaments in the knee
5. Liver disease
6. Low thyroid hormone
7. Diseased disc in the spine
9. Chronic kidney disease
10. Heart failure
1. Bladder/urinary tract disease
2. Chronic kidney disease
4. Liver disease
7. High blood pressure
8. Soft tissue trauma (bruise or contusion)
9. Heart failure
10. Gallbladder disorder
Now let’s look at some of the priciest conditions listed above, starting with diabetes.
Diabetes is rooted in the body’s inability to secrete or respond to the insulin hormone. That impediment causes blood glucose levels to increase, which can lead to kidney problems, neurological issues, and even death if left untreated. As with humans, excess weight is a key trigger of the disease in animals.
Cats and dogs use the same type of prescription insulin as humans, which can be pricey at up to $150 per month. This figure does not include the cost of syringes, veterinary monitoring and the premium paid in prescription pet foods.
The costs of diagnosis also add up. Dr. Sarah Cutler, a Katonah NY vet, says diagnosing diabetes requires multiple blood and urine tests, which can amount to $300 to $400 in costs. There are also a series of follow-up visits for monitoring, she says, including a physical exam, checking the animal's weight, and doing more blood work, says Dr. Cutler. Each visit costs “another $200 to $300, easily,” she adds. In all, Embrace Pet Insurance estimates a diabetes diagnosis typically costs between $500 and $3,000.
Arthritis and hip dysplasia
Excess weight can put additional stress on the joints of an overweight pet. One resulting condition is hip dysplasia, in which the hip joint becomes loose and unstable, causing limping, pain, and even arthritis. Although hip dysplasia is hereditary in many dog breeds, such as Great Danes, Saint Bernards and Labrador Retrievers, excess weight can accelerate the wear and tear of the joints.
The most effective treatment for hip dysplasia is surgery, according to Northeast Veterinary Hospital in Plains, PA. It’s a costly procedure that Northeast says can cost “anywhere between $3,500 per hip to $7,000 depending on your dog's condition, size, age, overall health and other factors.”
Osteoarthritis, on the other hand, is an inflammation of the joints caused by the deterioration of cartilage. Arthritis and hip dysplasia can occur separately but commonly manifest together. Obesity is the main risk factor for arthritis and hip dysplasia in cats and dogs, and managing your pet’s weight can save them a lot of pain.
Liver disease in cats
Among the most common obesity-related conditions in cats is hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver syndrome, which causes liver function to break down and can quickly lead to death if not treated. Treatment typically involves implanting a feeding tube into the cat, which the owner then uses to feed the animal.
That procedure can alone cost as much as $2,000, and costs can climb to as much as $5,000 to $6,000 if prolonged hospitalization is required, according to Catwatch, an independent newsletter written in collaboration with Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine Feline Health Center.
How to care for your overweight pet
Preventative measures can help avoid pet obesity altogether, but if you already have an overweight pet, know that you are not alone. There is plenty that can be done to help your overweight cat or dog thrive.
Research the best food for overweight cats and dogs
Every cat and dog is unique in their dietary needs and preferences, so consult with your veterinarian to identify the best pet food for your overweight dog or cat.
If you're not buying the diet food directly from your vet, carefully evaluate the different options at the pet store. Look for food that's formulated for weight management from reputable brands that meet the nutritional standards of the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
Increase your pet's level of physical activity
All dogs benefit from daily walks, though the duration and pace of the stroll depends on each dog. Start with short 10-15 minute walks and see how your dog handles it. Some dog breeds are well exercised after a 30-minute walk while other larger, high-energy breeds can walk for more than an hour.
Some cat owners walk their feline companions, but it's much more uncommon and many cats don't enjoy being restrained in a harness. For cats, it's best to get creative and turn your home into a feline playground. You can also let them explore the outside during the day — if your neighborhood is for outdoor cats.
Consult an animal nutritionist
If you need help managing your pet’s weight and have the means, you may want to work with an animal nutritionist who has the right qualifications. We recommend you look for a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist or an EBVS European Specialist in Veterinary and Comparative Nutrition.
Veterinarians using either of these protected titles are board-certified by either the European College of Veterinary Comparative Nutrition (ECVCN) or the American College of Veterinary Nutrition(ACVN) and have undergone years of extensive training. These providers are the utmost experts in animal nutrition and can help overweight pets overcome extensive underlying issues through their diets.
Can pet insurance relieve the costs of pet obesity?
Pet insurance can cover the costs of treating weight-related health complications. Nationwide Pet Insurance reports that 20% of pet insurance claims are for obesity-related conditions, with a total estimated spending of $90 million a year in vet care.
With this in mind, and given that pet insurers don't generally consider obesity a pre-existing condition, pet insurance could be worth it if your pet later develops health issues due to its weight.
Pet insurance cost example
A 2023 report by Rover on the cost of pet parenthood reveals the average annual cost of pet insurance is between $360 and $720 for dogs and $240 and $360 for cats. And our own price surveys have confirmed these figures.
To see how pet insurance can help cover veterinary costs, let's run the numbers for an insured eight-year-old cat that develops diabetes — after the pet insurance policy was purchased.
Let's say that the cost to diagnose diabetes in our example cat totals $2,400 ($1,500 in estimated vet bills plus $900 for six months of insulin priced at $150, assuming a mid-year diagnosis). A pet insurance policy with an 80% reimbursement and a $250 deductible would take care of $1,670 of those expenses. You'd then be on the hook for the remaining balance of $730 (and 20% of all bills for follow-up vet visits).
As illustrated in the example, besides monthly premiums, you are also responsible for 10% to 30% of all vet bills (your copayment) and a deductible that typically ranges between $100 and $1,000.
Pet insurance companies also set annual or lifetime limits on how much they'll pay for all charges or those for particular conditions such as diabetes. In the case of our hypothetical cat, we've assumed that the policy's annual limit is well above the cost to treat diabetes and that any lifetime limits would still allow a number of years of treatment.
Buying pet insurance for your overweight cat or dog
Before you buy pet insurance, be aware that if your pet is already showing symptoms of any weight-related conditions, those won't be covered by most — if not all — pet health insurance policies.
According to a spokesperson for insurer Trupanion, “If it is determined that [the pet’s] condition is related to obesity, we would not be able to cover that condition if it existed within the look-back period or any waiting periods for that policy.”
The traditional waiting period for pet insurance policies is 14 days, but it is often longer for hip dysplasia — typically 6 or 12 months. Pre-existing condition bans and waiting periods are why it’s important not to prolong insuring a pet if you plan to do so.
Another caveat of pet insurance is that your premiums will steadily increase as the animal ages, regardless of your claims history or when you start coverage. And price hikes during an animal's senior years can be steep, even prohibitive.
Those costs should be weighed against the likelihood that your pet will develop weight-related conditions, particularly if you’re feeding and exercising the animal well. You'll also need to deduct pet insurance premiums from the potential payouts to identify the net benefit of a policy. (For example, the $1,670 in reimbursements we calculated for our diabetic cat would actually yield a net benefit of $1,240 after factoring in the $432 you'd pay on average in annual premiums.)
Granted, insurance also covers an elderly pet against whatever other conditions it might develop. However, the odds are that your pet may never suffer those either — and if they do arise, their treatment cost may not justify paying for insurance.
If you do opt to get insurance as a hedge against obesity-related conditions, start the policy when the animal is relatively young and slim. Obesity and the conditions it triggers are less prevalent in younger animals than older ones, and if you wait until they develop, you'll be unable to buy insurance.
When you shop around for pet insurance, don't just look at premiums (which can vary by more than four times between carriers) but also at coverage for specific conditions. Pay close attention to payout limits and coverage for prescription medications, which vary by policy as well.
If you don't know where to start your search, we recommend you read our step-by-step guide on how to buy pet insurance. And if you're concerned about the cost of pet insurance, you may also want to look into the best cheap pet insurance policies.
How to tell if your dog is overweight
Examining your dog’s ribs and waist is an easy way to tell if your dog is overweight or obese. A dog that's at an ideal weight should have a clear, defined waist and a small abdominal tuck. Your dog’s ribs should also be easy to locate and feel, but you shouldn't be able to see the ribs' outline under the skin, which would indicate that your dog is underweight.
If you can't feel your dog's ribs when you pat its stomach and can't see a clearly defined waist when you examine the dog from above, your doggo is likely overweight.
How to tell if your cat is overweight
As with dogs, your cat’s ribs and waist are good indicators of whether your cat is overweight. If you can slightly feel your feline’s ribs and observe a small indent above its waist, they are likely in a healthy weight range.
Another way to tell if you have an obese cat is to see how well it can jump. If your cat struggles to jump, it may be overweight.
How to help an overweight dog lose weight
Dr. Jules Benson, Nationwide’s chief veterinary officer says veterinarians have been sounding the alarm about overweight pets for years. "Part of the problem is that pet parents often don’t realize when an animal is overweight, or if they’re aware, they struggle with helping their pet lose weight,” she adds. Benson recommends getting a vet’s assistance to help design an effective weight loss plan.
Here are some tips to help you get your dog to a healthy weight:
- Rule out underlying conditions: Consult with a veterinarian to make sure your dog doesn't have an underlying medical condition, such as Cushing’s disease, causing its obesity,
- Identify your dog's target weight: Check how many pounds your dog needs to shed to reach a healthy weight. This should help you create a diet and exercise plan.
- Look into prescription dog food: Look for dog food that's formulated for weight loss and take time to transition your dog to the new food to avoid disrupting its digestive system. The American Kennel Club's guide on how to switch dog food recommends doing this over the course of seven days, gradually incorporating the new food and mixing it with the old one.
- Spread meals out: Instead of feeding your dog two meals a day, consider spreading out their recommended daily food intake into three or four smaller meals. This should keep their metabolism going and help them burn more calories. If you can't be home to feed your dog multiple times a day, look into purchasing an automatic feeder.
- Invest in treat dispensers: If your dog has difficulty pacing itself when eating, consider investing in a toy that doubles as a food dispenser. You can portion your dog's food and turn mealtime into a mentally and physically stimulating activity.
- Increase your dog's physical activity: go for lots of walks, set up dog play dates if it's safe to do so, and give your dog lots of outdoor playtime.
How to help an obese cat lose weight
If your cat is overweight or obese, a lot of the suggestions above still apply. However, there are some special considerations to keep in mind.
- Start with a vet visit: A sudden shift in your cat's caloric intake can trigger life-threatening liver disease, so only switch foods under veterinary guidance. The veterinarian will identify the cat's ideal weight based on its build and size and recommend the exact amount of calories it should eat to lose weight in a healthy way.
- Set and stick to regular meal times: Once you know the right amount of food to give your kitty, establish regular meal times and avoid feeding your cat any snacks or table scraps in-between meals.
- Make them move for food: Cat owners might find it difficult to increase their pet's physical activity, but there are a few tricks that will fool your cat into taking its daily steps. You can move the food bowl to new spots every day, forcing your cat to walk. Alternatively, you could get a feeder ball or meal dispensing toy so your cat has no other option but to play.
- Increase playtime: Between meal times, increase your cat's play and active time with toys and games. Make note of the toys that your cat likes the best — lures, feather toys and laser pointers are popular options — and rotate them so that playtime doesn't get predictable.
Your vet will likely check your cat's weight once a month, and if there's no improvement, they will adjust the diet and routine until progress is noticeable.
Overweight pets FAQs
How long do fat cats live?
How long do fat dogs live?
What is crude fat in dog food?
How much crude fat should be in dog food?
Summary of Money’s guide to caring for overweight pets
While obesity can be a dangerous problem for pets, you can address it early on with some lifestyle changes. Consult your vet, create a steady exercise routine, feed your pet the right amount of food and you can help overweight pets overcome obesity and live longer, happier lives.