09/04/2012 18:54 BST | Updated 09/06/2012 06:12 BST

Pet Obesity - Why Your Pet's Weight Is a Crucial Health Factor

The bond between people and their pets is so strong that often it's difficult to resist those pleading eyes asking for food when we're eating our dinner. But have you thought about the consequences of your pet being overweight? How can you prevent it, and what can you do if your pet is a bit portly?

The cause of obesity is quite simple - a combination of too much food and not enough exercise results in weight gain. By giving into the desire to treat our pets with food, rather than cuddles, games or exercise, we may well be affecting their health and in some cases, their life span. If a pet is overweight, this can lead to a whole host of problems, including difficulty in exercising, heart problems, breathing difficulties, problems with joints, sugar diabetes and a decreased liver function.


Fifi Bottomley is twice the cat she should be, and is now battling the bulge with PDSA's Pet Fit Club

PDSA's annual pet slimming competition - Pet Fit Club - directly helps a group of overweight pets each year to slim down to a healthier weight. But the great thing is that the campaign also allows our vets to raise awareness of the issue of pet obesity widely, and encourages many other owners to take a closer look at their own pet's body shape.

One of the key issues seems to be that many owners don't know what a healthy shape for their pet is. ThePDSA Animal Wellbeing Report found that 84% of owners thought that their pets were the right weight, yet nearly 6million cats and dogs are classed as overweight or obese.

If you think your pet is carrying extra weight, then the first thing to do is make an appointment to see your vet. This is important, as there may be an underlying medical reason for the weight gain; get a clean bill of health before making any changes to your pet's diet or lifestyle.

Additionally, some pets, such as rabbits and cats, need very careful supervision if dieting, as it can be harmful for them if they lose weight too quickly. Vet practices sometimes run weight clinics which can be a great way to ensure your pet loses weight safely, plus meeting other owners in the same situation can be very reassuring.

PDSA also has leaflets on the website that can be downloaded for free, which explain how to assess your pet's body shape correctly.

The best thing to do is to weigh your pet's daily food allowance in the morning, then split this into several small meals over the day. This prevents accidental over-feeding, which is easy to do when feeding 'by eye'. Specially formulated diet foods are particularly good for very porky pets to ensure they get enough essential nutrients.

It's also important not to feed any treats in between meals, as what might be relatively few calories for you is a different factor for pets. A small cube of cheese (approx 28g) is the equivalent of half a pizza, or one-and-a-half burgers for a medium sized dog. Sometimes treats may be needed as a training aid, but remember to reduce your pet's food allowance for that day to compensate.

In addition to strictly managing your pet's diet, ensuring they get enough exercise is an integral part of the weight loss programme. If your pet is very portly then they won't go from coach potato to super-pet overnight. Instead try to gradually increase their activity levels using games and toys. For dogs, several short walks a day may be more manageable than a long one initially.

The crucial factor is owners as they manage their pet's weight - it's definitely not the pets who opens the tins of food or gets the treats out of the box. That said, I don't want to simply vilify owners in this position. As PDSA's findings show, there seems to be widespread misunderstanding about what a healthily-sized pet looks like, and the important thing is that when given the correct advice and information, owners change their habits.

Following PDSA's Pet Fit Club finalists through their six month slimming programmes will help to show other pet owners that it's achievable. Persistence, and a strong resolve not to give into those begging paws, will eventually result in a much happier, healthier pet.

Last year's Pet Fit Club winners, Alsyon King and labrador Lucky, went on a joint weight-loss journey and lost an impressive seven stone between them. Alyson said: "I'm sure if Lucky could talk he'd say how much happier he is now that he's slimmed down and I would urge other pet owners to help their pets get fitter too.

"Working with PDSA on Pet Fit Club really helped me to stay focused, so I would highly recommend anyone with an overweight pet to ask their vet for help and advice. With PDSA's help, Lucky lost a quarter of his body weight - dropping from around 52kg to a much healthier 38kg. It really could make the difference between life and death for your pet. As for me, I've got much fitter too, so I hope our story encourages others in that situation to do the same."

What a win-win situation!