Most cats arrive at my vet clinic in cat carrier cages, and these are usually carried in by the owner. When Gabrielle arrived, wheeling her plastic cat carrier in to see me on a luggage trolley, I knew that I must be dealing with an unusual situation. I bent down to lift the cat carrier onto the consulting table, and I almost wrenched my back as I attempted to pick it up with one hand. I looked into the carrier, expecting to see two cats inside, but no, there was just one animal looking back at me. He was one of the biggest cats I have ever seen. I used both hands around the base of the carrier to lift it onto my consult table, as if I was lifting a heavy box of groceries. I opened the cage door, and as I coaxed Mugley to come out, Gabrielle explained his background.

Mugley was a stray cat who had wandered into Gabrielle’s life some years previously. He had just turned up at the back door one day, looking for some food and some attention. He was a friendly cat and Gabrielle took pity on him, feeding him and allowing him to stay in the comfort of her warm kitchen. He came and went that first day, but he came back a few days later, and this time he stayed permanently. He was a large adult cat when he arrived, and Gabrielle presumed that he was fully grown. As the months passed, it was obvious to her that he was continuing to grow, and soon he was so big that he dwarfed her other cats, making them look kitten-like beside his huge frame. Eventually he stopped growing, but he was now so big that Gabrielle began to worry about him. She had heard about the modern phenomenon of pet obesity, and she began to wonder if Mugley had become overweight.

Pet obesity is shockingly common. Surveys have demonstrated that around one-third of all pets are too fat, which is a grotesque statistic in a world where a human child dies every five seconds from hunger-related causes. The fat-pet situation is much more complicated than it may at first seem. Pets do not become fat because owners are deliberately overindulging their beloved dogs and cats. Instead, there is often a basic misunderstanding of the nutritional needs and habits of animals.

Humans have evolved as “hunter/gatherers”, and we are genetically programmed to collect food, store it, then eat it in small quantities as needed. Cats and dogs, on the other hand, have descended from “predators”. Their ancestors hunted food, ate it very rapidly, while looking over their shoulder in case another predator sneaked up to steal their food. Wild carnivores do not store food around them like humans do. Instead, they store food inside their body, as fat. It is easy to see why dogs and cats are prone to developing obesity when placed into the food-rich environment of a modern western household.

When a pet becomes fat, it can be difficult to reverse the trend. Strict diets are needed, using measured amounts of special low calorie pet food. Owners need to stick rigidly to carefully planned feeding regimes. It is far easier to identify a trend to obesity at an early stage, and at that stage to trim back a normal diet, rather than waiting till the stage when extremely strict diets are necessary. So how do you tell if a pet is getting fat? This is the question that Gabrielle wanted me to answer about Mugley when she brought him in to see me.

There are three main questions to answer when assessing a pet’s body condition.

Firstly, can you feel the bones of the back? If a pet is too fat, a layer of blubber along the back can make it impossible to feel the normal hard ridges of the spine.

Secondly, can you feel the ribs? They should not be prominent in a very visible way, but as you run your fingers along your pet’s chest, you should easily be able to feel the bones.

And thirdly, look at the overall shape of your pet. From above, pets should have an hour-glass type shape: widest at the chest, narrow around the midriff, and then wide at the pelvis. Fat pets become like shapeless cushions. From the side, pets should look wedge-shaped – wider at the front, and tapering up towards their rear ends. Obese cats are particularly prone to the dropped abdomen syndrome, with their bellies drooping down almost to touch the ground.

As I examined Mugley, it was obvious that he was not at all fat. His body was well-muscled all over, and he had a long, lithe body shape. He is simply a huge cat. When I put him on the scales, he was over 9kg. He is heavier than many fat cats, but obesity is not a problem for him. Gabrielle can carry on feeding him in exactly the same way as she has been doing so far.

TIPS

  • One in three pets are obese, and it can be difficult to get them to lose weight
  • It is much easier to prevent a pet from getting obese in the first place
  • Vets and vet nurses are the best people to let you know if your pet’s weight is correct