Is My Dog or Cat a Healthy Weight? - PetHelpful - By fellow animal lovers and experts
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Is My Dog or Cat a Healthy Weight?

Small animal veterinarian with an interest in shelter, international, and field medicine and surgery.

Guidelines to Assess Your Pet's Weight

In the United States, carrying excess fat is as much a pet problem as it is a people problem, so the perception of what a healthy weight is may be skewed. Many folks do not know how to determine if their pet is at an ideal weight or even know how much their pet should weigh.

These guidelines can generally be used for every size and shape of dog as well as cats. Use them in conjunction with each other.

Step One: Reach for the Ribs

It is important to put your hands on the pet because what appears to be an overweight pet may not be. Use light pressure with your fingertips to feel along each side of the ribcage from front to back. Use similar pressure as you would to create an impression of your fingertip on a very soft avocado. You should be able to feel each rib but not see them. If you cannot feel each rib at all, or without increased pressure, your pet is overweight or obese. This method is used for both dogs and cats.

It is more difficult to determine if the ribs are visible in long-coated pets. In dogs, this can be resolved during a bath when the coat is completely wet. In long-coated cats, if the ribs can be felt, then use the next guidelines to help make a determination about your cat’s weight.

Step One

Feeling for fat along the ribcage. Each of the ribs can be easily felt, but are not visible. He is at his ideal weight.

Feeling for fat along the ribcage. Each of the ribs can be easily felt, but are not visible. He is at his ideal weight.

Step Two: Where's the Waist?

Stand next to your pet and look down at his/her “waist” from above. This is the area behind the rib cage and in front of the hip bones (also called the lumbar area). There should be a narrowing of the lumbar area between the ribs and the hips. If this area is the same width as the ribs and the hips, or curves out to the sides, your pet is overweight or obese. This method is used for both dogs and cats; however, keep in mind that many cats of normal weight may have a very subtle waist, or not have one at all. It may help to press on the fur in a downward motion to help visualize this area in long-haired breeds.

Step Two: Normal Weight Dog

Earl's head is to the left. He has a waist behind his ribcage in his lumbar area and each of his ribs can be easily felt, but not seen.

Earl's head is to the left. He has a waist behind his ribcage in his lumbar area and each of his ribs can be easily felt, but not seen.

Step Two: Overweight Dog

Molly's head is to the left. She has a waist, but it is disappearing, and compared to Earl's, is not well defined. Each of her ribs can be felt, but not without firm pressure.

Molly's head is to the left. She has a waist, but it is disappearing, and compared to Earl's, is not well defined. Each of her ribs can be felt, but not without firm pressure.

Step Two: Underweight Dog

Ethan's head is to the left. His waist is more defined than Earl's making him underweight, however, his ribs are not visible and this weight is healthier and more desirable than to be overweight.

Ethan's head is to the left. His waist is more defined than Earl's making him underweight, however, his ribs are not visible and this weight is healthier and more desirable than to be overweight.

Step Two: Normal Weight Cat

Carlton's head is to the right. His fat pad is minimal and he has no outward curvature of his sides. Each of his ribs can be felt easily, but are not visible.

Carlton's head is to the right. His fat pad is minimal and he has no outward curvature of his sides. Each of his ribs can be felt easily, but are not visible.

Step Two: Overweight Cat

Froggy has no defined waist and an outward curvature of her sides. Each of her ribs can be felt, but not without increased pressure.

Froggy has no defined waist and an outward curvature of her sides. Each of her ribs can be felt, but not without increased pressure.

Step Three: Find a Tuck or Fat Pad

Steps one and two are good indicators of weight in both dogs and cats, but there is one last area to check. Look at the abdomen from the side while your pet is fully standing. There should be an abdominal “tuck,” meaning a distinctive difference in how far the chest is from the ground compared to how far the abdomen is from the ground. This method works better for dogs since cats have a fat pad in the abdominal area, and it should be of minimal size in a cat of normal weight.

Step Three: Normal Weight Dog

Earl's head is to the left. The red line shows the angle of his abdominal tuck which is normal. He has a normal waist, and each of his ribs can be felt easily, but are not visible.

Earl's head is to the left. The red line shows the angle of his abdominal tuck which is normal. He has a normal waist, and each of his ribs can be felt easily, but are not visible.

Step Three: Overweight Dog

Molly's head is to the right. The red line indicates the angle of her abdominal tuck which she has little of. Her waist is minimal, and each of her ribs can be felt, but not without firm pressure.

Molly's head is to the right. The red line indicates the angle of her abdominal tuck which she has little of. Her waist is minimal, and each of her ribs can be felt, but not without firm pressure.

Step Three: Normal Weight Dog

Compare this photo of Molly at her normal weight with the overweight version. Her abdominal tuck is much more pronounced.

Compare this photo of Molly at her normal weight with the overweight version. Her abdominal tuck is much more pronounced.

Step Three: Normal Weight Cat

Carlton's head is to the left. His fat pad is minimal as shown by the white arrow. He has no outward curvature of his sides, and each of his ribs can be felt easily, but are not visible.

Carlton's head is to the left. His fat pad is minimal as shown by the white arrow. He has no outward curvature of his sides, and each of his ribs can be felt easily, but are not visible.

Step Three: Overweight Cat

Froggy is carrying a moderate amount of fat in her fat pad shown by the black arrow. She does not have a defined waist, and has an outward curvature of her sides. Her ribs can be felt, but with increased pressure.

Froggy is carrying a moderate amount of fat in her fat pad shown by the black arrow. She does not have a defined waist, and has an outward curvature of her sides. Her ribs can be felt, but with increased pressure.

For Cats Only

In cats, the spine and hip bones are other useful areas used to determine whether the pet is of normal weight. The spine and hips of a normal weight cat can be felt to a certain extent, but are more prominent if the cat is underweight and less prominent if overweight.

What Is Obesity?

Obese means your pet is 20% or more above his/her ideal weight, so a dog or cat that has an ideal weight of 10 pounds is considered obese if they weigh 12 pounds. An overweight pet is 10-19% higher than their ideal body weight, and the same 10-pound dog is overweight between 10-12 pounds. From a health perspective, obesity and being overweight means your pet is more prone to suffer from a host of medical conditions similar to those which obese humans face. These conditions range from mobility limitations to severe cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases. Among other things, pets are prone to weight-related diabetes, surgical and anesthetic complications, renal disease, and increasing mobility challenges with age-related arthritis.

Roody can be affectionately called "Muffin Top" due to the "muffin" shape of his rear end putting him in the obese category.

Roody can be affectionately called "Muffin Top" due to the "muffin" shape of his rear end putting him in the obese category.

Know What Weight Your Pet Should Be

If your pet passes the "ideal weight" test using the above methods, obtain a current weight so you will know exactly what your adult pet's ideal weight is. The easiest way to do this is to use a human scale to weigh yourself and then weigh yourself holding the pet. Subtract your weight from the combined weight of you holding your pet. This method is not accurate with small dogs and cats and not practical with very large dogs. Your veterinary clinic will be happy to help you weigh your pet if you need assistance.

The most common reasons for overweight and obese pets are overfeeding and lack of exercise. It is caused less frequently by medical conditions, the most common of which is hypothyroid disease in dogs. Cats, on the other hand, are more prone to weight loss when there are underlying medical problems. If you have followed all exercise and dietary recommendations from your veterinarian, and your pet is not losing, or gaining weight as expected, or if sudden weight change occurs, further investigation is advisable.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2019 J Landis DVM