How can I tell if my pet is at a healthy weight?

Unfortunately, the majority of our pets in the United States are now considered obese. Overweight and obese dogs and cats are of enormous concern. As with people, other animals suffer similar ailments and health concerns when they have excess weight. I don’t say this all with judgment; I am Italian and Lebanese, so food most certainly equals love in my mind. I also understand how difficult it can be to keep a beloved pet trim. (Looking at you, my sweet kitty Lila. Since a kitten, she has been the ultimate food thief and seems to have an “understanding” with the other cats, who politely step away from their bowls for her to chow down.)

Advances in veterinary medicine and animal husbandry have greatly improved our ability to provide for our pets’ medical and nutritional needs. We can better prevent, diagnose, and treat many diseases, such as parasites.

Our understanding of the nutritional needs of animals such as dogs and cats has also grown immensely. Nutritionally balanced diets that are highly palatable (the first dry dog and cat foods didn’t have many animals’ thrilled) are now widely available for purchase by owners. I often hear clients lament that they meticulously feed “what the bag says to feed.” Remember, these calculations are for intact animals that are heavy athletes: i.e., not most of our companion dogs and cats.

Successful campaigns to spay and neuter dogs and cats have also led to improved overall animal health.  Note also that spayed and neutered animals require significantly fewer calories than intact animals.

So, to answer your question, what is the best way to assess if your pet is a healthy weight? A “body condition score” is a numerical assessment of just this. Charts exist for both dogs and cats. Another good tool to utilize is your own hand. If you lay your hand flat, palm facing down, and feel over the back of your knuckles with your finger, that is about the ideal way a dog or cat’s ribs should feel: you can easily feel them without pressing hard but they aren’t excessively visible. If you make a fist and then feel your knuckles, this represents an animal that is too thin, with ribs (your knuckles) clearly visible. Now lay your hand flat again and flip it so your palm is up and feel the underside of your knuckles. While you can still feel the bones (an animal’s ribs), you have to press a bit harder to be able to do so. Body condition scores are routinely assessed by your veterinarian, so any questions should be addressed to them.

Remember too, that because there are so many overweight critters out there, our perception of what is healthy may be skewed. I joke with owners that if friends, family, and even strangers are commenting that their dog is “too skinny,” they are actually probably a healthy weight. That being said, underweight animals are absolutely still a concern. Particularly, a rapid change in weight is something to note and address with your veterinarian, as multiple diseases can cause weight loss (i.e., that cat that has always been chunky that now, when entering her teenage years, loses weight and “looks great” with no diet changes made). As a general rule, if you aren’t actively trying to get your pet to lose weight and they have, further investigation should be performed. On the flip side, an overweight animal may also indicate other health concerns (for example, hypothyroidism), that should be addressed directly by your veterinarian. Remember, too, that as an animal ages, their caloric and dietary needs may change as well.

One more important aspect to note. As with people, animals are prone to lose muscle mass as they age which can be accelerated by many diseases. A “muscle condition score” assesses if there is an appropriate amount of muscle present or if muscle loss is being seen. As such, assessing whether or not a pet is a healthy weight often requires a more complex assessment than simply a number on a scale.

If you do feel your dog or cat is an inappropriate weight, consult with your veterinarian. Weight loss should be accomplished in a controlled, gradual process. Your veterinarian can best create a weight loss plan and may incorporate changes such as a prescription diet.

Lastly, remember that weight concerns don’t end with dogs and cats. You should ensure you have a good understanding of an appropriate body condition in any animal for whom you care (over-conditioning and obesity are unfortunately prevalent in many other animals, from horses to sugar gliders). Assess and weigh your animals frequently. Report any changes or concerns to your veterinarian quickly and remember that they want to help!

Cliff notes:

1. Acclimate yourself with how to assess your pet’s body condition score.

2. Assess your pet’s body condition and weight frequently.

3. Report any changes to a veterinarian.

4. If your pet’s weight needs adjusting, don’t beat yourself up, but do obtain prompt veterinary help in attaining a more appropriate weight.


1. Pet Food Institute

2. Association for Pet Obesity Prevention

3. Pet Nutrition Alliance

Disclaimer: The content of The Bethel Grapevine’s Ask the Vet blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended as medical advice and should not be treated as such. If you have a medical question about your pet, call or visit your veterinarian or a veterinary hospital.

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