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shape up

Shape Up

If your feline is fat or your hound too round, you’re not alone. The obesity crisis has now extended to our beloved pets. Amanda Riley-Jones weighs up the best ways to keep dogs, cats and rabbits trim and healthy

In Britain, around two-thirds of us are classified as either overweight or obese and now, it seems, half of our pets are overweight too.

Simply being overweight shortens life expectancy. On top of that, our pets are starting to develop the same health problems as obese humans, ranging from low energy levels and breathing problems to potentially fatal illnesses such as arthritis, asthma, diabetes, and liver and heart disease. Fat cats and dogs also have a decreased immune function and are at greater risk under anaesthetic, while overweight rabbits are more likely to suffer health problems such as arthritis, flystrike (an insect infestation of the skin and fur that can be fatal) and an infected dewlap (the flap of skin that hangs beneath the lower jaw or neck).

While breed, age and gender can all have an influence on your pet’s tendency to put on weight, the RSPCA says that the main reason for this obesity crisis is that the food they eat contains more energy than they use up. ‘The figures are alarming,’ says Michael Bellingham, Chief Executive of the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA), ‘and the problem won’t go away without a fundamental shift in owners’ attitude to feeding their pets.’ According to the PFMA, around one in five dog, cat and rabbit owners use trial and error, rather than manufacturers’ guidelines when feeding their pets. Titbits, too, are taking their toll. A survey, reported in The Observer in 2008, indicated that a 10 per cent surge in the number of overweight pets in the previous year alone was due to owners misguidedly giving them too many sugary, junk-food fatty treats.

And it seems that love is blind when it comes to realising that our pets are piling on the pounds. Another survey by the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) found that while eight out of 10 dog, cat and rabbit owners believed their pet was the right weight, only 33 per cent of dog owners and 23 per cent of cat owners chose the ‘normal’ weight picture from a series as the one that looked most like their pet. So it seems that many of us are unaware what ‘normal weight’ looks like for our pets, and only a quarter of those surveyed said they had sought advice on whether their pets were overweight. If you are unsure whether your pet is overweight, try the weightcheck ideas, and if in any doubt consult your vet.

The PFMA survey also revealed that even when owners could see that their pets were overweight, the majority believed that there was little, or nothing, they could do about it. But while we may be killing our pets with kindness, there is lots we can do in terms of good nutrition and exercise to get them in the best possible shape for a long, healthy and happy life. Read on to find out more...

Easy exercises for you and your dog



Working trials

Heel to music

Competitive obediance

Dogs negotiate a course of jumps, poles and tunnels as quickly as possible, with the minimum number of mistakes. Two teams of dogs race, jump hurdles and trigger a pedal on a Flyball box to retrieve a ball. This civilian equivalent of police dog work includes obedience, control, agility and fitness. Owners devise fun and creative routines to perform with their pooch. The doggie equivalent of ‘dressage’ that requires them to perform feats of obedience for their owners, from the simple ‘sit’ to scent work and recalls.
Fat-busting score: 6/6 Fat-busting score: 5/6 Fat-busting score: 6/6 Fat-busting score: 4/6 Fat-busting score: 3/6
Suitable for:
A good workout for dogs over a year, less so for big dogs whose joints aren’t geared to jumping.
Suitable for:
All dogs and owners who like to exert themselves! Easy exercises for you and your dog
Suitable for:
Fit owners and dogs – this exercise is physically demanding!
Suitable for:
Good for weight loss but physically demanding and difficult for overweight dogs.
Suitable for:
Fit dogs of all breeds.

When feeding your pet, it’s vital to ensure that you are providing a diet appropriate for his age, breed and lifestyle.

Nottinghamshire-based dog trainer Wendy Hill says: ‘Don’t just follow the pet food manufacturer’s guidelines. Dogs, like people, have different metabolisms.’ So monitor your dog’s weight and judge if you need to adjust his portions – if in doubt, consult your vet. If your pet is obese, your vet will devise a weight-loss and exercise plan that will need careful monitoring. Remember it can be dangerous for animals to lose weight too quickly. Once your pet has reached his target weight, he may then need to go onto a ‘light’ food diet.

Different people in the household feeding a pet can also be a problem. Wendy says: ‘One family member may be carefully keeping the dog on a diet, while another slips him treats.’ Encourage your children to spend time playing with their pet rather than feeding them titbits.

Indulging dogs when they beg at the table is another bad habit to break. ‘Put your dog in another room when you eat – or ignore him,’ suggests Wendy. ‘After several days of getting absolutely nothing, he’ll learn not to beg!’ Remember that what seems like a ‘small treat’ to us is considerably bigger for our pet. Every crisp is more like the equivalent of half a packet, because every excess gramme is a greater percentage of his overall weight.

Much of this advice could apply to cat owners, too. Cat experts are now recommending that owners put the feeding bowl in different places so the cat has to ‘hunt’ for its supper. Vicky Halls, cat behaviourist and author of The Complete Cat also recommends puzzle feeding. Try buying balls with holes in them, which dispense kibbles one by one as the cat plays with them, or Trixie’s Cat Activity Fun Board to exercise the cat’s mind, as well as her paws. Or you can make your own puzzle feeders from cardboard egg boxes; even a paper bag with the top folded over can be a challenge.

Rabbits simply need a complete rabbit food and a constant supply of grass, hay and fresh drinking water. Limit treats to a few leafy greens or pieces of root vegetable. Sugary, fatty snacks don’t do him any favours, and sweets and chocolate can be fatal.


shape up dog

Playing games when you’re out on walks will keep your dog mentally stimulated and give him extra exercise.

The key to your pet keeping a stable, healthy weight is a combination of a balanced diet and regular exercise.

Dogs love to run and have fun with their owners. Besides keeping you both fit and trim, the more you interact, the deeper the bond between you. Top dog trainer Paddy Driscoll says: ‘Dogs need to warm up and cool down to avoid injury – so maybe walk to the park instead of getting there in the car. Playing games on walks will keep your dog mentally stimulated and give him extra exercise. Teach your dog to fetch a ball, but throw it into the undergrowth so he has to search for it and doesn’t risk injuring himself jumping to catch it in mid-air.’ Paddy adds, ‘If you’re out with family or friends, get someone to hide with your dog’s favourite toy so he has to use his scent-tracking skills to find them. If you have several dogs, line them up and command ‘Stay’, then walk away and call them to you, rewarding the one to reach you first with the ball.

‘I use a lot of food rewards when I’m training,’ explains Paddy, who has six dogs. ‘I give small pieces of cheese and sausage – the size of my little finger nail for small dogs, bigger for large dogs – but I always subtract it from their daily food allowance and throw it as far as possible to make them run a lot! Even a dog with arthritis or joint problems needs some low-level exercise. Lob a cup of dried food into the garden so he has to forage,’ she adds.

If you’re serious about getting your dog fit, there are lots of sporting activities you can enjoy together at various levels, from your local club to training weekends and full-blown competitions. However, overweight dogs will need to lose weight before they can join in and ensure your dog has no physical problems that could give him pain. If in doubt, check with your vet.


Physical exercise is also vital for your cat’s good health, especially for an indoor cat left alone much of the day.

Make sure she gets some exercise when ‘home alone’ by putting her litter tray and food as far away as possible, ideally making her use any stairs, and get her a climbing frame or ‘cat tree’. ‘Play with her for at least 15 minutes a day in short bursts,’ advises cat expert Vicky Halls. Older or overweight cats may need more motivation. Toys full of catnip or ‘fishing rods’ with a fluffy toy bait get most cats feeling playful. Or for something more high-tech, how about a remote-controlled mouse or, if your cat’s game, a cat exercise-wheel? ‘Whatever she plays with, ensure she can’t swallow or choke on her plaything,’ adds Vicky.


Rabbits need plenty of exercise, as a bored bunny is prone to become destructive and overweight.

Give him plenty of opportunities to stretch his legs outside his hutch by letting him hop around the garden supervised, or provide him with an exercise run at least eight by four by two feet. Give him things to hop on, crawl under and climb on. A paper bag with an open top and bottom, pieces of root vegetable suspended by string and toys with ramps will enrich his life and keep him moving.

Make sure your furry friend, whether dog, cat, rabbit or other, is fit and active – remember, a healthy pet is a happy pet!


Quick weight checks

To monitor your pet’s weight, carry out these RSPCA-recommended checks regularly:

For cats and dogs

  1. Can you see and feel the outline of your pet’s ribs without excess fat covering?
  2. Can you see and feel your pet’s waist, and is it clearly visible when viewed from above?
  3. Does your pet’s belly look ‘tucked up’ when viewed from the side?

For rabbits

  1. Gently feel your rabbit’s ribs in the area just behind his/her elbows. The pelvis and ribs should be felt easily and have rounded (not sharp) edges.
  2. There should be no abdominal bulge.
  3. The rump area should be flat.


If your pet doesn’t pass these weight checks or you have concerns about your pet’s weight, consult your vet.

For more information on keeping your pet in trim, see our ‘Healthy Pets, Happy You’ guide at www.petplan.co.uk/my-petplan/factsheets.asp.