Cat and dog owners tend to underestimate the weight of their obese companion animals

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I have just written an article about an obesity epidemic among people in Great Britain and I tied that sad information in with a well-known obesity epidemic among domestic cats in Britain. And while searching for that article I bumped into a study which was published in December 2023. It is, therefore, a recent study which took place in France but I think it could have taken place in any Western society with similar if not the same results. The study details are at the base of this article.

So what did they find out in this study? Well, they found things which I think many people already knew but it’s nice to have the information confirmed.

I take two fundamental points from this study:

  1. That cat and dog owners tend to underestimate their companion animal’s weight when the animal is obese. Conversely, pet owners tend to overestimate their cat and dog’s weight when they are underweight. The former is more prevalent than the latter by a wide margin.
  2. The major, underlying reason for this tendency is the normalisation of obesity to view it as a normal weight. This is a convenient moment to quote the study authors on this particular aspect of the study:

“Consistent with previous studies, it has been observed that pet owners tend to normalize their pets’ body condition, leading to an underestimation in the case of overweight animals and an overestimation for underweight ones. What was once considered “overweight” now tends to be viewed as “about right”. This shift is further amplified by the influence of social media platforms, and a similar trend may be occurring in the context of pets, perpetuating the belief that overweight animals are the norm in today’s society.”

Blanchard T and colleagues.

In another part of the study they say that “Given overconditioning [being overweight oneself] is a widely acknowledged factor that can lead to the underestimation of a pet’s body condition”

This says the same thing in different words and is quite interesting that they’ve used a word I’ve never seen before namely “overconditioning” to mean overweight. This seems to be a polite way of saying that a person is fat.

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The burden of obesity generally: I know we have to be sensitive towards people’s sensibilities. I’m aware of that but we also have to face up to obesity as a very major problem in society in general and in Britain specifically and I believe in America and other countries. It doesn’t just have a massive bearing on the quality of caregiving of cats and dogs but it also places huge stresses and demands upon the NHS in Britain because of the ill-health associated with obesity both for people and pets. The big problem is that obesity harms people and pets in many ways.

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The study found that about 21% of dog owners and 39% of cat owners inaccurately estimate their companion animal’s weight. Now, I don’t expect people to know the actual weight of their cat or dog but they should be able to assess whether there cat or dog is overweight or underweight.

Perfect domestic cat body conformation from above
Perfect domestic cat body conformation from above. Image: MikeB

Checking for obesity: Overfeeding lead to obesity. This is a big problem in cats, with estimates of 40% of all cats being obese. You should be able to feel the ribs as individual structures but not see them. From above, you should see a well-defined narrowing or waistline effect below the rib cage and above the hips. If you are unable to feel the individual ribs and the cat has lost her waist, she is carrying too much fat.

Cat Owners Home Veterinary Handbook page 510 of the Third Edition.

The way they found out this information was to question them when they were at a veterinarian. Companion animal owners’ assessment of weight was compared to an assessment made by a veterinarian who had been trained carefully. A total of 304 dogs and 270 cats were included in this study.

Key fact: And they found that when considering pets with ideal body conditions, 12% of dog owners and 29% of cat owners disagreed with the veterinarian. For overweight companion animals that were not actually obese, the disagreement between pet owner and veterinarian rose to 66% for dog owners and 64% for cat owners. If the animal was obese, all dog owners and 83% of cat owners disagreed with the veterinarian about their companion animal’s body condition. I take this to mean that the more obese the animal was the blinder the pet owner was as to their true weight.

With respect to “body condition” of their pets, 36.7% of cat owners disagreed with the veterinarian’s assessment. As for dogs, that figure was a little lower at 32.6%. Once again, this confirms that the pet owner was unable to accurately assess the body condition. In other words, “Unfortunately, when it comes to assessing body condition, there is a substantial level of misperception among pet owners, which aligns with the findings of previous studies.”

It appears that it is easier for pet owners to assess the body condition and whether their cats and dogs are overweight or underweight if the animal is smaller compared to being larger. “In fact, it has been suggested that the larger body size of male cats might present challenges for owners when evaluating their body condition.”

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Parents of young kids: Lastly, the study found, interestingly, that when pet owners had children, they were more likely to have incorrect perceptions about the body condition and weight of their companion animals. It’s proposed that this is because young children are plumper than adults. They have more body fat and they are cute. It appears that the parents have transferred this cuteness and attractiveness of babies onto their companion animals and as people tend to regard companion animals as members of the family and as little kids or toddlers, they use their plump kids as a yardstick against which they should measure the weight of their pets.

Commenting on the above, it’s a well-known fact that pet owners can and often do regard their pets as children, even babies. And you can see where this merging of true babies and pets occurs in respect of assessing obesity and being underweight.

Conclusion: I can only arrive at one conclusion and that is cat and dog owners need to be aware of this tendency to underestimate obesity in their pets and to do something about it which would be to study correct body conditioning and weights for both cats and dogs and to periodically measure their knowledge through observing their companion animal and comparing their assessment against a chart

The study: Blanchard T, Hoummady S, Banuls D, Roche M, Bynens A, Meunier M, Dos Santos N, Tissaoui E, Rouch-Buck P, Fantinati M, Priymenko N. The Perception of the Body Condition of Cats and Dogs by French Pet Owners and the Factors Influencing Underestimation. Animals (Basel). 2023 Nov 25;13(23):3646. doi: 10.3390/ani13233646. PMID: 38066997; PMCID: PMC10705725.

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