September is Pain Awareness Month, so we thought we’d tackle an insidious, but little often recognised by owners, cause of pain – weight, or specifically being overweight.
It’s simultaneously easy and difficult to understand why so many of our dogs and cats are overweight or obese, but with the British Veterinary Association citing that over 60% of vets identify it as being the highest health & welfare concern for pets in the UK, it’s self-evidently an issue. We initially described it as an insidious cause of pain – this is because we’re not just talking about the typical headlines of cardio-vascular disease or diabetes, we’re talking about the slow increase in pain that weight gain can cause.
It’s difficult to see why so many of our pets are overweight; although we might eat a flapjack because we fancy something sweet, there’s no desire to feed our pets based on our own hunger. We can ration their food and plan their exercise, and we can monitor their weight and physical body shape for free. But then it’s easy to see why so many are overweight given that the NHS is facing an obesity crisis for their human patients – inheriting genes from our parents that predispose us to weight gain is possible but un-common, cooking habits and un-healthy relationships with food are far more prevalent, and our pets suffer our bad habits and ignorance. When we’re constantly exposed to seeing overweight, obese and morbidly obese people and pets, the shift in “normal” on that bell-curve means that as we sit in our store with dogs walking in and out, owners will often worry that their perfectly healthy dog is now dangerously underweight as the other dogs around them are so much larger.
Whatever the cause of a pet being overweight, its impact on pain is significant. There’s a principal called shock-loading. This is where the force of an object is increased far beyond its own weight; if you were to be lowered off a cliff on a taught rope, the person holding the rope would be just holding your body weight. If the rope was slack when you jumped off the cliff, and you gained 3 or 4 meters of momentum, when the rope pulled tight and you were caught, the person holding the rope would have to try and hold the force of someone several times your body weight even though you’re the same weight yourself. Some will have experienced their dog hitting the end of a flexi-lead running at full pelt and know just how painful that will be on your own joints let alone the poor dog’s neck.
This principal extends across to our joints, and the joints of our pets. When you stand still, you have to carry your own body weight, but if you’re walking or running, the force and pressure on your legs is greater than when you were standing still. This may all sound simple and obvious, but the ramifications are amplified by weight gain. A 10% increase in weight is not simply a 10% increase in pressure on joints, it will be far greater.
Conditions such as arthritis are of course painful, but the number of overweight arthritic pets is staggering. On the one hand it’s easy to excuse, because if you exercise your arthritic pet it may cause them pain, and so weight gain begins to take hold as they exercise less. But on the other hand, if you begin on that feedback loop of pain leading to weight gain, leading to more pain which in turn leads to more weight gain etc, then it’s much more difficult to reverse. Early recognition that weight gain can only exacerbate the issue is critical, as it leads to your pet not being able to walk as far, and so their world becomes smaller and smaller until they’re in so much pain that they rarely leave the house. Being able to recognise that, and then remove all of that extra pressure from your pet’s joints can give them a new lease of life, but preventing it happening in the first place is always better! If you’re worried your pet is in pain, talk to your vet about how to manage their pain and avoid the weight-gain feedback loop.
You may be thinking that your younger dog is OK then because they’re not arthritic, but the joints of overweight younger dogs can still be achy and painful – much more so than if they were a healthy weight. There’s also substantial differences between breeds: consider all of that extra weight on the spine of a Dachshund, or the added breathing difficulties to brachycephalic dogs.
There’s a common theme that we see in our store – people essentially using how much they spoil their dog as a proxy for how much they love their dog. They WANT to feed their dogs and cats extra treats, leftovers from dinner, chews etc, because they know their pet enjoys it, and they want to make them happy. But the dog, cat etc has no thought for the future and the health troubles they may experience, they don’t understand that their life could be shortened, let alone their walks. So although the owner in the short term thinks they’re being kind to their pet by feeding it extra tit-bits, they may become the direct cause of their pet’s pain, or worse, premature death.
Educating owners is critical, but approaching them in a way where they are willing to accept their dog is overweight, is incredibly difficult. No one wants to think of their pet as obese. Nobody wants to admit that they’ve done something wrong, and certainly we don’t want to think that we could be the direct cause of our beloved pet’s suffering. The likelihood is the owner doesn’t recognise that their pet is overweight, and consequently using weight loss to help manage pain is difficult yet effective.
Weight gain is insidious in nature. Recognising and establishing a healthy body condition for your pet can be done easily with the help of your vet, and easily maintained with weight-tracking apps on your smartphone. We have veterinary weighing scales in store and encourage owners to use them as often as they like, free of charge. All owners need to do is maintain that healthy body condition, keep track of their weight, and we could prevent years of pain for the animals that we love so much.