Ideal Body Condition and How to Get There
By Megan Schneider, DVM
What does “ideal body condition” even mean? With so many different dog and cat breeds out there, how can one standard fit them all? A body condition score is something assessed by the veterinarian on a scale from 1 to 9 (or occasionally from 1 to 5). A score of “one” indicates the animal is emaciated – basically just skin and bones – and a score of “nine” indicates morbid obesity. The scale is used to help monitor whether a Labrador listed at 70# is an average-sized, healthy lab, a large skinny lab, or a small, overweight dog. The goal is for pets to maintain their weight in a range that keeps their body condition score between a 4 and a 6. Keeping pets within this range is one of the best ways to keep them healthy and even lengthen their lifespan.
Body condition is assessed as part of every physical exam. The vet will palpate the flesh over the neck/shoulder, over the ribs and over the base of the tail. They will also visually observe the pet’s waistline from the side and from above. To earn a body condition score of 5 (“ideal”), the ribs should be easily palpable, without being too prominent – sort of like “speed humps” instead of “speed bumps” when you run your fingers along their chest. There should not be any excess fat around the neck or the base of the tail. The patient’s abdomen should be tucked up toward the spine when viewed from the side and the body should narrow noticeably after the ribcage when viewed from above.
Achieving, and maintaining, this ideal body condition provides a multitude of benefits (as discussed in last month’s article – see here) from better joint health, to improved cardiovascular endurance to longer lifespans. So, then the question becomes how to get Fluffy or Fido down to their fighting weight. Most pets love food, they love dinnertime, and they especially love those extra goodies – the cookie they get when mom leaves for the day, or the tasty tidbits dad shares from dinner. And they can get pretty persistent about asking for those treats if you try to cut them off cold turkey. The best way to try and get pets to slim down is a combination of increased activity and decreased calories. You can increase their activity with little things like taking an extra 10min walk a couple times a day, playing a game of fetch in the backyard more often, or even encouraging swimming during these hot months. For cats figuring out their favorite play-things – a catnip mouse, pouncing on a wriggling ribbon or batting at a waving feather – can encourage them to be more active. Cutting back on calories can be done by replacing high calorie treats (dog bones, kitty snax, or leftovers) with lower calorie options (carrot sticks, air-popped popcorn, ice cubes) and/or you can discuss switching from their regular food to a lower calorie prescription diet formulated to help improve metabolism and minimize excess calories.
Making these small changes consistently over the days and weeks can add up to big changes and can lead to a major health boost for your furry companion. Please note – if you are making all these changes, and you are still not seeing any weight loss, or the weight is coming off too fast – or without even trying – it may be time for another check-up with the veterinarian to ensure there are no health issues interfering with appropriate weight loss.