How to body condition score a dog or cat
Updated: Oct 6
I think most of us have heard about the body condition scoring (BCS) system for dogs and cats. It’s a semiquantitative method to evaluate the % body fat in an animal. This is somewhat similar to the body mass index (BMI) used in humans, which uses body weight and height to give an indication of body size. The current versions of the BCS systems used today in dogs and cats were first introduced in the 1990’s by Dr. Dottie Laflamme (1,2). Dottie and her team developed a 1 to 9 scoring system by using a group of dogs and cats with different fatness and a machine called a dual energy x-ray absorptiometry, or DEXA for short. You might be familiar with a DEXA machine if you have older parents, as it’s commonly used to measure bone density and to monitor for osteoporosis. However, this machine can also be used to measure fat mass as well and the researchers were able to correlate results with a 1 to 9 body conditions scale.
Since the inception of the 1 to 9 BCS system, other studies have gone on to validate it (3–5). However, one limitation to all of these studies is that they mostly used dogs and cats that were in ideal weight, or who were overweight, but not many who were underweight. That means that the validity of the BCS system in very lean dogs and cats has not been shown. In addition, there is a breed-bias to the BCS system - for dogs at least (6). Greyhounds are a particular breed where this is true; they can be in ideal condition according to the BCS system, but actually have a much, much lower fat mass (7,8). With all of this in mind, however, the BCS system is still a good, simple way to determine if a dog or cat is over or underweight. Everyone should learn how to do it.
With the 1 to 9 BCS system, a score of 4 or 5 is considered ideal, which equates to about 15 – 20% body fat mass. Every body condition is approximately a 5% change in body fat mass and a 10% change in overall body weight. If a BCS of 4 is considered ideal, then a BCS of 3 or lower means that your dog or cat is underweight. This might be because they’re simply not eating enough, or it could be because of something more serious. Cancer, heart disease and renal disease are examples of conditions where a pet is at risk of losing body weight and having a low body condition score. On the other hand, a BCS of 6 or higher means that your dog or cat is overweight. Obesity is a big problem in pets, pardon the pun, which is a worldwide phenomenon. In the UK, a recent study found that 65% of the dogs in their study were overweight and 9% were obese (9). In Sweden, 45% of cats were described to be overweight in one study (10). Finally, in a survey in the USA, 37% of dogs were classified as overweight and 22% were classified as obese, whereas 28% of cats were classified as overweight and 33% as obese (11). So no matter where we look in the world, the prevalence of overweight and obese pets are at least a third to half of the population. These are alarming figures.
The challenge here is that while we know more pets are becoming overweight, pet parents are still not recognizing it. In the same US study, a third of the pet parents of overweight pets self-classified their pets as having an ideal body condition (11). This is a particular concern in growing animals. Like in humans, where being overweight in childhood and during adolescence is associated with being overweight as an adult, the same holds true for puppies and kittens (12–14). So we really need to be making sure that our puppies and kittens grow at a healthy weight to set them up for success in the future. We’ll touch on BCS scoring of puppies today, but how to fully assess the growth of pups and kittens deserves its own blog - so look out for that in the near future!
Ultimately, we can’t change what we can’t see. This is why I firmly believe that all pet parents should know how to body condition score their own animals. Once you get the hang of it, it’s super easy to do. I do it weekly on Boston, and I use the information to adjust the amount of food I feed her. I literally have never weighed out her food once her entire life, and that’s saying something as a veterinary nutritionist! But that’s another topic for another day.
So, how does one body condition score dogs and cats? All you have to remember is this: visualize and feel three. There are three body locations to look at and feel in order to body condition score your pet: the ribs, waist, and abdomen (also known as the belly).
1. Ribs – in an ideally conditioned animal, the ribs should be easily felt without requiring too much pressure. If the ribs are prominent, especially if you can see and feel individual ribs, your pet is too thin. If you’re having to apply pressure to actually feel the ribs, then your pet has too much fat coverage over them.
2. Waist – look from the top (an aerial view), and there should be a nice, hourglass waist. If there is a really prominent waist, then your pet might be too thin. If there is no waist, then your pet is likely overweight.
3. Abdomen/belly – when viewing from the side, you should see that the abdomen tucks up nicely. If there is no tuck or even worse, if you see a bulge, then your pet is likely overweight. A special point here is that some cats have a noticeable primordial pouch, which can make the abdominal assessment more difficult. The key here is that the pouch should be made of loose skin with only a little fat. If there is bulging or quite a prominent pouch, then your cat may be overweight. Also consider what you found when examining the ribs and waist to make your overall assessment.
The technique of body condition scoring lends itself better to visuals rather than written word, so check out the video below (all the way down) where I walk through the steps for both dogs and cats.
But that’s it! Easy-peasy. I recommend doing this weekly and before you know it, you’ll be so comfortable doing it that it will take you under a minute to BCS your pet. If you’re not sure if you’re doing it right, you can reach out to your pet’s veterinarian to double check. There are also tons of free resources and charts available online for vets and owners to use. I like to recommend the WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee guidelines which can be found here and is available in several languages: https://wsava.org/global-guidelines/global-nutrition-guidelines/
So overall, being able to correctly BCS your pet gives you so much knowledge and understanding about the state of their health. It’s an easy way to monitor their weight without needing a scale. You can also use this information to alert you if your pet is starting to lose weight and you may need to either increase how much you’re feeding or consider whether there is a medical reason behind it. Or if your pet is starting to gain too much weight, and you need to start cutting back on how much your feeding. It’s a very useful skill and one that I hope empowers pet parents to make the best decisions for their dogs and cats.
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