With just over a month to go before Christmas, the next few weeks are, for many of us, a time for overindulgence. Festive overeating, however, is a human treat and should not be extended to our pets, with obesity being one of their most common health problems.

Lloyd Kenda, of Valley Veterinary Centre www.valleyvetcentre.com.hk says: "During the festive season, we have a tendency to eat too much of the wrong things combined with not exercising sufficiently. Our pets can be affected by this, as they may enjoy the availability of more snacks around the home, and sometimes well-meaning guests feeding them tidbits. They, too, can suffer from overindulgence during the season."

Kenda adds that a few extra kilos is not a big deal, but it should not go beyond that. "Sure, it is fine to carry a few extra pounds, but some dogs and cats I see are too round to even groom themselves, let alone exhibit any activity levels."

Obesity in pets can lead to a variety of associated health problems, says Kenda. One of these is diabetes. "Like people, the risk of diabetes significantly increases in pets that are overweight and older. Yes, this can be managed medically but, more importantly, it can be prevented if the pet is kept at an ideal body weight with a balanced diet and regular exercise."

Another potential problem associated with excess weight is the development of arthritis. "Remember that an overweight pet is giving extra work to all of its joints. This becomes even more apparent as the pet matures, and significant arthritis can develop."

Arthritic changes in a joint are not reversible, Kenda says, so if the damage is done, then it is too late. "Once again, regular exercise and a balanced diet can reduce the onset of such degenerative changes, which should be a priority for owners."

These are just two of the health problems connected to weight issues. Others include high blood pressure, kidney disease, certain cancers, heart and respiratory disease, and shorter life expectancy. For example, some studies predict that obesity in dogs can shorten their life by two years.

It is worth noting that some dog breeds are more prone to obesity than others, so owners of these breeds need to be extra vigilant. The reasons behind this vary. For example, some breeds have a lower metabolic rate and some are generally less active, while others are just plain greedy, acting as if they are hungry all the time. Two breeds that are particularly prone to obesity are beagles and pugs.

Determining if your beloved pet is obese is not just a matter of how much it weighs, Kenda says. Weight is only a rough guide to the body condition, the vet says. "Body scoring your pet is easier and more accurate. Does your pet have a waist, or is it a barrel on legs? Run your fingers over the rib cage - can you feel the ribs easily or is there too much coverage there?"

Kenda advises that it is better to be safe than sorry and owners should err on the side of caution if obesity may be an issue with their pets. "It may also be worth a visit to the vet to discuss your pet's weight, diet and general fitness levels. Blood tests may be useful to determine the functional status of organs and hormone levels, as in some cases a pet's obesity may actually have a medical cause and treating the disease will help with the weight loss."

If it is established that the weight gain is due to diet alone, then a programme can be set into place to try to achieve a healthy target weight. Kenda says: "There needs to be an assessment of how much exercise your pet gets and how much they can cope with. Changing diets for weight loss should be monitored by a vet to ensure that the pet does not have any problems during the change-over phase."

He says one of the most important things to remember is that if a pet is overweight, the responsibility lies with the owner, not the pet. "Remember, we the owners feed our pets and decide what and how much they eat. Your cat or dog cannot open the refrigerator and have a midnight snack. They only eat what you give them, so don't cave in to those big brown eyes and cute faces."

Instead of waiting to make it a new year's resolution to get your pet into shape, start today. It will keep them from suffering associated diseases down the line, and it may just save their life.

For editorial inquiries: specialistpublications@scmp.com