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The Big Fat Truth About Canine Obesity
Changing our own habits can help our dogs live longer

Obesity in dogs could be considered a perception problem—a human perception problem. While a whopping 34 percent of dogs are overweight, only around 30 to 40 percent of the folks who put the food in the bowl for them know it. Canine obesity can cause or worsen musculoskeletal problems, exercise intolerance, cardiovascular problems and glucose tolerance imbalances. It also weakens the immune system and increases the risks of anesthesia; during certain surgical procedures, it can increase heat sensitivity.

 

Need more? The worst thing about dogs is that they don’t live long enough. Canine lifespan has been extended by as much as two years when the dogs are kept lean, and that’s the kind of life insurance we can all buy.

 

Why Are Dogs Fat?

What makes dogs fat? There’s the obvious answer—too many calories, not enough exercise—but that’s an oversimplification. Canine and human lifestyle issues, as well as human psychology, carry most of the blame, although hormone imbalances (see Balancing Act below), reproductive status and genetics play minor roles.

 

For most overweight dogs, the real culprit is a combination of free-feeding, boredom and not enough playtime. And then there’s the psychological component. No, don’t call the doggie shrink, because it’s not the dog’s psyche; it’s the psyche of the person who’s responsible for leaving a big bowl of dog food available all day and cutting the half-hour walk down to a five-minute backyard potty break.

 

Furthermore, although dogs of any breed (or mix) can be overweight, research shows that dogs of certain breeds are more prone to being overweight than others, which suggests a genetic component. These breeds include Cocker Spaniels, Labrador and Golden Retrievers, Basset Hounds, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Dachshunds.

 

Does spaying and neutering make your dog fat? Of course not. But there is a connection between how many calories a dog requires and reproductive status. This doesn’t mean that being altered “makes” your dog fat; it means that spayed and neutered dogs, as well as older dogs, generally require fewer calories and/or more exercise to maintain a healthy weight. As your dog ages, and after altering, you need to be especially aware of weight gain, and act immediately to reduce caloric intake and increase activity levels if necessary.

 

Healthy Weight Loss

While healthy, permanent weight loss in humans is hard to achieve, it’s much easier with dogs. They don’t eat a container of Ben and Jerry’s after a stressful day, and they rarely hit the drive-through instead of making a healthy dinner. As long as the human in the relationship manages not to overfeed and under-exercise the dog, weight-loss programs for canines are surprisingly successful.

 

Before getting started, head to the vet and make sure your dog doesn’t have medical issues that might be affected by a weight-loss and exercise program. Than ask your vet to help you calculate a reasonable caloric intake for your dog. Aim for a loss of no more than 1 to 2 percent of body weight per week.

 

There are a number of ways to determine a starting caloric level for healthy weight loss. Your veterinarian can use formulas known as Maintenance Energy Requirement (MER) or Resting Energy Requirement (RER) to give you a basic caloric level for your dog’s diet. Other practitioners simply restrict food below current levels by a specific percentage. While different methods may result in different figures, these differences aren’t important. Trial and error is required to determine your actual dog’s metabolic requirements, but any of these methods give you a place to start. If your dog doesn’t lose weight, or loses weight too rapidly, that particular caloric level is not right for that dog and should be adjusted up or down as necessary.

 

Knowing how many calories a given commercial food contains in a serving can be confusing. Sometimes the calories are given per cup, and other times per gram, and sometimes both. A cup of one food might weigh more or less than a cup of another food, so buy a food scale and measure the food by weight, not by volume. Don’t just follow the feeding guidelines on a bag of food, as they are almost always too generous to support weight loss. If feeding a home-prepared diet, simply calculate the calories in the ingredients as you would for your own diet.

 

In addition, restricting calories too severely—especially for very obese dogs—can backfire, and can also result in nutritional deficiencies that can impair wound-healing and immune function. When it comes to healthy weight loss, patience is a virtue. Loss of more than 2 percent of body weight in a week can lead to the loss of lean muscle instead of fat. Don’t rush things; if your dog has a lot of weight to lose, decrease his or her caloric intake in stages, and realize that most dogs will lose ounces, not pounds, at a time. As long as the scale keeps moving downward, slow is better than fast.

 

One of the biggest culprits in canine obesity is lack of exercise, and not just because exercise cranks up the metabolism and burns calories. It’s also because our sedentary pets are bored, and eating is one of the things they do to alleviate boredom. If we leave food available to them throughout the day, as is extremely common, they will eat more than if we feed them on a schedule and then pick up any uneaten food after a fixed amount of time. So let go of the convenience of free-feeding, feed your dog two or more small meals a day at regular intervals and make your dog’s life more active and interesting with longer walks and increased playtime.

 

It’s Up to Us

A study at Ohio State University found that weight-loss programs for dogs were extremely successful as long as the people involved stuck with them. Being lean can add years to your dog’s life, and being obese can cause a myriad of health problems and significant joint pain. Our dogs can’t join a gym or eat better on their own; it’s up to us to make healthy choices on their behalf.

 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 37: Jul/Aug 2006
Christie Keith has covered canine health and welfare issues since 1991, is the lead science reporter for Pet Connection and writes the "Your Whole Pet" column.

Illustration by Michael S. Wertz

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