It’s a question all dog owners should ask. Approximately one out of every three dogs is overweight. In addition to decreased exercise stamina, the dangers of obesity include increased risk of joint pain and inflammation, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, heat intolerance, decreased immune strength, breathing difficulties and birthing problems. All these can make dogs lives more painful or difficult. Obesity also exacerbates symptoms of several diseases such as hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease, and hypopituitarism and may steal years from your dog’s lifespan.
Recognizing overweight is often difficult to do alone because people simply compare their dog to other dogs. Since so many dogs are fat, a dog may look ‘normal’ even thought he’s actually overweight for his size and breed. Also, many puppies have a thick, fuzzy puppy coat that hides their actual body shape. But even puppies can be dangerously overweight which is hazardous for their growth. Your veterinarian can help you determine if your dog is overweight not only by weighing him, but also by measuring several areas on his body and giving him a body condition score. Body condition matters because weight alone may give a false impression of what’s normal. Just because a dog has lost a pre-determined number of kilograms doesn’t mean he’s reached his ideal body weight.
Some breeds, such as Cocker Spaniels, Shetland Sheepdogs, Basset Hounds, Labrador Retrievers, Beagles and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are more prone to obesity than others, likely due to their genetic make up, which affects their overall metabolic efficiency. These breeds are highly food motivated and will do almost anything for food! While it’s difficult to ignore their begging eyes, remember it’s for their own good.
You can help prevent overweight by meal feeding instead of simply filling your dog’s bowl whenever it’s empty. If allowed, many puppies and dogs eat far more than they require. Ask your veterinarian to help you determine an appropriate amount of food for your dog per day. This should be given divided into two (for adult dogs) or three (for young puppies) smaller meals per day. As puppies grow and older dogs age, their caloric and nutritional requirements change. This is because they are growing less or not at all, and need less calories and different amounts of nutrients. Your veterinarian can help you revise your pet’s food type and amounts regularly.
While it’s easier to prevent obesity than it is for dogs to lose weight, there are many ways you can help your dog reach his ideal body condition. Proper nutrition and exercise are equally important. But don’t simply decrease the amount of food or your dog may end up receiving inadequate levels of key nutrients. Your veterinarian can help you choose a special diet food and develop a feed guideline based on his energy requirements. Special prescription diets, available from your veterinarian, may be low in calories but high in fiber to prevent hunger, or may have special ingredients such as carnitine that helps fat utilization and muscle building.
Consider the calories in treats as well. Even with low calorie food, too many treats every day give your dog much more than he needs. Regular dog treats are usually high in fat, which prevent him from losing the necessary weight. Your veterinarian can help you choose low calorie dog treats. Often, a small piece of apple or carrot will do. Many dogs don’t care about the size of treat they get; they’re happy just to get something. However, some dogs seem to count the number of treats they get. Try giving them very small pieces in exchange for some exercise such as fetch. This not only improves your dog’s body condition but his obedience level too!
Keep in mind that food isn’t the only reward dogs respond to for training. Shift the reward to physical praise such a neck rub or petting, and he’s less likely to get too many extra calories. Also, when your dog wants attention, offer him a toy instead of a treat or engage in playtime. Sometimes dogs eat out of boredom, and if offered other activities, will happily oblige!
Most dogs require at least 20 to 60 minutes of exercise per day. Walks and hikes are excellent exercise both of you may enjoy. Some dogs can be trained to swim or use an under water treadmill, ideal for dogs with arthritis. For more active dogs, fun activities such as fly ball competitions or agility classes are a great way to stay in shape. Exercise makes your dog’s life more fulfilling and keeps his mind off food. But don’t over exhaust him. Your veterinarian can help you develop a safe exercise program for your dog – complete with special warm up stretches and cool down massages!
Results can change the quality of your dog’s life, like for Tequila, a very special Shih Tzu I placed on a weight loss program. We had the owner bring Tequila in for weigh-ins every 2 weeks to monitor her progress. As her weight decreased and her body condition improved, Tequila became more energetic and playful. Her owner even enrolled her in a fly ball team!
Keeping your dog at an ideal body condition allows you not only to share many more years of life with him but helps him live a happier, more comfortable life. And that’s what veterinary medicine is all about!
Check your dog’s body condition
Body condition scoring is based on three main features.
The ribs: A healthy dog has ribs that are easy to feel even though a thin fat layer is present between the skin and the bones. The ribs of overweight dogs can barely be felt at all. Puppies have a lot of extra skin that they eventually grow into, but even in a puppy, the ribs should still be easy to feel.
The hour glass: By looking down at your dog’s back while he’s standing, you should see an ‘hour glass figure’, meaning the chest area should be wider than the hip area if your dog has a normal body condition.
The belly: By looking at your standing dog from the side, it should be obvious that his chest dips lower to the ground than his belly area. If your dog’s belly dips as low as his chest, he’s likely overweight.