In part two of this two-part series on canine obesity, Dr. Karen Becker discusses the reason your dog might be overweight and what you can – and should – do about it.
In part 1 of this series we discussed the number one culprit contributing to the canine obesity epidemic – the pet food industry.
Now we'll move on to other big offenders: pet owners and veterinarians.
Culprit #2: Dog Owners
The second major contributor to an overweight dog is the owner. That would be you.
I know this isn't what you want to hear, but if you have a heavy pet the fact is you're contributing to her medical condition.
The first thing you should do if your dog is overweight is take a look at how you're feeding her. If you're providing her with an all day all-you-can-eat buffet – meaning there's a constantly refilled bowl of food down for her at all times – that practice must stop.
You can't control your pup's food portions with this type of feeding schedule, and the only way to diet your dog down to a healthy size is through portion control.
Portion Control is Key
I can't stress this enough -- you must use a measuring cup when you feed your dog.
Please don't use a coffee scoop. Or a coffee mug. And put down that empty Slurpee cup. You need to use a kitchen measuring cup to portion out the food going into your dog's bowl.
Does that mean you'll be feeding your pup less than his calorie requirement? It does, and he'll be hungry. Which means you'll have to practice some tough love with him.
Keep the end goal in mind. You're doing what's right for your pup, and he'll be healthier for it in the long run.
You'll need to feed your dog a calorie deficit – fewer calories than a maintenance serving – in order to bring his weight down. This will require careful, measured portion control, and don't forget to account for those treats!
Many dog owners don't realize the calories from that last little bit of pizza crust or a nibble of bread from your sandwich can add up fast – especially if you have a small breed dog.
Believe it or not, an 8 pound Chihuahua's stomach is about the size of a walnut. A dog this size needs just a small amount of food to maintain her energy requirements.
If you're sharing bites of your own food or dog treats with your pup in addition to her portion-controlled meals each day, then whether you own a Yorkie or a Great Dane, there's a very good chance your pooch is consuming too many calories.
What Variety of Food Are You Feeding?
Even if your dog is too heavy, I don't recommend 'light' varieties of pet food.
As we saw in part 1, your dog can actually gain weight eating a food marketed as diet or light. These foods can be higher in calories per cup than regular varieties – they can also contain a very high percentage of carbs your dog's body will store as fat.
Light varieties of pet food also often provide less nutritional value than other varieties. You certainly don't want to end up with an even heavier, nutritionally deficient pet.
If you feed your pup commercial dog food, I recommend you choose a regular maintenance variety that is moderate in fat and higher in protein. Then feed the portion that best complements your pet's energy expenditure.
Don't be fooled by pet food marketing claims about 'light' or 'diet' foods. The trick is to read the fine print on the bag, go online to the manufacturer's website, or call their toll-free number and learn how many calories per cup that specific food contains.
The E Word
Another way you might be contributing to your dog's weight problem is through insufficient exercise.
Lots of folks get home at the end of the day feeling overworked and exhausted. Or it's cold and dark outside on winter evenings. Or sometimes, you just don't feel like exercising your dog.
What I hear often from dog owners at my Natural Pet clinic is, "But I DO exercise my dog! We run around the house! And sometimes, we play fetch in the backyard!"
I hate to be the bearer of more bad news, but running around the house or a quick game of fetch in your backyard won't provide adequate exercise for your pup.
Your dog needs to elevate his heart rate for a minimum of 20 minutes consistently throughout the week, and the only way to get it done is through heart-thumping, muscle-building, calorie burning aerobic exercise.
This means you must put your four-legged buddy on his leash and get moving. Really moving – not the sniff-piddle-dawdle, Sunday-walk-in-the-park variety. Your dog's heart rate must be elevated for an adequate amount of time, several times a week in order to move his body into a fat-burning state.
Yep, it's true.
When it comes to pet obesity in the U.S., many veterinarians are part of the problem and not the solution.
If your vet has told you that spaying or neutering will not affect your dog's weight, you've been misinformed.
Many vets insist spaying and neutering doesn't change a dog's metabolism. But common sense tells us that when the sex hormone-producing organs are removed, metabolism does indeed change. It slows down.
I spayed a Newfoundland at Natural Pet back in November. I saw her again in January. In about eight weeks' time, she'd gained 22 pounds – over 10 pounds a month since removal of her reproductive organs. That is a very rapid weight gain.
When I mentioned her weight during her visit, her owner commented that the dog still looked good despite her size. And I agreed, but went on to explain that at a weight gain of 10 pounds per month, by next year when she's three, she'll be obese and at significantly increased risk for a myriad of weight-related health problems.
In my view, veterinarians should be honest and straightforward about the effect of spaying and neutering on a dog's metabolism. Doing so will let pet parents know when they pick their pup up from surgery that it's time to re-evaluate caloric intake and implement portion control.
Your Dog's Age Can Also Be a Factor in Weight Gain
Just as with people, the dreaded 'midlife spread' is quite common in dogs.
If you're still feeding your three year-old dog the same portion you fed him when he was just a year, you're probably over feeding.
Many breeds are prone to weight gain over time, including:
- Cocker Spaniels
- Golden Retrievers
- Labrador Retrievers
- Basset Hounds
If your dog is a breed predisposed to gain weight, you should be very careful not only to count her calories, but also to pop her on a scale regularly to make sure her weight's not inching up by a half-pound here or a few ounces there.
Dogs can gain weight much like people do – slowly, but consistently. So weighing your pup regularly is an excellent way to keep track of her size and adjust portions and exercise accordingly.
Could Your Too-Heavy Dog Have a Hormone Disorder?
Undiagnosed hormone disorders can be another reason for your dog's weight gain, and this is one more area where many veterinarians drop the ball.
Adrenal and thyroid diseases are extremely common in the pet population. And while some veterinarians, like me, are very aware of the impact of endocrine disorders on weight gain, many are not.
If your dog is overweight despite your best efforts to keep him fit and your vet hasn't worked with you to identify potential metabolic issues, ask him or her to check for adrenal and thyroid disorders.
If you're dieting and exercising your overweight pup but his weight isn't budging, a metabolic condition could be the reason.
Don't Kid Yourself. An Overweight Dog is Reason for Concern.
How should you feel if your dog is too heavy?
I have pet owners tell me, "You know, I realize my Lab is five or 10 pounds overweight – but she's only four, and she looks good and feels good."
And I don't disagree. A slightly chunky four year-old medium to large breed dog can look good and feel good. For now.
A younger, larger breed pup can be overweight and not have many, or any, current health problems.
But if the weight doesn't come off before that same dog hits midlife, health issues will come into play and by her geriatric years, that extra weight becomes a tremendous metabolic risk.
Excess weight on middle aged to elderly dogs can cause a wide range of disorders, including:
- Premature arthritis
- Musculoskeletal ailments like disc and cervical neck disease
- Back problems
- ACL and soft tissue ruptures
- Ligament and tendon tears
- Heart and respiratory disease
For example, weight gain causes snoring. If you notice your overweight dog has started to snore, you might assume it's no big deal. In fact, snoring is an indicator of a respiratory condition in the making.
Other health problems – skin conditions, diabetes, immune system dysfunction and even certain types of cancer – have all been linked to obesity in dogs.
Hopefully if you weren't convinced before that your overweight pooch needs attention, you now feel motivated to help your perfect-but-chubby canine pal reach his ideal body weight.