By Dr. Becker
Overweight dogs and cats are extremely common in the U.S., but fortunately it's not every day that you see a dog as severely obese as "Fat Vincent." This 7-year-old dachshund was surrendered to an animal shelter after his owner died, weighing in at 38 pounds (lb).
He was so overweight that his veterinarian said she could hardly tell the difference between when he was standing or laying down; his chest and abdomen were so "padded" that they barely cleared the floor even when Vincent was standing.1
Fortunately, Vincent was taken in by the K-9 Angels Rescue group. Like many obese animals, he was struggling with obesity-related health conditions. He could barely walk and his back was having trouble supporting his extra weight. The risk of nerve damage was high.
By April 2016, about eight months after he was surrendered, Vincent successfully lost more than 20 lb. He looks like a new dog and has undoubtedly been given another chance at life.
Now he can live out the rest of his years being a dog — running, playing, chasing and digging — all things he couldn't do before. He's got a new name, too: Skinny Vinnie!
How Did Skinny Vinnie Lose Half His Body Weight?
Exercise was a key player in Vinnie's impressive transformation. He swims for up to 30 minutes daily and also takes long walks of 45 minutes to one hour, six days a week.2 There's no doubt that lack of sufficient exercise increases the risk of obesity in your pet and is necessary for healthy weight loss.
Daily exercise, including at least 20 minutes (preferably 60 minutes) of consistent aerobic activity, will help your pet burn fat and increase muscle tone.
If you're unable to provide your pet with this level of exercise (and some pets may need even more), you might consider joining a pet sports club or at least a doggy daycare that gets your pet moving.
One in Virginia charges $50 a month and boasts a 6,000-square foot facility where your dog can run and romp to burn calories.3
At another center in New Jersey, your dog or cat can partake in an indoor swimming pool, whirlpool, low-calorie meals, salon treatments and even "doga" (that's yoga for dogs).
Another great option is to hire a dog walker or jogger (or even a cat walker!), although taking your dog for long, rigorous walks yourself has the added benefit of giving you exercise too.
Keep in mind that very overweight or obese pets may not be able to do extended periods of exercise initially.
Swimming was an excellent low-impact, gentle form of exercise for Vinnie when he was first starting his weight loss journey and allowed him to progress to other forms of activity. Ask your vet for a specific exercise protocol for your pet if they're overweight.
What Does Skinny Vinnie Eat?
Skinny Vinnie's diet, though low in calories, succeeded in helping him lose weight but is not ideal in terms of nutrition. On the bright side, he's given fresh foods like baby carrots and frozen bananas for treats, but his daily meal consists of one-third cup of dry food or kibble.
Pet food high in carbohydrates, which dry food virtually always is, is the biggest cause of obesity in both dogs and cats.
While it's good that he's receiving a carefully measured portion of food daily (as opposed to being offered an all-day buffet), I would argue he could be better nourished while losing weight on a more species-appropriate diet.
The biggest problem, however, is that dogs need food that is high in animal protein and moisture, with low or no grain content.
Many low-calorie, low-fat or "diet" pet foods are just the opposite and are filled with "fat-free grains" that may add to your pet's weight problem if strict portion control isn't adhered to. A high-quality fresh food diet is an excellent choice for most pets in need of weight loss.
The truth is your pet can lose weight on any diet or food if your pet's ideal calorie intake is calculated and adhered to. But I believe it's important to adequately nourish the body as weight loss occurs, making sure a pet's abundant requirements for key amino acids, essential fatty acids and nutrient levels are met.
Nothing makes me cringe more than hearing, "I got my dog to lose 20 lbs. in one year by cutting his food in half and adding a can of green beans to each bowl daily," because that dog went a year under nourished. Animals have basic nutrient requirements that will not be met by filling their bellies with "fillers."
Loading dogs up on green beans may make them feel full but is depriving them of adequate amounts of nutrients, including vitamin D, manganese, iodine and zinc, for instance, which are critical for immune and metabolic health. The key to healthy weight loss is to meet your pet's nutritional requirements (feed a balanced diet) but feed less food, forcing the body to burn fat stores.
Losing Weight May Save Your Pet's Life
It's clear that in Vinnie's case, losing weight saved his life. Excess weight in dogs and cats can shorten lifespan and lead to conditions such as arthritis, bladder and urinary tract disease, liver disease, diabetes and more. Arthritis is the most common obesity-related disease in dogs, but heart failure, diseased discs in the spine, torn knee ligaments and kidney disease can also occur.4 Overweight and obesity is extremely common in U.S. pets.
In fact, it's more the rule than the exception; 58 percent of cats and 54 percent of dogs were overweight or obese in 2015, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP).5 It's also quite common for pet owners to believe their pet is normal weight when he's actually overweight or obese.6
Your veterinarian can tell you for sure whether your dog is a healthy weight, but some telltale signs that your dog may benefit from weight loss include the following:
- He has an oval shape when you look down on him from above
- You cannot feel your dog's ribs
- You cannot feel the bones near the base of your pet's tail (his pelvis)
- You can see excess fat on his abdomen, hips and/or neck
Are You Sabotaging Your Dog's Weight Loss?
Many pet owners love to share bits of pizza crust, dinner leftovers and other carb-based human snacks (crackers, tortilla chips, sandwich crusts, cookies, you name it) with their dogs. These added calories add up fast and can quickly sabotage your pet's weight loss goals.
More importantly, these carb-based foods negatively affect your pet's endocrine system increasing blood glucose throughout the day, which taxes the pancreas to supply enough insulin to address the elevated blood sugar these inappropriate foods created.
Elevated insulin levels create their own stressors in your pet's body, including increasing cortisol levels, which can also negatively impact health. Throw in elevated levels of leptin and the cascade of inflammatory cytokines that occur with obese pets and we have just created the recipe for disease and a shortened lifespan.
Early research demonstrates dogs respond as positively as humans do to calorie restriction and intermittent fasting (feeding one meal a day or two smaller meals within an 8-hour period). This really shouldn't be a surprise to any of us; carnivores aren't designed to "graze" all day.
In fact, my opinion is that the constant supply of carb calories being supplied to the majority of dogs and cats is a major contributor to the epidemic of degenerative diseases plaguing pets today, including diabetes and cancer. Feeding dogs and cats according to their carnivorous physiology is demonstrating very positive results. KetoPet Sanctuary is one facility, in particular, that is aggressively studying the role of calorie restriction and the ketogenic diet on cancer metabolism.
Their results are nothing short of astounding, demonstrating feeding dogs a calorie-restricted, high-fat diet has profound immune-metabolic effects. If your pet needs to lose weight, you'll need to create a nutritionally adequate but caloric deficit-diet. That is, you'll need to feed him less than his daily energy needs.
Step one: wean your dog onto a potato, corn, rice, soy and tapioca-free diet. Your best bet is to transition your pet onto a homemade diet (that lists the calories of the food you're feeding) so you know every ingredient your pet is eating.
Next, calculate kcal (kilocalorie) requirements for their ideal weight. Then most importantly, measure his food portions (using an actual measuring cup) and drastically limit treats (remember treats must be calculated into calories ingested for the day!). I recommend setting aside a few tablespoons of homemade food that can be rolled into tiny pea-sized bites and used as treats throughout the day.
Remember, pets are regimented eaters, so they will begin putting pressure on you to cave and feed them (probably because this tactic has worked before). Be strong. This requires tough love. Your dog will give you that look and you will want to give in and share your sandwich. But don't. Set new, healthier boundaries.
Ultimately, your dog is depending on your will power to get to a healthy weight (and ultimately live a longer, happier life). He cannot succeed without your commitment to the plan. It may help to remind yourself that a dog's stomach can be quite small (the size of a walnut in an 8-pound Chihuahua).
So while he may seem to be a bottomless pit, he actually needs only a small amount of food to stay lean and healthy. Finally, you can certainly let your pet indulge in healthy treats once in a while, even if he's trying to lose weight. The key is to focus on healthy treats and account for the extra calories at mealtime.
What types of treats are appropriate for a dog on a "diet"? Berries and frozen peas are good choices, as are dehydrated chicken strips that you make yourself (do not purchase commercial varieties unless you're 100 percent confident on sourcing, as many have been linked to pet illnesses).
Small amounts of other fruits (melons and apples, for example) as well as tiny cubes of low-fat cheese, also make good treats. Just be sure to feed quantities that are no more than a one-eighth inch square, and, as mentioned, watch the portions so you don't sabotage your dog's weight loss.