Not a Pet Toxin, but Just as Deadly

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

overweight dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Many people with overweight dogs don’t seem to understand their pets are too heavy, or the tremendous damage that excess fat is causing
  • It’s important that pet parents learn the difference between overweight and normal weight dogs, and take action at the first sign their dog is getting heavy
  • High-fiber diets are not a good tool to achieve weight loss in dogs, because they aren’t biologically appropriate and don’t provide nourishment at the cellular level
  • All dogs, including those who are overweight, do best eating small amounts of species-appropriate fiber as part of a nutritionally balanced diet
  • Daily exercise, including extended periods of aerobic exertion, is also crucially important

Many people with overweight dogs seem oblivious to the fact that their pet is, indeed, fat. It’s a trend that as loving, caring pet parents, we urgently need to reverse.

There are probably several reasons for this epidemic of fat-blindness, one of which is that because so many pets today are heavy, overweight dogs have become the new normal. In fact, I know pet parents with lean, fit dogs who are now being told by the misguided that they’re “starving” their animals!

In addition, pet parents, especially if they’re overweight themselves, have a tendency to make the dangerous assumption that they have all the time in the world to get the extra pounds off their dog. To be blunt, they’re lying to themselves. The canine lifespan, compared to ours, is short, and the aging process is greatly accelerated.

The damage that extra fat does to dogs’ bodies is instantaneously debilitating and causes the same obesity-related diseases humans acquire. Last year, pet health insurer Nationwide reported the following top obesity-related conditions in dogs:1

1. Arthritis

2. Bladder/urinary tract disease

3. Liver disease

4. Low thyroid hormone production

5. Torn knee ligaments

6. Diabetes

7. Diseased disc in spine

8. Chronic kidney disease

9. Heart failure

10. High blood pressure

Some of these conditions are clearly linked to excess fat, but others, such as liver and kidney disease, are less apparent, but no less deadly. It’s simply a fact that excess weight is disastrous to dogs’ health and shortens their already abbreviated lives. This is all doubly tragic when we realize our dogs aren’t doing this to themselves — it’s entirely the fault of their human caretakers. There are no fat dogs in the wild.

How to Determine if Your Dog Is Overweight

Since there’s an increasingly distorted view among pet parents of what constitutes an overweight dog, it’s helpful to look down at your dog while standing over him. Can you see a tapered-in waist, or is he oval-shaped, indicating he’s probably too heavy? Another clue — you should be able to feel his ribs and the bones near the base of his tail. If you can’t, he’s probably overweight, and if so, you’ll also see excess fat on his abdomen, hips and neck.

Also compare your dog to this body condition chart provided by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA):

dog body condition score

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The goal is a body condition score of 5. If you’re still not sure whether your dog is overweight, ask your veterinarian for his or her opinion.

Why I Never Recommend High-Fiber Diets for Weight Loss in Pets

Research published in 2017 by a processed pet food manufacturer and touted as the largest global study of weight loss in dogs, involved 926 dogs in 27 countries.2 For three months, the dogs ate a high-fiber, “high-protein” diet — either one of two dry diets or a canned diet, all made by Royal Canin. The dogs also increased their activity level.

The study was a success for Royal Canin, since the dogs lost an average of 11 percent of body weight, and they can market their results on a global scale. But in my experience, there’s a much healthier and longer-lasting approach to helping your dog lose excess pounds and maintain a healthy weight, and it starts with biologically appropriate food, which the diets in the study definitely are not.

The first five ingredients in one of the dry formulas used in the study, Royal Canin’s Satiety Weight Management Canine, are powdered cellulose, chicken by-product meal, corn, wheat gluten and wheat.3 These ingredients are all kinds of awful, and in addition, the formula contains a whopping 18.8 percent fiber, which is about twice the amount in your average bag of grain-free dog food.

The first ingredient, meaning the ingredient that makes up the majority of the Royal Canin formula, is powdered cellulose, which is actually — I kid you not — wood pulp. Yes, sawdust is the main ingredient in this kibble.

Dogs Do Best With Very Small Amounts of Species-Appropriate Fiber

Powdered cellulose has a tremendous amount of insoluble fiber, and too much of it can interfere with your dog’s ability to digest and assimilate important nutrients like protein and minerals. High levels of cellulose can also rob cells in the colon of critical fuel, like butyrate, due to reduced fermentation.4

In addition, excessive powdered cellulose in your dog’s food will cause him to produce a bigger volume of poop. Too much fiber acts as a mechanical barrier, preventing trace minerals, vitamins and antioxidants from getting to and through the walls of your pet's gastrointes­tinal (GI) tract. Fiber may make your dog feel temporarily full, but he's not being nourished at the cellular level.

It’s important to remember that wild canines have no physiologic requirement for the plant fibers used in most processed pet food. The fiber they eat is primarily derived from the already digested stomach contents of their prey, plus fur, tendons and ligaments.

Dogs fed processed commercial diets very often benefit from the addition of a small amount of the right kind of fiber, which is fiber that closely mimics the GI contents of small prey animals. However, when your pet consumes unnecessary fillers, like wads of fiber, it inhibits digestion and absorption of many vital nutrients.

A small amount of fiber is very important, but a diet loaded with fiber is very detrimental. If you're feeding your dog a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet with appropriate supplementation, including pet probiotics and digestive enzymes, and she's easily producing small, firm stools, she's getting all the fiber she needs.

How to Get Your Dog’s Weight Under Control

For the sake of your overweight furry best friend, I recommend you do the following:

  1. Use this calorie calculator to determine how much food your dog should eat each day to reach his ideal body weight. This is probably the most overlooked step in weight loss success.
  2. Feed a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet to your dog. Regardless of her weight, she still needs the right nutrition for her species, which means food that is high in animal protein and moisture, with low or no grain content.
  3. Practice portion control — typically a morning and evening meal, carefully measured. A high-protein, low-carb diet with the right amount of calories for weight loss, controlled through the portions you feed, is what will take the weight off your dog. And don't forget to factor in any calories from treats.
  4. Regularly exercise your dog. An overweight body gets back in shape by taking in fewer calories and expending more energy. Daily exercise, including a bare minimum of 20 minutes of consistent aerobic activity, will help your dog burn fat and increase muscle tone.

The key to keeping your dog at a healthy weight and nutritionally fit at the cellular level is a high-animal protein, moisture-rich diet fed in controlled portions, and augmented with plenty of physical activity.