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The Biggest Mistakes You Can Make That Keep Your Dog Chubby

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to keep dog healthy and fit

Story at-a-glance -

  • Your pet is relying on you to keep him healthy, and while you may want to show him love by giving him extra food and treats, this form of affection could lead to weight gain that only hinders your dog’s health
  • In 2018, 55.8% of dogs were classified as overweight or obese, putting them at serious risk of related health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure and osteoarthritis
  • Nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate food that is high in animal protein and moisture, with low carbohydrate content, will help your pet thrive when fed in the proper portions and at the right time of day
  • Daily vigorous exercise will also ensure your dog stays fit and trim; letting your dog out to roam in a fenced backyard will not typically provide this
  • Overweight dogs have a shorter lifespan than dogs of a healthy weight, and their quality of life suffers; helping your pet maintain a healthy weight will give him the happiest, healthiest life possible

In 2018, 55.8% of dogs were classified as overweight or obese, putting them at serious risk of related health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure and osteoarthritis.1 While genetic predisposition accounts for some of your dog's weight, human actions play a major role. In short, what you feed your dog and how often you exercise him will directly impact his ability to stay fit and trim.

Your pet is relying on you to keep him healthy, and while you may want to show him love by giving him extra food and treats, this form of affection could lead to weight gain that only hinders your dog's health and ability to enjoy life to its fullest. Instead, by feeding your dog the right foods, in the right portions and at the right time, along with encouraging regular exercise, you can give your dog the happiest, healthiest life possible.

The Best Food for Your Dog

The type of food you feed your dog is paramount in healthy weight management. Species-appropriate (low carb), fresh, whole foods for your pets are always best and, when provided in the appropriate portions, will help your pet achieve and maintain an ideal weight.

Many pet food companies over-estimate the amount of food pets need, and those recommendations are reflected on their feeding instructions on the bag. Many pet parents feel guilty if they feed less than what the bag suggests, which is exactly what the company wants.

Instead of relying on the company's feeding instructions, use this calorie calculator, which uses the following formula to determine how much food your dog should eat as a baseline each day to reach his ideal body weight.

Daily calories = Body weight (kg) x 30 + 70

This is probably the most overlooked step in weight loss success. Avoid processed kibble (fast food) and low-quality canned foods, opting instead for a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate food that is high in animal protein and moisture, with low or no carbohydrate content (dogs and cats don't have a carbohydrate requirement). Most dogs will thrive when fed a carefully portioned meal twice daily, with a few healthy treats added in.

It's important to think about what time your dog is consuming her calories, as well. Recent research suggests when we eat is as important as what we eat. From an ancestral perspective, dogs' and cats' ancestors didn't wake up in the morning and begin to hunt. Thousands of years after domestication, many dogs and cats are still not big on breakfast, and instead opt to eat later in the day. It's important to honor this innate circadian rhythm, if you see it in your pet.

Bribing a pet to eat breakfast when they aren't hungry is one of the reasons pets are gaining weight; they are being pushed to eat, rather than eating when their internal clocks tell them to eat. Many dogs and cats prefer to consume their calories later in the day or in the evening (if you're a cat), which mirrors their ancestors' hunting patterns. Pets that desire to eat later in the day are effectively practicing intermittent fasting, which has profound health benefits over a lifetime.

I interviewed Dr. Satchin Panda at the Salk Institute several months ago about this topic. He explained that by skipping breakfast and allowing animals to eat later in the day, when they're actually hungry, we are not only impeccably supporting our pet's metabolic machinery, but probably extending their lives.

He suggests we limit our pet's caloric intake to a span of 8 to 10 hours a day, which allows the body to rest, repair and restore itself while fasting for the remaining 14 to 16 hours. Not surprisingly, this is exactly how our pets' ancestors ate and thrived.

Don't try to eyeball the amount of food you're feeding; measure it using a measuring cup or scale. And if your dog still seems hungry when fed twice a day, try splitting the meals up into three or four smaller daily servings (feeding more often with the same amount of food within the 8 to 10 hour window).

As a general guideline, treats should make up less than 10% of your dog's daily food intake. If you're reserving a few treats for before bedtime or a midday treat, as training rewards or to entice your dog into his crate, his treat intake is probably OK. However, in a study published in Preventive Veterinary Medicine, households with normal weight dogs gave treats significantly less frequently than households with obese or mixed weight dogs,2 so be careful not to overdo it.

You'll also want to pay attention to treat size. Treats convey "job well done!" and should be about the size of a pea. If you are actively training a dog (so there are lots of treats being doled out) I suggest you use his entire meal as rewards, broken up into dozens of bites that allow you to continue training throughout the day without adding calories.

Pay attention, too, to the methods you use for feeding. Consider the height of the food bowl, its depth and shape — is your dog able to eat easily and comfortably? If he gulps down his food, try spreading it out on a cookie sheet to slow down his eating.

Some dogs may also overeat due to emotional eating or stress eating, similar to humans.3 If this applies to your dog, it's important to deal with the stress directly, otherwise, researchers noted, "restricting food intake without alleviating the emotional distress may actually exacerbate the distress by removing one of the animal's coping mechanisms."4 Replacing snacking with a brisk walk or fetch is an excellent way to naturally reduce stress hormones while burning calories.

And remember, if you never feed your dog from the table, she'll never beg. If you begin sharing all your meals and snacks with your dog it won't take long before you've conditioned them to beg. This can become a real problem when your pet constantly badgers you for more food, so it's best to not create a "calorie monster" in the first place.

How Much Exercise Do Dogs Need?

Part of keeping your dog fit and trim is ensuring he gets the right amount of exercise. Dogs that are confined to a yard as their exercise regime are significantly more likely to be obese than dogs who are walked,5 but many owners make the mistake of thinking that letting their dog outside in the backyard is adequate exercise.

The problem with this is that your dog will probably spend most of his time outside wandering around and sniffing. This is important for your dog's mental health, but it's not getting him the vigorous exercise he needs for optimal health.

In general, dogs need a minimum of 20 minutes a day of rigorous exercise that will keep their heart rate up, and more if they're overweight. I recommend you strive for an hour of rigorous exercise a day with your dog if you're looking to maximize healthspan and lifespan.

Helping Your Dog Stay Fit and Trim Protects His Health

Overweight dogs have a shorter lifespan than dogs of a healthy weight, and their quality of life suffers.6 Overweight dogs are also at an increased risk of a number of obesity-related diseases, ranging from urinary tract disease and hypothyroidism to chronic renal disease and congestive heart failure.

Owners owe it to their dogs to provide healthy food in the correct portions, and to provide regular physical activity and mental stimulation. Doing so will help your pup maintain a healthy weight, and provide him with the healthiest life possible. If you're not sure if your pet needs to lose weight, here's how to tell if your pet is overweight — and detailed information on what to do about it.