By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
While we are all looking forward to spending some time outdoors, in the beautiful warm weather, remember not to leave Fido behind! What some jokingly refer to as a pet’s “winter weight” or “extra padding” is no laughing matter. Excess body fat, or obesity, is a medical problem that can have serious, even life-threatening, health consequences. The good news is that losing weight – even in small amounts – can cause a significant improvement in the overall health and quality of your pet’s life. The even better news is that you already have a willing partner to help your dog spring into shape – your veterinarian! Your veterinarian can help educate you more about obesity in pets and help you set goals and ways to determine your pet’s progress. Not only will they use their expertise to customize a weight loss plan for your pet, but also let you know about the other health issues that obesity can cause. If the desire to avoid these serious illnesses is not motivation enough, your veterinarian is also there with tons of support and tips to help your pet achieve the ideal body weight and maintain it. Most people are aware of the obesity epidemic in America; however, most pet owners do not realize that this is an epidemic affecting pets as well. Approximately 68% of adults and 32% of children are overweight and these numbers are mirrored in our pet population.
When the results of the study “Effects of diet restriction on life span and age-related changes in dogs” were published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2002, the nutritional needs and the ideal body fat index for dogs was re-evaluated. The results showed that dogs should be fed 25% less than the current estimated maintenance requirement in order to keep them healthier. This small adjustment in diet not only kept dogs thinner and lowered their body fat index, but it delayed the age when 50% needed treatment for osteoarthritis (lowering it by 3 years) or any chronic condition (lowering it by 2.1 years). All veterinarians learned that trimming excess weight in dogs could prevent disease or prolong its onset and could actually add years to a dog’s life. There was a 1.8 year difference between the age at which 50% of the dogs in the study were deceased. Through educating and working with pet owners, veterinarians could help dogs live the longest, healthiest quality life possible!
Veterinarians use an animal’s weight and body fat index to determine a pet’s ideal weight or shape. A dog is classified as overweight if they are 5 to 10% over their ideal body weight and obese if they are more than 20% over their ideal body weight. Veterinarians record a pet’s body condition score, along with a weight, at every veterinary visit. It is difficult for most people to correlate what a pound in a dog and a pound in a human look like and how differently a pound may affect a dog versus a human. By putting a pet’s weight gain into an equivalent example of a human gaining weight it is much easier for owners to correlate the two and to understand the difference a pound makes. As an example, a 35 pound dog gaining 7 pounds is equal to a 150 pound person gaining 30 pounds and a 7 pound dog gaining 5 pounds is equal to a 145 pound person gaining over a 100 pounds, making them 249 pounds. Through those examples it is easier to see that a pound makes a much bigger impact on a dog than on a human and that the smaller the dog, the bigger the impact.
As a pet owner, it is important to understand that every dog is different and there are many factors to consider with obesity – age, sex, breed, exercise level, hormone levels, etc. There is no “one-size fits all” plan that is going to work for all dogs and that is why working with your veterinarian can be so helpful. As an owner you are in charge of the main two factors in weight gain, feeding too much and exercising too little, but it is always nice to have someone else who also loves your dog on your side, especially when they know all the good tips! The Association of Pet Obesity Prevention does advise that pets are suffering from epidemic obesity, but obesity is preventable and sustainable with the right education and plan. Obese or overweight dogs weigh in at nearly fifty-percent and this number is constantly increasing. We know that this is causing health conditions and physical distress for our dogs and it is time to fight that increasing number. You want to work with your veterinarian to come up with a plan to fight the pounds that are increasing on the scale, but you have to do some homework in order to be able to work together to get your dog back to an ideal weight and feeling much better! The first steps start at home with gaining more of an understanding of obesity, examining potential reasons for weight gain (type and amount of food fed, type and amount of exercise, changes in your pet’s life overall, etc.) and knowing what questions you want to ask your veterinarian.
The worry with obesity is not a cosmetic one, but a life or death health issue. There are two main causes in obesity across all species – too many calories taken in and too few calories being used, i.e. not enough exercise. If you pet is carrying extra weight, it puts additional stress on the heart, the lungs, the joints, etc. This additional weight and stress can cause a host of problems that can make your pet uncomfortable and limit the way he interacts with people and his ability to exercise. Since one of the two main causes of obesity is an excess of calories consumed, it is very important to be able to tell your veterinarian about the food and treats that you give your pet. It is always good to bring the bags of the food and treats to your appointment , but the bags are usually not enough to determine the foods’ caloric value and how many calories a day your dog is consuming. That is why it is critical for you to have researched the nutritional information before your appointment. Your veterinarian has to have the number of calories currently being consumed in order to help establish the best weight loss plan for your dog.
Knowing how many calories your dog is currently consuming establishes a starting point for the journey to establishing and maintaining the ideal weight. Only a pet owner can provide the starting caloric intake number. It not only involves researching the caloric information in the food and treats, but using those numbers and a food journal to accurately calculate the overall calories consumed per day by your specific dog. (Don’t forget to factor in all those treats!)
If the caloric content and nutritional information of a pet food is not listed on the bag, look for a toll-free phone number for the manufacturer that you can call with any questions. Once you get in touch with the manufacture, it is often helpful to ask them to fax or email, not only the caloric contents, but a more extensive list regarding nutritional value to you or your veterinarian. There are cases where a company may list a number, but not have anyone to help answer your questions. This is usually a red flag that you should switch brands entirely, but before switching to another brand it is best to consult your veterinarian.
Consulting with your veterinarian on your pet’s weight loss plan will not focus entirely on diet and exercise. There can be other contributing factors that can make some dogs more predisposed to gain weight more easily, such as genetics, age, gender, and concurrent or underlying medical diseases. These other factors are usually address by your veterinarian on your first visit. Even pets with increased risk of obesity, such as being over 3 years of age, being a female, or being a certain breeds, such as a Labrador Retriever, Beagle, or Cocker Spaniels, do have the ability to maintain the ideal weight. Regardless of all the other factors, the biggest cause of obesity is that pet owners are literally killing their dogs with too much food, too many treats, and not enough exercise. Busy pet owners often do not make the commitment to set aside time every single day to exercise their dog or people think that if a dog has a large backyard to run around in that the dog is getting enough exercise. While dog owners may never have intentionally meant to hurt their pet, overfeeding, lack of exercise, and poor dietary choices have led to this pet obesity crisis.
There are a number of factors that can make a pet more prone to obesity you may not have previously known about. However, learning more about these things can help you determine if your dog is at a higher risk of being overweight. Some things to contemplate before you meet with your veterinarian include: Do you have a type of dog that is prone to obesity, such as a retriever, beagle, basset hound, cocker spaniel, or dachshund? Do you have a multi-dog household? Multiple dogs fed together will eat more and faster than they would if they did not have competition. Have you been continuing to change your dog’s diet over the years to match age and lifestyle? Is your dog eating table scraps (whether you are consciously feeding them or your toddler is just learning the joy in throwing her food all around the kitchen)? How many people are in your dog’s life that may be feeding treats each day and how many are being fed overall? Do you measured the exact amount of food for every meal or do you just eye-ball it?
It is also important to look at how a dog is using up the calories taken in. This means taking a hard look at how much exercise, that you are involved in, does your dog get every day? Exercise can involve anything that gets your dog’s heart rate up. Depending on the advice of your veterinarian, consider running, jogging, walking, biking, swimming, fetching, or a good old-fashion game of chase! The American Heart Association Guidelines recommends at least 30 minutes per day of exercise for you and it is no different for your dog.
There are numerous physical signs of obesity that veterinarians use to help determine a dog’s body fat index, which is used to help determine the ideal weight for a dog. Learning about some key areas on the body to look at can help you assess a dog’s current body shape and get a better idea of what an overweight or obese dog looks like. The desired body fat index is 20, which is between 15% and 25% body fat, and that often seems too slim to people. Sadly, it is just because people have all gotten so used to seeing nothing but overweight and obese pets, that now the healthy pet looks abnormal to them.
The biggest places to watch on a dog concerning weight gain are the ribs, the ratio between the abdomen and ribcage, and the base of the tail. A dog that is at the ideal body fat index will have ribs that are slightly prominent and easily felt. There will be a definite difference between the abdomen and the ribcage, with the abdomen being much smaller, creating an abdominal tuck from the side and a narrow waist between the end of the ribcage and start of the hind legs. The tail base bone will be slightly prominent and easily felt and there will not be a layer of fat over the tail base. Always keep in mind that being just 5 to 19% over the ideal body weight is classified as overweight and anything 20% or higher is obese. It does not take much for a dog to become overweight and start to have its body work against itself.
As you head to the veterinarian make sure to write down any questions that you want to be sure you do not forget to ask. Some general questions you should ask include the goal she has in mind for your dog (usually the weight you are aiming for is around the weight your dog was at 12 months old), what is a safe rate of weight loss, how much and what kind of exercise is best, and what type and how much food should you be feeding?
Your veterinarian will work with you to determine the ideal weight of your dog using the current weight and current Body Fat Index. This weight is what you will be working towards, but the real goal is gaining back the years that could have been lost as a consequence of being overweight. Before starting a weight loss plan the doctor is going to perform a good physical exam and run blood work. These are crucial things to have done to make sure that your pet is healthy enough to withstand the changes necessary to reach the ideal weight and that there are no medical diseases that need to be addressed.
The weight loss program will focus on reducing caloric intake and increasing exercise, and this dramatic of a change in lifestyle is too much for some animals. For those animals, your veterinarian will provide different guidelines for achieving the ideal weight. Some of the severe obesity cases require an oral weight loss drug in the beginning if the dog is not able to safely lose weight by other means. Your veterinarian also wants to rule out and treat any medical diseases that may be contributing to your pet’s weight gain, such as abnormal hormone levels found in hypothyroidism or hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s Disease). Weight loss is crucial, but it must be done safely. The weight plan that you and your veterinarian decide on may need to be changed along the way. That is why it is good to have weekly weigh-ins and monthly appointments to make sure there are not additional things that can be done to help lose weight or that adjustments are not needed based on the amount of weight lost. These weigh-ins also ensure that your dog is losing weight at a safe rate. How much weight a dog can safely lose is totally dog dependant. It is based on a dog’s current weight and the goal is usually around 0.7% of body weight per week.
Always remember that weight loss, even in small amounts, is a positive step forward towards a healthier dog. You may feel like you are taking small steps, but this is a change of lifestyle so make those changes with each bite and bit of playtime. Be sure to eliminate table treats and meal scraps and follow the diet exactly as directed by your veterinarian. If your pet is already suffering some of the health consequences of being overweight and cannot get around as well anymore, simply start out at a pace that your dog can handle. This may mean you can only walk for a block when you start out, but that is okay. Do not look at just making time for exercise, increasing overall playtime with your pet is just as helpful – this should be a fun time for both of you.
Obesity increases the risk for osteoarthritis due to the extra stress placed on the joints, insulin resistance, diabetes, kidney disease, some types of cancer, and musculoskeletal injuries. It also puts dogs at an increased risk for all types of heart and respiratory disease and just the physical presence of rolls of fat can cause skin infections and urinary tract infections. Thanks to all of the increased health problems, overweight dogs face a decreased life expectancy of up to 2.5 years.
Overweight dogs are literally fighting against themselves – their own body works against them as they try to lose weight. As previously discussed. the two main factors that contribute to weight gain are too much caloric intake and too few calories burned, i.e. not enough exercise. An overweight dog has a slower metabolism and an increased appetite, so every calorie consumed is harder to get rid of and the dog always seems hungry. The begging behaviors that usually occur when you decrease the caloric intake from what a dog is used to be emotionally difficult and stressful.
Even though the total caloric intake is decreased, you can still give treats if you account for their calories and they make up less than 10% of the diet. Dieting does not mean treats are not allowed, but that you may need to change the type of treats or learn how to reward your dog without food. Non-meal calories can be the hardest thing to get under control as you change your dog’s lifestyle to a healthier, happier one. You need to eliminate all unhealthy treats and be sure to keep track of the non-meal calories in your food journal. Most dogs on a diet will beg so it is good to learn about alternative rewards to use instead of food, but there are also other ways to keep snacking more healthy.
There are multiple ways for an owner to be able to continue giving treats and stay on the road to a healthier, more lean dog. It is important to make treats small, know your calorie limit, and choose low-calorie or longer lasting treats. A treat should be about the size of your pinkie fingernail. This almost always means that you will need to break up your normal treats smaller bits. It is best to calculate how many calories are in a “normal” size treat, factor that into the total calories for the day, and then break down the “normal” size treat into smaller pieces. This way you can give stick to your caloric limit, but be able to give your dog treats throughout the day.
You can also give more treats if the food you are giving is lower in calories. There are several options for low-calorie treats that your dog will enjoy. These include fresh or frozen vegetables (especially baby carrots, pumpkin, and green beans) and fruits (avoiding grapes and raisins since they can cause kidney disease), Cheerio’s, unbuttered popcorn and even frozen low-sodium chicken broth. Keep in mind with all dogs, but especially those that have significant dental disease, that large frozen cubes can damage their teeth, so crushed, smaller pieces are a safer option. You can also freeze broth inside of a Kong toy by taping one end while you fill it and then giving it to your dog for hours of fun. You can even turn giving treats into a way to get your dog up and moving, while allowing your dog to enjoy the treat slowly, by using interactive toys. There are numerous puzzle toys, such as the Twist n’ Treat and the Squirrel Dude by Premier Pet Products, which involve your dog having to move the toy around in order to get a piece of the treat to come out.
It is also good to learn how to show affection or rewards your dog without involving calories at all. Most people associate a dog treat with something special to eat, but there are a great deal of calorie-free treats. Just as learning how to make giving food treats a healthier experience, it is key to learn more about rewards that do not involve calories at all. Having tips that enable you to continue to express your love and allow you to make your dog feel special is important to the success of reaching and maintaining a dog’s healthy weight. The reason it is good to have these suggestions is because you do not want to view the process of getting your dog healthy as a diet that will be over at some point – you have to view the process of keeping your dog healthy as a new lifestyle filled with positive changes that will allow you to offer your dog the best life possible. This new life-style needs to be fun and allow you to feel good about every decision you make to help your dog lose those extra pounds. That means that your unique bond with your dog and your ability to have ways to provide special things or moments that your dog gets really excited about are always part of a dog’s lifestyle.
Making the process of transitioning to a healthier way of living as fun and easy as possible increases the chances that you will stick with it. Treats are a part of all dog’s lives and should not be sacrificed, just modified. This starts with knowing that a treat is any source of a positive experience for a dog – regardless if it is food or not. If giving food treats, just remember to stick to the suggestions given to make it a healthier experience. Finding good non-food rewards for your dog can take some investigation and imagination. All dogs are have different personalities, different abilities, and different health issues that need to be factored in when thinking about what non-food treats will have the most reward value. Reward value is based on your dog’s response to a non-food treat and by using your imagination you may find non-food rewards that help burn calories, helping the shed those unwanted pounds even more quickly! An example of a treat that would burn calories, but might not be right for every dog is a day of hiking. A dog that loves spending long periods of time outside with you may be much more excited about going hiking all day than a thick coated dog that would get too hot to safely hike all day or a dog with joint pain that would make a painful hike more like an unsafe punishment.
There are tons of indoor and outdoor ideas that your dog may love just as much as a food treat, but are either calorie-free or actually burn calories. Some outside activities include taking a relaxing walk around the neighborhood where your dog sets the pace and route as he sniffs around exploring the world with his nose. If you are a big window-shopper, take your dog next time. While you check out latest stores have to offer, your dog gets to investigate the sights, sounds, and smells of new places. New places are always fun for dogs since they experience the world through all their senses and are ever curious. Other new places to explore, once you know they are dog-friendly, include different neighborhoods than your own, new parks or specific dog- parks, hiking trails, and camping grounds. If one of the goals of your outdoor adventure is to burn calories, make sure that the length and intensity continues to physically challenge your dog as his athletic ability improves as the unwanted pounds are shed.
Some other activities that may score big points with your dog include playtime with you and a favorite toy, going on car rides, petting that favorite spot unique to every dog, or visiting hospitals or nursing homes (once you have cleared it with the proper channels). These may be easier activities to start with if your dog is obese. Overweight pets are already less active due to difficulty breathing, difficulty in controlling the body’s temperature, and generalized pain due to arthritis from the extra stress on all the joints just carrying the extra weight. All of these problems can make outdoor activities too much at first.
Every dog owner wants to give their dog the absolute best quality of life by making sure he is healthy, happy, and well taken care of. For many people, their dog has grown up with them, seen them through the good and bad times and has always been a loyal companion. In return, owner’s want to shower their dog with love and affection. Obesity becomes an issue when affection and love come in the form of a treat, table scraps, or refilling an empty food bowl. Owner’s gain an entirely different perspective on ways to show affection once they become more educated about obesity in general, have a chance to talk to their veterinarian about how to reach and maintain the ideal weight for their dog, and really understand the health diseases caused by having an overweight or obese pet. Owner’s learn that by constantly reaching for calorically dense treats to show affection, they are actually putting their dog at a higher risk for diseases and for a shortened life-span.
Some of the diseases associated with being overweight or obese include breathing problems, heart disease, gastrointestinal upset, diabetes, high blood pressure, rupture of the cranial cruciate ligament, and a compromised immune system making dog more prone to disease, virus and illness. Joint disease is the most common disease associated with being overweight or obese. Therefore, special attention should be placed on diseases affecting the musculoskeletal system (such as arthritis and hip dysplasia). They are one of the leading causes of an animal becoming less active, one of the most prevalent health concerns in overweight dogs, and important group of diseases for veterinarians to consider as they design a roadmap to your dog’s ideal weight.
Arthritis is a joint disease of the musculoskeletal system that is most commonly seen in the form of osteoarthritis. This disease is so prevalent in overweight and obese dogs because it is most commonly due to excessive wear and tear on joints, which can be a direct result of the obesity. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease characterized by loss of joint cartilage, the change of smooth bone edges in joints to more irregular edges, and changes in the joint fluid itself – all causing pain and stiffness. A veterinarian often will be able to notice signs of arthritis during a physical exam before an owner notices a change in the dogs behavior. When outward signs are seen in affected dogs it is due to a loss in flexibility, decreased muscle strength, decreased stamina, and increasing joint pain. These clinical signs can include trouble getting up from a laying position, difficulty with stair, or difficulty jumping onto the couch – these changes are often thought to just be a part of aging but there is actually an underlying disease resulting in these signs. Osteoarthritis in overweight dogs is a vicious cycle – the extra weight causes constant stress on the joints which causes osteoarthritis to get worse and worse, resulting in more pain that causes a dog to be less active and gain more weight. Dogs suffering from arthritis will only continue to experience a downward decline in health and an increase level of daily pain if the excess weight is not addressed. The pain and loss of muscle mass resulting from osteoarthritis makes it more challenging when starting an exercise program, but this is where veterinarian’s can be most helpful. Together you can put together a plan for a safe and effective lifestyle change, that factors in any specific health challenges and addresses any pain your dog may be in, on the way to the ideal weight. Hip dysplasia is another type of joint disease affecting the musculoskeletal system that is often seen in overweight dogs.
Hip dysplasia can lead to lameness, osteoarthritis, and debilitating pain. Hip dysplasia is an acquired joint disease that is caused by both genetic factors and environmental factors. Hip dysplasia can occur in any breed of dog, but is more common in larger breed dogs, such as the German Sheppard and the Labrador Retriever. The abnormalities in the joint can normally be seen in radiographs by the time the dog is 18 – 24 months old, but outward signs of the disease may come much later. Knowing hip dysplasia occurs more in larger breeds and having a test for the disease before clinical signs are seen, gives veterinarians and owners a big advantage when trying to manage this disease. It is never too early to start talking to your veterinarian about hip dysplasia, but there is no way to know for sure if your dog was born with it before 2 years of age. There is also no way to know for sure if this is a disease your dog will develop since much of that depends on choices made throughout the dog’s life.
These choices include maintaining the ideal body weight throughout life, starting to talk to your veterinarian at your first puppy visit about the ideal growth rate and suggestions to try and keep the joints as healthy as possible, and finding out what exercises should be avoided so that the bones and joints are not damaged and which exercises are safe to do to help your dog stay lean and active. When trying to manage a dog with hip dysplasia, being overweight is only going to make everything harder and if the occurrence of hip dysplasia is trying to be prevented a dog must remain at the ideal body weight so there is no additional stress on the hips. Dogs where there is already evidence of hip dysplasia are already putting additional stress on other joints to avoid putting pressure on the affected joints. Increasing the overall body weight, just increases the overall stress on all the joints, making the disease progress more quickly and be harder to manage. Clinical signs of hip dysplasia are due to pain in the hip joints and can be seen as pain when petting the area around the base of the tail, a stiff gait in the hind legs, trouble getting comfortable when seated, and mild to totally crippling lameness. To make matters worse, hip dysplasia can often lead to severe osteoarthritis, which makes getting active and losing weight even harder. It may seem like an overwhelming challenge to increase the amount of exercise in your dog’s life when there are multiple joint diseases occurring that make exercise difficult, but again this is where your veterinarian can help. Health problems always complicate the already difficult task of weight loss, but always turn to your veterinarian for medical recommendations, ideas that have worked for other owners tackling these same problems, and for encouragement when you need it.
No matter what obstacles you and your dog might face, it is possible to start living a healthier lifestyle and reach the ideal body weight. This is possible because the two main factors of obesity – too many calories and not enough exercise – are within our control. The even better news is that you do not have to do it alone – your veterinary team is always a support system. Your veterinarian can calculate the ideal body weight and the exact amount of calories for your dog, help tackle any health conditions your dog may have, and develop a safe exercise plan. There are so many advantages to becoming more fit – including increasing strength, improving joint mobility, increasing exercise tolerance, shedding excess weight, avoiding all of the health diseases that occur as a consequence of being overweight or obese, and even adding years to your pets life! You and your dog owe it to yourself to beat those obesity statistics and start to spring into shape today.