Sunday, February 13, 2011

How do I know my dog is fat? And what do I do about it?

Obesity is one of the biggest health issues facing our pets these days.It can cause a myriad of problems and lead to a shorter lifespan.

We recently discussed the obesity epidemic and the related health issues that can affect your pet. Just as in people, being obese is not just unsightly and uncomfortable, it can be down right deadly.

But…how you do determine if your pet is overweight in the first place? Sometimes it may be totally obvious, but in some breeds with thick, stocky builds or with dense, long hair coats, it may be difficult to tell.

Start by feeling your dog with your hands. There are three particular areas to check-

  • Rib Check: Place both of your thumbs on your dog's backbone and spread both hands across his rib cage. The ribs should be easy to feel without excessive fat covering.
  • Profile Check: Examine your dog's profile – it’s best if you are level with the dog. Look for the abdomen to be tucked up behind the rib cage.
  • Overhead Check: Looking at your dog from overhead, see if you can see a waist behind the ribs. Most dogs at a healthy weight should have an hourglass figure.

If the ribs are difficult to feel, the belly has minimal or no tuck when viewed from the side, and there is no visible waist in front of hips when viewed from above (or felt, if the coat is dense)…your dog is most likely overweight.

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention site has another great chart on pet body condition.

Okay, my dog is fat. Now what?

Losing weight is not easy for anyone, people or pets. The benefits, however, are more than worth the effort. It can not only add years to their life, but make those years healthier and happier.

The formula for weight loss seems simple enough – fewer calories in plus more calories out = weight loss. Basically that is true, but it isn’t quite that simple. Never undertake a diet plan for your pet without first having a thorough checkup from your vet. There are a number of health conditions that can cause weight gain (hypothyroid, Cushings, etc.), so those should be eliminated before your pet is put on a weight loss regime. Too many dogs start a diet and do not lose weight because the problem was actually an underlying condition or disease. My mother used to have a poodle who had thinning hair and had the build of the Good Year Blimp. Diet food did not help. A veterinary exam discovered that he had hypothyroidism and, once treated for that, the weight came off and his hair grew back.

If there are no underlying health issues, then we have to turn our attention to what our dog eats. All dog foods are not created equal, as we have discussed at length over the last couple years. It is important to check the fat and fiber contents of the food he is eating. Also, foods that are cereal based (having grains as the primary ingredients) are heavy on carbs, which in turn convert to sugar, and a dog that is not very active will pack on the pounds this way. You would be better off with a higher, lean protein, lower fat, and slightly above-average fiber content.

Some so-called “diet foods”, especially the prescription diets that vets tend to push, have very high fiber and very low fat contents. This may sound good, but the fiber tends to be from cheap fillers (peanut hulls, wheat middlings, soybean hulls, etc). These will help your dog lose weight, no doubt, but they do so by making the dog feel full while taking in fewer nutrients and having it all pass through the system rather quickly. My cairn terrier was put on a prescription diet food years ago. She did lose weight, but also her hair got dull and dry, and her allergies got worse. She was not getting the quality nutrients her body needed. I switched to a premium food with a higher level of lean protein, no junk fillers, and a reasonable fat level…and she did just fine. She didn’t lose weight quite as quickly, but she did so at a much healthier level for her body.

There are two basic ways to cut down on calories. One is to feed less of the food the dog is currently eating. The second is to switch to special weight reduction diets. And of course, with either way, table scraps are a no-no and treats need to be minimized.

Reduce the amount of their current food: If your dog will continue eating her current food, it is generally recommended that the amount of food fed daily be cut back by 20 to 40%. For example, if your dog is normally fed 3 cups of dry food, she should now be fed in the range of a little less than 2 cups to 2-1/2 cups. After 3-4 weeks, the progress is evaluated. It may be necessary to cut the amount fed even further. The drawback to this is that your dog may act hungry all the time.

Feed a weight reduction diet: Weight reduction diets allow you to feed the usual amount of food (unless you are severely overfeeding), but still feed less fat and calories. For example, if your dog is normally fed 3 cups of dry food, the recommended amount of diet food will probably be about 3 cups also.

With either method , feed the dog three or four small meals instead of one or two larger meals. This will jump-start the dog's metabolism, helping with dog weight loss. Also feed your overweight dog separately from the other pets to prevent him from eating their food.

Adding canned pumpkin to the dog's meals is a great way to add fiber to the dog's diet, without adding lots of calories. Most dogs love the taste.

There are several websites where you can calculate the calories that your dog needs. Once your vet determines what their ideal weight should be, you can figure up how much to feed of a particular food based on the calculated resting energy requirements. Here are a few sites that can assist with that:

Many people will insist they do not feed their pets too much, and that may be true. One thing pet owners need to be understand is the impact of treats on their pet’s weight. According to Dr. Ernie Ward, President of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, “treats continue to be the main culprit for excess weight. Today’s treats are so loaded with sugar and fat I call them ‘kibble crack’”. He equates that a premium pig ear given to a 40 lb dog to drinking six, 12 oz colas. “No one would sit down and drink six sodas at one time, yet that’s exactly what we’re doing when we give our pets these snacks.” He says that even a single, small dog bone treat given to a 10 lb dog is like an average person eating two chocolate donuts. Giving a few each day is like feeding them a dozen donuts.

Dr. Ward has a great link showing the calorie content of many popular pet treats and snacks. You may be surprised!

What are some alternative treats to offer your pudgy pup?

Baby carrots, apple slices, broccoli, celery, plain air-popped popcorn, dried plain chicken jerky. Some dogs love veggies, others won’t touch them. There are also commercial low-fat pet treats available.

Exercise is another crucial part of your pet’s weight loss regime. The simplest way to keep your dog fit is to walk it daily for a total of 30 minutes (it isn’t bad for us humans, either). Most dogs will not walk at much more than a leisurely pace, so you’ll have to kick it up a notch. Keep the walks fun for your dog. Make the “outbound” half of the walk the workout part, and allow him to explore, sniff, and relax on the return trip. If walking outside is not an option, throwing a toy and having your dog chase it up and down the hall or through the house will suffice.

Most dogs can achieve their ideal weight within 6 to 8 months or so.Try to maintain a weight loss of approximately 3-5% of body weight per month. Keep a record of weekly weight loss to see if the diet needs to be adjusted, and once your pet is feeling a bit perkier, gradually increase the level of exercise if you can.

Once the weight is lost, the last thing we want is for the dog to regain it. To be sure that does not happen, continue weighing your dog as you gradually increase food intake. You can either feed more of the weight reduction diet or change to a diet that is less restrictive. Do not start feeding free choice (the bowl of food is always there). If weight is regained consistently for 2 weeks, or more than 3% of weight is regained in one week, go back on the diet program. Remember, exercise needs to continue after the weight is lost or pounds will start to accumulate again.

As stated in the beginning, losing weight is never easy for man nor beast. Can it be done? Sure! My matriarch female golden, Bailey, used to weigh a hefty 137 pounds. She now weighs 91.5. She’s still a big dog, but a weight loss of 45 pounds has changed her. At age 11, she runs and plays more now than she ever did.

After reading this, I think I need to buy a bag of reduced calorie dog food for myself and take my own advice!!!