Obesity in dogs is almost as common as obesity in humans. In fact, experts say somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of dogs are obese or likely to become obese.
The health consequences of these extra pounds are just as serious, too: overweight dogs put greater stress on their joints, hearts, lungs, liver, and kidneys. They’re more prone to injury, and are at a higher risk during surgery.
And it probably doesn’t feel good to them, either. Fat dogs don’t have the energy or the natural curiosity and playfulness that fit dogs do. Although dogs can’t decide to go on a diet or exercise more, they definitely appreciate life a whole lot more when they’re trim and ready for action.
- Overeating for a dog is really a matter of overfeeding–overly generous portious, too many between-meals snacks, and table scraps. Sometimes the owner mistakenly believes that a dog needs access to food twenty-fours a day, or that dogs only ‘ask’ for more food–oh, those puppy-dog eyes!–when they’re truly hungry. Not true. Dogs are natural-born scavengers, and if they learn that a certain look or whimper will always yield more food, they’ll ask for it over and over, whether they’re hungry or not.
- Lack of exercise is easy to explain: it’s the same problem we humans have. With dogs generally confined indoors or in yards, they don’t get the exercise they need (and no, dogs will not ‘automatically’ exercise any more than humans will. They’re just as lazy as we are.) Fence-running and playing isn’t enough. If the dog’s over-eating–even a little–there will be a slow but steady spread, leading to all-too-common obesity in middle age.
However, there are other reasons a dog may gain weight, including:
- Spaying or neutering lowers the dog’s metabolism, but it’s remarkably rare that dogs gain a lot of weight solely because of that. What does happen: feeding and exercise plans don’t change with the age or condition of the dog, and what was fine for an active puppy is far too fattening for a ‘fixed’ middle-aged adult. It’s entirely controllable. A fixed dog does not automatically equal a fat dog.
- Hormonal disorders such as an underactive thyroid gland, or hypothyroidism, can cause a weight problem. Or a dog’s adrenal glands may produce too much of a hormone called cortisol and create a condition known as Cushing’s disease. Dogs with Cushing’s disease don’t actually gain weight, but their fat is re-distributed to the abdomen, giving them a pot-bellied look.
- Slowing metabolism happens to all of us in middle age, including dogs. Research shows that middle-aged spread in dogs begins in earnest around the age of five or six…so if your dog is already overweight by that time, the problem is only going to get worse.
- Breed can play a role, too. If your dog is a mixed-breed or purebred Beagle, Cocker Spaniel, Collie, Sheltie, Basset Hound, Dachshund, Lab, or Golden Retriever…be aware.
How to tell if your dog is overweight
- Check the ribs. Yes, there should be a little fat over them, but you should be able to feel them. If you can’t find them…you’ve got a problem. In fact, feel around for the major bones all over your dog’s body–legs, spine, shoulders, hips. If you have trouble finding any of them, then your pet has a bit too much padding.
- Check the breathing. If your dog breathes heavily even after little or no exertion, or has a hard time recovering from a short walk or play session, there could be a problem.
- Check the base of the tail. A little fat should cover this area, but if you can’t feel the bones at all, you dog is very overweight.
- Look down. Seriously: check your pet’s silhouette from above. Can you find a waist? Can you tell where the ribs end and the hips begin?
- Check the “abdominal tuck.” The tuck is the area behind the ribs. It should be smaller around than the chest. How much smaller depends on the breed, and the more deep-chested your dog, the greater the difference. A dog who’s too thin will have a very severe tuck, while a fat dog may have no tuck at all.
When to call your veterinarian
If you give your pet a good once-over and think there’s a weight problem, make an appointment with your vet. The doctor will give your dog a thorough physical, do some blood tests, and ask questions about eating habits and frequency. Then she can help you build a realistic, gradual, and low-risk weight loss plan. The plan will almost certainly include:
- Reduced caloric intake, probably using a special dog food formulated for weight loss
- Less food each day
- Increased fiber or water intake
- More exercise
You might want to consider keeping a log of food intake–including treats–and exercise, so you can monitor your pet’s progress. You might even have to get a little obsessive, measuring the exact amount of foods offered and noting every treat.
No matter what the plan, be prepared for it to take a while. Inducing weight loss at a rate faster than two percent of total body weight per week is more likely to reduce lean tissue, and trigger a rebound weight gain.
Keep in mind that you’re in this for the long haul. Most dogs may take as long as eight to 12 months to reach their goal weights, and even then, they’ll need to keep up the diet and exercise to maintain their new, healthier shape.