Much has been written about the human obesity epidemic in this country and the profound impact it has had on the health of both adults and children. Less information has been readily available to the public about the obesity epidemic in pets, particularly dogs. Overweight dogs have become the new normal and many owners are in denial about the health risks associated with excess pounds gained by our canine friends. Fatty tissue is now recognized as an endocrine organ that can cause serious health problems. An overweight dog is an unhealthy dog.
According to recent research (10/14) conducted by the Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition over 50% of American pets are overweight or obese and at risk of a shortened life expectancy. Many similar studies cite a higher percentage. A small percentage of dogs are overweight due to a genetic predisposition to hormonal disorders. However, for most dogs, obesity is a direct result of too much food and not enough exercise. Similar to some pet owners, a pet’s inappropriate diet and a sedentary lifestyle can have a direct impact on the quality and longevity of their lives.
Just as in humans, the list of unhealthy medical conditions caused by obesity in pets is lengthy. It include Diabetes, Joint Disease, Heart Disease, Liver disease, Skin Diseases, Respiratory Diseases, Arthritis, Gastrointestinal Disorders, some forms of Cancer, stress on bones, joints and tendons and an increased chance of Heat Stroke.
Particular breeds of dogs are more prone to obesity than others. These breeds include Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Shih Tzus, Beagles, Bassett Hounds, Pugs, Dachshunds and Terriers. With a tendency to gain weight easily and to enjoy eating more than is needed, the health risks for these breeds are high.
There are some basic standards to help determine if your dog is overweight. Does your dog sit with its rear legs to the side? Looking down on your dog from above can you see a defined waistline? Feel your dog’s ribs. Is it difficult to tell where one ends and the next begins? Does your dog have difficulty standing for long periods of time? Can you see fat on the lower back or base of the tail? Does your dog have difficulty climbing stairs or jumping? Is your dog less interested in going for walks or exercising? Is your dog five year years old or older and still eating the same food and quantity that it ate in its younger years? Allowing for age, does your dog sleep more than it once did? If you answered yes to any of these questions your dog is likely overweight.
The first step in correcting canine weight problems is a visit to the vet. Your vet will be able to determine whether or not there are any adverse underlying medical conditions affecting your pet and provide you with the ideal weight for your particular dog. Most vets use a nine point body score system to determine a pet’s body condition including its weight. One point equals unhealthily thin, nine points equals grossly overweight and five is ideal. An overweight dog is 5% to 19% above ideal weight. An obese dog is 20% or more overweight. Another tool for assessing canine body weight is the BARC (Body Assessment Rating for Canines) quiz. This quiz can be found online.
Weight management begins with nutrition and portion control. Once again, your vet can assist you with guidelines for a healthy doggy diet. Weight management diets are available. Discuss brands, types of food and healthy quantities with your vet. Measure your dog’s food rather than pour it to control amounts and avoid giving your dog table scraps or any people food. If your household has more than one dog, your pets will likely eat more food and eat it faster to prevent another dog from eating it first. Some dogs eat fast and then move on to another dogs bowl. Be aware of how much each dog is consuming.
The pet store food section is as tempting as the dessert section of the grocery store with whole aisles full of dog treats that are unhealthy and which your dog will love. Since we enjoy treating our beloved furry friends we tend to over feed them with treats that are detrimental to their health. If your dog is used to these treats on a regular basis it will feel deprived and it will be difficult to break this habit. There will likely be much begging and whining. Remember your dog depends on you to keep it healthy and purchase healthy treats for occasional rewards. Substituting a treat with another reward such as a walk or playtime may help with the transition to a healthier diet.
Another important aspect of pet weight management is exercise. Exercise not only keeps weight down by burning excess calories, it helps muscles and joints remain flexible and it provides mental stimulation. Unlike many humans, dogs don’t view exercise as punishment. They see it as fun. If your dog becomes excited when you reach for its leash, you know it enjoys exercise. Less than 20-30 minutes of outdoor exercise or indoor playtime a day is not enough. Start slowly by incorporating daily walks and purchasing some interactive toys for indoor or outdoor play. A simple tennis ball provides hours of fun and great exercise for dogs. Not only will your dog benefit from more exercise your waistline may benefit as well. If your busy work schedule prevents you from providing enough exercise to keep your pet healthy, consider dropping your dog off at our Doggy Day Care Center several days a week where our trained staff will engage them with other dogs in walks and play.
Humans aren’t the only ones who should be worried about obesity and its negative effects. Dog share the same health risks. Pets eat what they are given and dog owners control their dog’s diet as well as their exercise habits and therefore their health and longevity. Your dog will be livelier, happier, healthier, and have a longer life when provided with an appropriate diet and an active life style.