I see many different problems in the exam room, but one of the most common and frustrating for veterinarians is the overweight pet. Some studies estimate that 50 percent of pets are overweight. The consequences of obesity can be severe, but if addressed properly, fixing the problem can make a huge difference in your furry friend’s quality and length of life.
The overweight pet can be predisposed to many problems later in life, and orthopedic issues are the most common. Weight management can be the most important thing an owner can control to delay the onset and progression of arthritis, even if a dog’s joints aren’t perfect to begin with. It is amazing how a good weight loss program can allow an arthritic dog to walk better. Other common problems that are brought on, or exacerbated by obesity, include heart issues, respiratory problems, diabetes, and certain liver diseases.
Solving the problems of overweight pets is a constant challenge, but it begins when they are young. A puppy that is the correct weight, and lean, is always a healthier puppy. There is never one correct amount to feed a dog of a certain weight. It does depend on their activity level, their metabolism, and of course the diet they are on. I try to teach pet owners what they should be looking for when it comes to weight. For most breeds, you shouldn’t be able to see the ribs, but you should be able to feel them easily. Dogs should always have a waistline when looking at them from both from the top and from the side angles. If you see them losing their waistline, feed them a little less, and if they are getting too thin, feed them a little more. I feel that for adult dogs, if you feed the amount of food the bag recommends, you are probably going to have an overweight dog. It’s always good to measure your dog’s food and never be afraid to use a measuring cup. It’s pretty much a guarantee that a dog that gets “two scoops” of food is going to be overweight.
I try to break obesity down to a pretty simple equation. In essence, there are a certain number of calories going in and a certain number going out. If there are more calories going in than out, the results are a fat dog. Obviously, the intricacies of nutrition are a little more complicated than that, but for most pets, it can be that simple. There are many ways to decrease the number of calories fed. Decreasing the amount of dog food seems the easiest, but some dogs just cannot handle the small amounts this may require. Cutting out human food as a treat is obviously a big one. If you give your 10-pound dog a small piece of cheese, imagine giving yourself 15 times that, every day. That’s a lot of cheese. Be honest with yourself about how many total calories you give your dog in meals, snacks, rewards, food dropped from the table, etc. Once you have done this, you can make an honest start to decreasing the calories. There are many “lite” diets for dogs (and cats). Generally, these diets are a good place to start if your dog needs a diet food, but often they are not enough.
If they are not, consult your vet and consider a “prescription diet.” There are high fiber diets that can make them feel fuller and even diets designed to alter a dog’s metabolism. Often a truly obese dog cannot lose weight without a good quality therapeutic diet.
Diet changes, of course, cannot be the only solution to obesity. We have to increase the number of calories
leaving the body, and this means increased activity and exercise. Walks are the easiest. Do as much as you can, and as often as you can. If you don’t have the time or ability to walk the dog, hire a dog walker or take the dog to doggie day care. Maybe a neighborhood teen would like a couple of dollars to do it now and again. Dog parks are great if your pet gets along with others. Start off slowly and build up over time. If your pet is too uncomfortable to walk, he may need some pain medication to get started. Once they are up and more active, we can often decrease these medications as the weight starts coming off.
Your vet can do a lot of things to keep your pet healthy, but the one thing you can do at home, which may be more important than anything I do in the office, is keep that weight down.
Start early, measure the food, ease up on the snacks, and keep walking regularly. I know everyone loves his or her pets, but in this instance, love does not mean more food, even if that Labrador is looking up at you with those big eyes. Good luck. Hopefully, next time you will be proud to put your dog on the scale at his vet visit.
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Main article photo by: Dejchai Kulawong-istock