Does Your Pooch Have a Paunch?
No one likes to hear that their dog is fat. But according to a recent survey of veterinarians by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, over half of our dogs are overweight. As with people, pet obesity is a leading cause of chronic health problems. In my practice, the most common problems I see in dogs are arthritis and orthopedic injuries.
Overweight dogs develop arthritis at a much younger age than dogs at a healthy weight. They start to “slow down” at eight or nine years old. A fat dog is also more likely to rupture a ligament in their knee, herniate an intervertebral disc in their back, or strain a muscle or tendon. The result is a dog who is in pain, less playful, and has more difficulty getting up and down the stairs. And what pet on Capitol Hill does not have to get up and down at least one set of stairs?
How do you know if your dog is a healthy weight? To evaluate your pet, stand over them and look down. Do they have an obvious waist? One that is narrower than the chest? Or do they look like a tube? No dog should look like a tube, or a ball. That includes Labrador retrievers, pugs and even bulldogs. If your dog is fluffy, run your hands through their fur from chest to hips. Can you feel a waist? Next, rub your hands lightly along the rib cage and over the point of the hips. You should be able to feel the ribs and the tops of the hips. If you have to push down through a small (or large) layer of fat, it's time to cut some weight.
Cutting Back on Food
Now that we know Fido could lose a few pounds, what is the next step? The first question to ask is who is feeding him? Everyone responsible for Fido’s feeding should be on board with the weight loss program. Take the whole crew to the vet appointment. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a client say “Oh I wish my spouse was here!” when we start discussing their dog’s weight. Sometimes we need to hear that we are overfeeding our pet straight from the doctor's mouth, instead of second-hand from a spouse or significant other.
The next issue to consider is what and how much the pet eats. After learning that Fido is overweight, our first instinct is to switch to a “low calorie” dog food. Diet change may be in the future, but I do not recommend starting there. Caloric content varies between food varieties, and it is hard to determine if you are feeding your dog less when you switch diets. Look at the food you currently use. If you are happy with the ingredients and your dog’s overall health, stay with that diet but cut down by 25% on the amount you are feeding. If you do not know how much you are feeding, use a measuring cup or gram scale and find out. Often it's not the food itself, but the amount of food, that is causing the weight problem.
Next, consider the number and kind of treats your dog gets. Treats can pack a caloric punch. If treats are a necessity, tempt your dog with vegetables such as baby carrots or cherry tomatoes. If treats are part of a training program, use regular food as the reward and remove it from their measured meal.
The last consideration is exercise. I know it has been cold out, and Fido has his “winter weight” because you haven’t been getting to Lincoln Park as often as you do in the summer. I understand. I have dogs too and finding outdoors time is difficult. But exercising Fido will not only help him keep in shape and burn calories, it will stimulate his brain and give him something to look forward to other than food.
Above everything else we have discussed, prevention is the best medicine. If your pet is not fat, keep it that way. Know how much you feed your dog. If you find their waist thickening, decrease the food a little. Measure out meals starting in puppyhood. If you have a new dog, choose an amount. Use the recommendations on the bag or can as a starting point, but remember, those are guidelines only. Feed a consistent amount for a few weeks and evaluate your dog. Look at their waist, feel their ribs. Then adjust if needed. Starting a new training program using treats? Great! But cut down the kibble a little.
If none of this works we can figure out caloric intake and precise feeding guidelines. Occasionally there are underlying health issues, like arthritis or hypothyroidism, that predispose to obesity and need to be addressed. But usually, it's simple. We feed our dogs more than they need.
Dr. McCurdy is a graduate of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. She currently works at AtlasVet in Capitol Hill, located at 1326 H St. NE. She lives with her husband, two daughters and assorted animals in the northeast Washington DC neighborhood of Brookland.