Like humans, when food intake is greater than energy output, a dog gains weight. Improper diet, inadequate exercise, genetic predisposition, and hormonal disorders -- like thyroid or pituitary problems -- are the main contributing factors to obesity in dogs. A dog whose body fat exceeds 20 percent of his total weight is described as obese.
"Overfeeding is the leading cause of obesity in dogs," says Dr. Richard Albrecht of the Millis Animal Hospital in St. Louis. If your dog is obese, you are responsible. You control what your dog eats. Work with your vet to create a diet plan that will restore your dog to her ideal weight.
Being overweight can shorten a dog's life -- it puts a strain on the heart and other organs, stresses joints and ligaments, and creates a greater surgical risk. Obese dogs are also at increased risk for diabetes, breathing difficulties, and reproductive problems.
A dog under 2 years old who is overweight has a greater tendency to be obese its entire life. The sooner you address your pup's weight problem, the longer your dog is likely to live.
Some medications can affect weight gain. Ask your vet about such possible side effects if your dog is on medication.
In the Genes
Certain breeds have a genetic predisposition to being overweight. They need more consistent exercise and dietary supervision because of these genetic tendencies.
Breeds with a lower incidence of obesity can still gain too much weight; genetic predisposition is just one contributing factor.
The following breeds are commonly acknowledged to have a genetic predisposition to obesity.
- Basset hounds
- Cairn terriers
- Cocker spaniels
- Labrador retrievers
- Shetland sheepdogs
Evaluate Your Dog
Once you know what is normal for your dog, you can monitor her size and make minor adjustments to diet and exercise accordingly. Your vet can also help you keep track of and evaluate your dog's weight. To determine whether your dog is overweight, check these five areas:
- Feel the ribs. There should be a thin layer of fat covering the ribs, but you should be able to feel them. If you can see the ribs, your dog is too skinny. If you can't feel the ribs, your pet is obese.
- Observe and feel your dog's spine, shoulders and hips. Again, a small amount of fat should comfortably cover these parts. If you can see the bones, your dog is too skinny. When you can't feel the bones at all, you know your pet is too plump.
- Look at your dog from above and look for her waist just behind her ribs. Protruding bones or an extreme waist indentation are signs of excessive thinness. Should the area between the ribs and hips be wider than either the ribs or the hips, then your dog is obese.
- Get a side view of your dog to check out the abdominal tuck, the area between the ribcage and the rear. Deep-chested breeds, like greyhounds, naturally have a distinctive abdominal tuck. A drastic abdominal tuck indicates that your dog is too thin; overweight animals have no abdominal tuck.
Getting Fido Fit
If you think your dog is overweight, check with your vet to rule out hormonal or other health problems. Then, you and your vet can determine your dog's optimum weight and develop a diet and exercise plan for your dog. Your vet will likely want you to check in regularly to monitor progress.
The basic weight reduction strategies for dogs are:
- Eliminate snacks, treats, and table scraps.
- Increase exercise.
- Decrease portions.
- Switch to a lower-calorie dog food.
To give yourself an incentive to help your dog stick to his diet plan, take a "before" picture of your dog and take several more as he loses weight. You will be delighted when you compare the "before" and "after" pictures.
- Aiming for one to two percent of body weight per week is considered a safe weight-loss goal for a dog. Losing more than two percent of body weight per week is too much.
- When choosing dry foods, consider that the fat content of dry food should range between 12 and 16 percent. Twelve percent is better for sedentary dogs, but active dogs can tolerate 16 percent fat.
- Frequent feeding can make dieting more tolerable for your dog. Try two to four small meals throughout the day.
- Keep an overweight dog from eating other pets' food by feeding him separately.
- Before you prepare a meal or sit down to one, feed your dog.
- Provide plenty of fresh, cool water at all times.
- Examine near the base of your dog's tail. This area should be smooth with a slight covering of fat. If the bones stick out, your pet is too thin, and if you can't feel the bones, your dog is overweight.
- There is no room in a weight-reducing program for snacks, treats, or table scraps. Your dog is getting all the calories she needs from her consistent, well-balanced meals. "Give your dog a dry, hard kernel of dog food instead of treats to reward her," suggests St. Louis vet Dr. Richard Albrecht.
- Remove food bowls promptly after feeding. An empty bowl can set off scavenging behavior. Begging or sniffing around an empty bowl does not mean that your dog is hungry.
- Everyone in the household has to stick with the program. Explain to family members that the most loving thing you can do for your dog is to help him attain and maintain a healthy weight.
Exercise gets oxygen to cells, keeps muscles toned and joints flexible, strengthens respiratory and circulatory systems, and aids in digestion.
Exercising with your dog is a great way to give her the attention she craves. A dog who is receiving enough attention is less likely to seek treats.
Follow these guidelines for a successful exercise plan.
- One long walk a day, lasting 20 to 60 minutes, should keep your adult dog svelte and healthy. A dog who has access to a run or a yard should still be walked daily (on a leash).
- Build up your dog's stamina gradually. Start with little strolls -- around the block or to the corner and back -- and slowly increase the length of the trip.
- Give your dog as much walking time as you can spare -- this is an exercise whose benefit is shared. Both you and your dog can stay sleek by walking briskly.
- If your dog begins panting heavily, stop and let him rest. Overexertion can lead to heat stroke.
- Do not let puppies and young dogs overdo it. Their bones are too soft and spongy to withstand the impact. Depending on the breed, pups under 18 to 24 months should not participate in the jumps of formal agility training or hop in and out of pickup trucks. It is too stressful to their bones, muscles, and ligaments.
- When puppies play with other puppies, they tend to tire out at the same time. Playing with an older dog may cause a puppy to play past her limit and exhaust herself, making her more prone to injury. Supervise and limit puppy and adult dog frolicking.
- If your dog suffers from a disease that limits his range of motion, it is just as vital to provide adequate exercise time at the dog's pace. Conditions like hip dysplasia and arthritis benefit from regular exercise, and activity helps your pet maintain his ideal weight.
- Two dogs in a yard will help each other stay in shape by romping and playing together. A lone dog is more likely to lie around.
- Active dogs are less likely to eat to relieve boredom or stress.
Follow these hints to maximize the effectiveness of your fitness strategy.
- Provide fresh, cool water at all times.
- Consult with your vet to find a well-balanced food that meets your dog's nutritional needs.
- Remember that you control your dog's intake. Your dog cannot go to the fridge and make a hoagie. Have a family policy about feeding your dog and stick to it.
- Never feed your dog from the table.
- Fine-tune meal size to suit your dog by beginning at the low end of the recommended amount on the package and adjusting the portion to meet your dog's activity level. Your dog is an individual; her needs might vary somewhat from the package instructions.
- Reward your dog's good behavior with love and attention instead of treats. When overcome with a generous impulse, treat your dog to toys as opposed to snacks. (If you can't break the snack habit, be sure that treats make up less than 10 percent of your dog's daily caloric intake.)
- Dogs who spend more of their time outdoors will expend more calories than dogs who stay mostly indoors. Compensating for cold temperatures and increased activity requires more nutrients than lying adoringly across your feet.
- After spaying or neutering, your dog may be a bit less active, which can mean he doesn't need to eat as much. Also, if your pet feels less of a compulsion to roam, that means you have to be more proactive about exercise.