This was originally run in a shorter version in Northern Virginia Today
As a dog professional it is not uncommon for my clients to have chunky pets. It is something I need to address because we use food and such to help develop behaviors we need. Maybe you have decided your dog is little pudgy – or even obese – and you have decided to address this. Maybe your veterinarian has brought this to your attention.
According to PetMD.com, obesity is when your dog has 10-15% excess body weight. For a 10 pound dog this would be an extra 1.5 pounds and 15 lbs for a 100 lb dog. The first place I would begin a weight loss program would be with a vet consult. Though the vast majority of obesity in pets is a direct result of the owner’s actions, you should still rule out the chance of things like thyroid issues that can affect weight loss. I have a senior, hypothyroid dog. Foster’s ideal weight should be 16 – 17 lbs. At his heaviest he was over 20 pounds and at one point pushing 25 – even on LOW rations. Along with seeing other changes and with strict diet failing, I had him checked out. Yup, thyroid. Once we got him on medications and made sure the dosage was what he needed, addressing his weight became easier. Now, thyroid meds are not a magic weight loss potion removing the need for diet and lifestyle changes, but addressing Foster’s thyroid made getting his weight down easier.
If your dog is fuzzy get under the fur. A really fluffy dog may look fat when in reality he is OK. Know your dog’s body type. Sighthounds are a lean type of dog. If we were to get enough weight on them to hide all their ribs and hips, they would be FAT. If your dog is a type that is a more stocky build make sure he is truly stocky and not fat.
Why is being obese bad for your dog? Obesity can cause or at least increase the risk of various problems including but not limited to:
- less tolerant to heat
- less tolerant to exercise – they tire out faster
- high blood pressure
- increased risk of diabetes
- increased risk of lameness
- increased risk if anesthesia is needed
- skin folds can become irritated and infected
- difficulty breathing
- back problems/disk issues
- various masses and certain cancers
- it makes an examination harder for your vet to perform
- (this is a personal observation) I have found sometimes issues associated with obesity (aches) can reduce tolerance levels to different things
Since the vast majority of pudgy pooches is caused by humans, let’s address food and treats first.
Many foods and treats have extra and “hidden” sugars. Some foods with extruded, formed bits (different from freeze-dried pieces) may be higher in sugars. Foods too high in carbohydrates and fat can contribute to obesity.
You think your dog is active do you need a performance diet? Your active pet dog does not need a performance food. These foods are formulated for dogs who are hard-working on a regular basis such as sled dogs, dogs regularly training at high activity sports, etc. Even at that, many truly active dogs do not need a performance diet. My dogs do several activities and they are not on a performance food. Coconut oil is NOT a medical miracle supplement and yes I have seen people suggest it for pet weight loss. I have seen overweight dogs that were fed diet foods (the dog was free fed and the bowl always filled when it emptied). I have seen overweight dogs fed homemade food and raw diets.
Portion control is important to weight loss. The recommended feeding amounts on a bag of food are often way too much. For example, Foster, a 16 – 17 lbs Shetland Sheepdog, eats a total of 1/4 kibble in the morning (this includes what is scattered or put in a toy). In the evening he gets 1/8 cup of kibble and 1/3 cup of a rice/veggie/canned mix. According to many food bags Foster should be getting twice that food amount or more. Even my younger dogs get far less than the recommendation on the bags.
Portion control includes accounting for training treats, food stuffed toys, edible chews like pig ears, etc. I have known more than one morbidly obese dog that was eating diet food in carefully measured amounts. The dogs were getting a high amount of treats throughout the day – the owners mistook giving food with giving love. Also owners who forget to account for the food used in training to help reinforce behaviors we need increase the chance of pudgy dogs. One thing I recommend to my clients is measure out the daily ration and if it is a high enough reinforcing food for behaviors, we can use that as our training rewards. If not then we cut the food back to account for the food we use in training.
So how do we begin a weight loss program? As already stated, with a trip to the vet. Depending on how overweight your dog is will help determine where you begin.
When I am working to get a little chunk off my dogs I begin with portion control and activity. My dogs are fed two meals a day. Only part of it comes from bowls (two of my dogs are on medication). They rest they work for. In the morning they get partial rations. A little of the kibble is scattered in the yard for them to hunt. Then they get the rest in toys meant to be stuffed with food. Read this for information on toys you can stuff with food. Different food games also helps meet a dog’s mental and behavioral needs. Read this for more information on playing with food. I cut rations and replace with other foods. Every night my dogs get a mixture of rice, green beans or peas (sometimes I use squash or pumpkin as a change), canned food and sometimes plain gelatin I mix in with the water or sodium free stock I make the rice with. Make sure you use plain, unflavored gelatin because other types may have Xylitol which can be deadly to dogs. A couple of times a week I make this mix and keep it refrigerated in a large container. I do 2 cups of rice, 1/2-1 bag frozen vegetables, a can of dog food, a packet of gelatin.
I also account for things my dogs get to chew like bones. When my dogs get natural bones I make sure I remove as much fat as possible I adjust their meal intake on days they get things that are edible toys. Those nights their meal may only be the rice mixture and a find the kibble game with less kibble used.
A note on find the kibble games – if you have multiple dogs you may have issues with one dog getting more kibble than needed so keep an eye on your dogs. Watch for things like one dog watching where the others go and then forcing them away from the find. Alternatively give each dog a food releasing toy and supervise the activity or put them in separate rooms.
Increased activity helps with weight loss. If your pet is morbidly obese discuss an exercise program with your vet. Even if your dog is just a little pudgy, be careful when starting an exercise regiment, pushing too hard, too fast can cause damage. Look for lower impact exercise options like swimming. Walk on sand or other softer surfaces. Does your dog fetch? Throw a ball up a hill (dogs tend to run faster after a ball and return slower – you want the faster run to be up the hill for increased safety). Hide your dog’s kibble throughout the house and yard. Use food releasing toys that encourage movement to eat. Do sniff walks – put your dog on a long line (not a retractable lead) and allow him to roam around you, poke and sniff.
Finally track your pet’s weight loss. This may mean weekly weight-ins at your vet. You should not be charged for these if all you are doing is going in and using the scale.
Obesity is a problem with dogs in America. However it is preventable and reversible. Please do not take offense if a pet professional mentions your dog’s weight. It is never nice to hear but for the health of our dogs, maintaining a healthy weight is important.
- Karen Peak, West Wind Dog Training