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Obese Dogs

By: Gary Wynn Kelly

I am motivated to write about obesity in dogs because of the number of obese dogs we have seen in rescue. I have had too many grossly obese dogs come to my home for fostering in the past that should never have been permitted to become so fat.

I have had dogs coming in as fosters who weighed 90 and 100 pounds that should not have weighed over 60-65 pounds, and many weighing in at 70-75 pounds that should not have weighed in over 50 pounds. I have seen far more dogs who are not so extreme as these examples, but nonetheless, have sufficient obesity to threaten their health status and shorten their lives.

Obesity is defined as the excessive accumulation of fat in the adipose tissues of the body. By contrast, the term “overweight” generally refers to a body weight greater than some arbitrary standard for a given height and does not necessarily imply an excess of body fat. A dog can therefore be “overweight” according to its breed weight range simply because it has a marked muscular development rather than an excess of fat. The term obesity is generally preferred where the accumulation of fat leads to some degree of physiological dysfunction and a deterioration of health.

*Obesity exists when body weight exceeds the optimum for the individual pet by 15 percent or more.*

At present, obesity is the most common nutritional disorder affecting dogs in almost all countries, far exceeding other nutritional imbalances or deficiencies. While accurate data are not available, it is estimated that between 25% and 44% of dogs are obese.

Obesity is more common with advancing age and occurs more often in females than males. It also occurs more frequently in neutered pets.

At present the assessment of obesity is based on simple observation. The most practical way of evaluating your dog is to check the amount of fat over his/her rib cage. Place your hands on your dog’s rib cage with your thumbs on the back. If the ribs are easily felt, your dog is considered to be normal weight. If you can feel fat between the skin and ribs or the ribs are difficult to feel, your dog is overweight. If the ribs cannot be felt, your dog is obese. Remember, that a dog that is 70 pounds when it should be only 60, is more than 15% over the optimal weight, and therefore obese.

A large abdomen that hangs down or protrudes to the sides, indicates obesity. This judgment of your dog’s weight status should be confirmed by your veterinarian! Your veterinarian will rule out other medical conditions that might look like obesity.

There are many factors that contribute to the development of obesity, over which owners have little control. These include heredity, breed type, reproductive status, sex and age. However, there are factors owners can control, and it’s important to be aware of these.

It is generally agreed that the two most important factors leading to obesity in the dog are excess caloric intake and reduced physical activity. In other words, most obesity is caused by the dog eating more calories than are expended. That’s too much food and too little exercise or both.

Eating too much food is partly the result of the attractive taste of today’s commercial pet foods. However, the major cause is supplementation with table scraps, snacks and other foods. The obese-prone dog responds to particularly good-tasting food by eating beyond its requirements. Reduced physical activity or exercise that is not matched by reduction in the calories eaten, contributes to obesity, as does eating when bored or idle. Neutering approximately doubles the occurrence of obesity in dogs of both sexes.

Overfeeding puppies predisposes them to obesity as adults by increasing their number of fat cells. Allowing them to become obese during growth will often plague them with obesity throughout life.

Exercise may be inappropriate for pets in poor health, so be sure to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations.

Obesity reduces an animal’s life span, general enjoyment of life and the owner’s enjoyment of the animal. Mortality is 50 per cent greater in people who are 20 per cent overweight and 33 per cent greater in those that are 10 per cent overweight. Such figures are not available for dogs, but it is likely that a similar pattern exists.

The health status of your dog may be impacted by complications to obesity that increase veterinary costs before killing the dog. Obesity is linked to diabetes in dogs as well as man. The obese dog may have aggravated problems with arthritis.

The most important factor in the successful treatment of obesity is good owner compliance in implementing and following the therapeutic plan. Some owners are reluctant to admit that their pet is fat,” while others consider it a sign of good health and are reluctant to follow a weight reduction program. One of the most common reasons for this is that owners are often obese themselves. It may be time to take a frank look at your dog, and realize that you may be perpetuating your own failures at weight control on the dog. While you may beat the odds of having health issues as a result of this, your dog probably will not, as the impact of such obesity is likely to appear in a far shorter time. A dog that is obese for a period of 5 years is very likely to start having health effects.

Home Management

By far the most important part of a successful weight reduction program is that every member of the family is certain of the necessity of the weight reduction. Your total commitment to achieving the weight loss is necessary, otherwise the effort may result in frustration, wasted time, energy and resources. It is essential that everyone cooperate to reach the agreed upon goal.

Restricting daily caloric intake is perhaps the best therapeutic plan. A caloric intake is prescribed that is approximately 40 to 60 per cent of that required by the dog at its target weight. This may be achieved by either using a home-prepared diet or a commercial veterinary diet formulated for weight loss. Home-prepared diets can be time-consuming to prepare and it is often considered that unless the diet is changed completely, success will be limited. If the owner wishes to adopt this approach, numerous diets have been recommended. An example of such a diet is the one used by several of us who have to work with obese fosters. We use a high quality dog food such as Inova Diet, or Nutro Lite. For what should be a 50 pound dog, currently weighing 70 pounds, we keep the servings to 2.5-3 cups a day. In severe cases where the dog is ravenous at meal time, or stealing food at every opportunity, we split the meal into two parts; 1 cup fed in the morning meal, and 1.5 cups in the evening meal.

**It is very important to MEASURE the food. We find that most people who just estimate, or use a scoop without measuring the food, feed the dog too much.** We actually do measure the food our dogs eat for every meal.

*Stop the diet if your dog begins having loose stools, or other unusual signs of intestinal disturbance.* Consult your veterinarian.

Feeding multiple times a day also helps enormously. If it can be managed, feed your dog 3 to 4 times a day, rather than the entire amount in one meal. Even two meals a day will help as your dog will be less hungry, and gain less calories from the food by eating more meals. Remember! The total daily amount should *not* be increased if you feed your dog more than once a day–regardless of what your brown/blue eyed dog tries to tell you!

A light or medium weight dog can safely lose 1 pound a week. A large dog can lose 1.5 pounds a week. It is important to chart the loss, and stick with the diet.

In extreme cases, or long term cases with a dog that is always too hungry, and adopting behaviors such as excessive scrounging for food, eating plants and other property because it is hungry, or attempting to steal food at every opportunity, we recommend a diet we have tried in rescue for many years. This diet consists of adding up to one third of the amount of food given as rabbit food. In other words, if a dog is eating 1.5 cups in a meal, then up to a half of a cup of rabbit food can be added to the meal. This adds fiber and bulk to the diet without adding calories. It does add minerals, which are fine for the dog. Rabbit food is 95% green fiber. It is salad for your dog.

The result is that the dog will drink more water, feel that it has eaten more, and be less ravenous. The dog may have a loamy stool. This is fine. The extra fiber itself is not harmful. Some dogs do not like this as much as commercial dog food, but many adjust to it well, and eat the diet successfully for years.

Another technique we have used is to make sure the dog gets plenty of “dinosaur” bones on which to chew. This occupies the dog for hours, expends far more calories than it gains from the bone, and tends to reduce ravenous behaviors. This works well in chronic cases of ravenous behavior.

All of us fostering dogs and placing them can contribute to the health of dogs in the community by educating new owners in appropriate feeding practices. This should be done for *every* dog, and not just the obese ones. Today’s healthy dog could be an obese dog tomorrow if the new owner is unaware of proper feeding practices.

Copyright© 1999, 2007, by Gary Wynn Kelly Please respect the copyright. Contact ADRTC.ORG for permission to copy or distribute this article.