Introduction: Obesity in pets has reached epidemic proportions in this country. It is now the most common nutritional problem seen in dogs. Approximately 50% of all dogs are overweight. Overweight dogs are unhealthy, and they face a variety of weight-related diseases and a shorter, more painful life. Pet owners control what the pet eats, when they exercise, and ultimately, their weight.

Why are dogs overweight: In todayís society, the tendency is to exercise less and eat more. This is unfortunately true for many of our pets. Some pet owners may even go to the extreme of replacing attention and exercise for their pet with food rewards and treats. This only compounds the problem facing many pets today.

Although insufficient exercise and excess calorie consumption are the major causes of obesity, there are other factors that can contribute to a petís weight gain. Highly palatable pet foods have high fat levels that can rapidly add on the pounds. Boredom and anxiety can cause a dog to want to eat continually. This is a problem if the dog has access to food left down all day long. There are also some breeds of dogs, such as Labrador retrievers, beagles, dachshunds, and basset hounds, that tend to gain weight easily. Other dogs suffer from medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism or dysfunction of the pituitary or adrenal glands, that can lead to weight gain. Like people, older dogs tend to need less calories to maintain weight. Finally, spayed and neutered dogs do have a tendency to gain weight more easily than their intact counterparts.

Why an overweight pet is unhealthy: Obese animals can have a number of weight related illnesses. There is extra stress on the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and other body organs. Fat animals are more likely to suffer from cardiac disease, respiratory problems, digestive disorders, and high blood pressure. Their joints, ligaments, tendons, and bones suffer from excess wear and tear, so they endure arthritis, joint injuries, leg problems, and back ailments. They are at greater risk during anesthesia and surgery. Overheating, skin disease, flatulence, constipation, and reproductive problems are common complaints. Obese animals are prone to life threatening chronic diseases such as diabetes, Cushingís Disease, pancreatitis, and liver disease.

As the dogs age, these physical problems increase and the quality of life decreases. The animals have difficulty rising, walking, climbing stairs, running, and lying down. They are more prone to develop fatty tumors. These tumors can interfere with motion and make the animals uncomfortable. Obese dogs also have a greater risk of developing certain malignant cancers. In general, obese pets lead shorter, less comfortable lives than those kept at the proper weight.

How to determine if a dog is overweight: Breed type and body structure should be taken into consideration when determining ideal body weight. In general, the best way to tell if a dog is overweight is to examine the dog. Start by looking at the dog from the side as he/she stands. A pet owner should be able to see good definition between the rib cage and the abdominal area. If it cannot be determined where the ribs end and the abdomen begins, the dog is most likely overweight.

The most accurate method uses touch. While the dog is standing, place the hands on both sides of the rib cage. Ribs and rib spaces should easily be felt. A dog within his normal weight range should have a thin layer of fat over the ribs. The more overweight the dog becomes, the heavier the layer of fat will feel. Fat can also be present along the back, over the hips, and over the abdomen.

Because there can be a several pound range within one breed type, breed weight averages are not helpful. In addition, even an extra few pounds on a small to medium size dog can be the difference between a fit animal and an obese one.

Treating the overweight pet: All overweight animals should have a veterinary examination before starting treatment. Treatment is designed for gradual, long-term weight reduction. It combines changes in life-style for the pet and commonly the owner. The entire family must be involved in the process so that one member does not undermine the program by sneaking treats to the dog.

The basis of treatment is a reduction in unnecessary calories and an increase in exercise. Simply feeding a reduced calorie diet is typically not the answer. The pet usually does not lose weight and low fat diets fed long-term can result in both skin and internal problems.

Before beginning, document the amount of food that the pet consumes. This includes the petís regular food, as well as treats, biscuits, table scraps, chews, gravies, and coat supplements. Compare these amounts (along with protein and fat contents) to the recommendations found on page A575 and what a veterinarian recommends for the pet. Next, document the exercise that the pet receives. Walking, running, fetching, swimming, playing with other dogs, catching a ball, and chasing a Frisbee are exercising.

Tips to reduce calories:

  1. Have the dog examined by a veterinarian to help determine the dogís proper weight and correct dietary requirements.
  2. Eliminate table scraps. They are typically high in fat and calories.
  3. Remove the dieting animal from the table area when family members are eating. This prevents begging and reduces the urge to feed the dog scraps.
  4. Replace treats with items such as raw carrots, green beans, low salt pretzels, rice cakes, plain popcorn (no butter!), and apple or banana slices. Use these in place of high fat meats for training rewards. Treats should make up no more than 10% of the petís total diet.
  5. Make low fat treats at home. Use low fat recipes for treats and biscuits, or slice and bake canned, low fat foods until they are dry and crispy. Store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Remember to consider these calories as part of the animalís total dietary intake for the day.
  6. Learn to ignore "begging eyes." This will eventually diminish the behavior.
  7. Practice obedience training. This way the dog can be told to lie down before begging begins.
  8. Replace the need to give treats as a sign of affection for the pet. Instead, give the pet a massage, a walk, some obedience work, or other attention.
  9. Slightly reduce the amount of commercial food being fed. A veterinarian can tell if the food is appropriate and the amount to feed the pet. Cut back approximately 20% of the total ration. Measure the amount of food each meal for accuracy.
  10. Examine the fat content of the petís food. Dog food should have a fat content of approximately 12-16 % during a weight loss program.
  11. Consider a "diet food." Available as prescription products or from a local store, these products are usually lower in fat and higher in fiber. They allow the pet to consume the same volume of food with fewer calories. Not all animals can digest these diets. Any changes in diet should be made gradually over one to two weeks. Ask a veterinarian for advice.
  12. Feed smaller portions more often. If the pet is usually fed once per day, try two, three, or even four smaller feedings each day. Multiple meals can actually reduce total calories and help the animal feel full.
  13. Weigh the pet regularly so that it can be determined of the plan is working. Aim for a gradual weight reduction of less than 1% of the petís body weight per week. Most animals can lose between ľ and 1 pound per week. A large dog may be able to tolerate up to a loss of 1Ĺ pounds per week. Rapid weight loss is dangerous and should be avoided.
  14. If there are other pets in the household, separate the dieting one during feeding. This reduces competition and the urge to eat more.
  15. Keep water available at all times.

Tips for healthy exercise:

  1. Have the dog examined by a veterinarian to help determine the proper level of exercise for the dogís present condition.
  2. Exercise the pet every single day.
  3. Keep exercise simple and moderate. Over-exercising an obese animal can cause more harm than good. DO NOT place excess strain on the petís already stressed cardiac, respiratory, and musculo-skeletal system. Watch an overweight animal for signs of fatigue and stop the exercise if necessary.
  4. As the dog adapts to the exercise, the amount and intensity of exercise can be gradually increased. Start with two easy, short walks per day. Five to 15 minute walks may be enough for the obese dog. Slowly increase to two or three 30-minute, brisk walks per day.
  5. Provide water every few minutes for the dog to help prevent overheating.
  6. Utilize joint-friendly activities such as swimming.
  7. Play games such as fetch, catch, or Frisbee.
  8. Consider exercising and playing in group activities such as agility training.
  9. Increase household activities and let the dog join in. The more an owner walks around the house, the more the dog will walk, if invited.
  10. Pick up the pace on each walk Ė stopping at every bush slows down the walk and reduces calorie loss. A slightly faster pace increases caloric output.
  11. As a pet starts to feel better and decreases in weight, jogging can help accelerate the weight loss process.

Fat loss supplements: There are studies in dogs which show that the cautious use of some dietary supplements can help dogs reduce weight and lower their cholesterol levels. These studies were done in obese dogs that were not helped by reduced-calorie diets alone. The dogs lost weight when they were given a naturally occurring hormone called dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA. DHEA levels decrease in animals as they age. Replacing the lost DHEA can lead to an increase in fat metabolism and subsequent weight loss.

Other supplements that are presently being studied include L-Carnitine, a nutrient needed for fat metabolism; Garcinia Cambogia, a fruit that appears to slow the formation of fat in the body; and chitosan, a fat-trapping product that reduces absorption of fat from the digestive tract.

These products should be used with caution under a veterinarianís supervision and do not replace a sensible exercise program and balanced diet.

Conclusion: Pets are members of the family, and they must be kept fit, not fat. Pet owners have a responsibility to help a pet remain healthy. To do this, remember to feed a restricted calorie diet if needed and eliminate table scraps. Feed low calorie treats such as fresh vegetables and plain popcorn. Ignore begging behaviors and feeding generated by guilt. Daily exercise should begin as two slow walks and gradually increase to two or three 30-minute periods of brisk walking. Several games of fetch or Frisbee should also be part of the daily routine. With these activities, both pet and owner will live happier, healthier lives. A video of a dog and owner getting exercise is found below. 


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