The How and Why of Keeping Your Dog’s Weight Healthy

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Dr. Irene Mitry from Clyde Vets explains the importance of watching what and how much you feed your dog.

Obesity in Dogs - The Silent Epidemic

Many dog owners are innocently unaware of the impact that their pet’s weight can have on their well-being, and many pooch parents have similar misconceptions about what even is a healthy body weight for their furry friend.

We love rewarding them with treats and snacks which of course they always accept and then naturally want more.

Partly as a result of this, a silent obesity epidemic is stalking the canine world, often going undiagnosed and undetected and it is affecting the welfare of our pets in ways that have real consequences for their health and their life expectancy.

Studies have shown that up to 50% of adult dogs are overweight and that dogs that are fed 25% fewer calories than average can live up to two years longer. The same study found those dogs that were fed less took an extra 3 years to develop the osteoarthritis that so often plagues dogs in their senior years.

So, we are loving our furry friends into an early grave, and inviting a host of chronic weight-related conditions that can severely impact their quality of life, simply by overfeeding them.

Why Your Dog’s Weight Matters

The health risks are significantly higher for overweight dogs of developing osteoarthritis, many types of cancer, high blood pressure, kidney disease, pancreatitis, type 2 diabetes, heart and respiratory disease, hip dysplasia, joint disease, disc disease, ruptured cruciate ligaments, compromised immune systems, and even encountering surgical complications.

So the veterinary health issues that can be caused by not managing your dog’s weight effectively are many, are real, and are worth worrying about. Cutting back on the treats today can literally mean many more years of treats in the future.

And we human-dog parents are not naturally very good at judging how far overweight our pampered pooches actually are. If, for example, a 70-pound dog gains just 13 pounds in weight, that’s the equivalent of a 140-pound woman carrying an extra 26 pounds.

And most of us don’t appreciate the caloric content of our own human foodstuffs when we toss our dogs the odd table scrap. For a 33 pound dog, feeding them just ¾ of an ounce of cheese is the caloric equivalent of a whole human hamburger - so it’s not a “snack” you’ve just fed them, it’s actually a whole extra meal.

And this is part of the reason why even when dog owners do take action over their fur baby’s weight, around 90% of weight loss reduction programs wind up failing.

Maintaining healthy body weight is really about two basic factors. Your dog’s caloric intake, and the number of calories they expend in their exercise and daily activity.

So more active dogs can actually consume more food and maintain healthy body weight, but it’s vital that we keep the flipside of that in mind - as our dog’s activity levels naturally decline with age, they also naturally need to be fed less.

What’s a Healthy Weight for My Dog?

Your dog’s ideal weight obviously varies widely, depending on factors like breed, size, and age, there is no one size fits all number that you need to watch, and this can make it difficult for anyone who isn’t a veterinary expert to know whether they are actually overweight or not.

It’s not an exact science, but the signs your dog may have a weight problem for the most part, fairly obvious. These include difficulty in feeling defined ribs, spine, and waist when you run their hands over them, and a sagging or swollen abdomen.

A good guide for dog owners to think about when petting them is your dog’s ribs should feel similarly padded to the knuckles on the palm side of your own hand. If they’re wiry like the knuckles on the reverse side, your dog is probably actually malnourished, but you should still be able to feel individual bones between the padded tissue. If you can’t, they are almost certainly overweight.

Don’t panic, though if you think your dog is overweight. Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to bring the problem under control within a quick timeframe with a little bit of good discipline and planning.

Just remember, the longer the time your dog spends in an overweight condition, the more difficult it then becomes to bring the problem under control, and the greater the risks of their experiencing other health issues increases. So don’t panic, but don’t delay either.

An Action Plan for Overweight Dogs

Your vet can help you to work out the scale of your dog’s weight problem and give you a formal weight management plan to put in place.

We always recommend seeking professional support with their weight management, but just following these simple best practices will help put you and your pooch on the path to a streamlined look and improved quality of life.

1. Reduce the size of their food portions

This may seem obvious, but can be a difficult one to get right for owners who feed their dogs without a formal regime in place. We recommend measuring out how much food you are currently giving them daily, and then start reducing that by a small percentage each day over a one week period in line with the desired level of weight reduction. Ideally, you should also be weighing your dog at regular intervals to keep track of the measurable impact. If reducing their food intake by 15% has not achieved the desired reduction after a month, you know you need to keep pushing on to a 20 or 25% reduction. Measuring everything is the key to turning your dog’s weight-reduction plan into a science.

2. Feed them more protein and fewer carbohydrates or high-fiber foods.

The ratio of carbohydrates to fats and protein is a hugely important factor in effective weight loss. Dogs thrive on a high-protein diet and don’t actually need carbohydrates at all. An ideal weight-loss diet is high in protein, low in carbohydrates, and moderate in fat, which will help satisfy their appetite.

It’s important to realize that many “weight-loss diet” foods on the market are actually high in carbohydrates, but low in fat and protein, which is completely the wrong ratio, so always check the nutritional information on the label.

Fiber is the indigestible part of carbohydrates, and common in grain-based dog foods. Many grain-free foods are high in protein and low in carbs, and therefore perfect for a weight loss diet, so long as they don’t contain too much fat.

3. Feed them the RIGHT fats

Studies have shown that the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, common in fish oil are effective in promoting weight loss and helping dieting dogs feel more satisfied. Look for fish/cod liver oils that contain 1-1.5 mg combined EPA and DHA per pound of body weight daily for healthy dogs, or up to 3 mg for dogs with health problems such as heart or kidney disease. Just keep in mind that oils are pure fat, and one small teaspoon can actually add more than 40 calories to their diet, so a small amount added to their daily diet is the key.

4. Rethink your policies on treats and scraps

Treats and rewards can be an important part of your dog’s behavioural training, and owners naturally love the bonding that feeding them treats creates with their fur babies. Fortunately, dogs care more about the number of treats they receive than the size of the treat, so it’s more rewarding for your dog and better for their weight management to receive a number of smaller treats than one big one. Try simply reducing the size of the treatment offered. You can also try feeding your dog some of their dinners as treats during the day. Just remember to reduce the dinner meal size accordingly.

Edible dog chews such as dried tendons, steer sticks, rawhide or even raw bones can keep your dog’s hunger at bay while providing a slow and limited intake of calories, and so these work well as effective treats. Just try and avoid treats that are high in fat and calories.

If you’re regularly giving your dog table scraps, you are promoting bad habits and essentially leaving their caloric intake unplanned. It can be particularly difficult if your dog has learned begging behaviour from this reward, but we recommend weaning them off table scraps completely as an urgent priority for any dog owner, whether their pet is overweight or not.

5. Promote more vigorous and regular exercise

While we’ve focused a lot on your dog’s intake here, always remember that the amount of energy they use up daily is a critical and overlooked factor in managing your dog’s weight effectively. There are a number of ways you can manage this - simply increasing the number or the length of daily walks is a much better reward for most dogs than a quickly forgotten food treat, and just as good for bonding. If you don’t do so already try and get them to an off-leash area where you can build some fetch or tug-of-war games into their routine. If you do this already, try increasing the amount of time devoted to this high energy activity. If you have the option, try the occasional “resistance walk”, where your dog needs to walk extensively on sand or leafy loam, which causes them to use significantly more energy just in the act of walking.

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