By Dr. Donna Spector for Vetstreet
U.S. dogs are fatter than ever. In fact, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) estimates that 53 percent of U.S. dogs are overweight or obese. Obese dogs are more likely to suffer from debilitating medical conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, heart and lung disease, high blood pressure, compromised immune function and even the development of some cancers. Obesity can be life-threatening and is a leading cause of preventable illness and death in dogs. It has been documented that dogs maintaining an ideal body weight live 15 percent longer, and with less disease, than overweight dogs.
How To Know If Your Dog Is Obese
It can be difficult for an owner to believe that an 80-pound dog is 20 pounds overweight. A recent study conducted by APOP reveals as a nation we are so accustomed to seeing fat dogs that we don’t seem to recognize it anymore. If you’re not sure, pat your hands along your dog’s sides from head to tail. In a healthy-weight dog, you should be able to just feel the ribs. Also, take a look at your dog from the side. Most dogs should have a slightly “tucked up” profile. If all you feel are fat pads on your dog’s sides, or if his side profile is more sausage-like than sleek, chances are your friend may need to shed a few.
The first thing you should do is get your vet involved. Take your dog for a checkup as there are underlying conditions that can contribute to obesity, including diabetes, Cushing’s disease and hypothyroidism. Have your veterinarian determine your dog’s current and ideal body weight and then tell you how many calories your dog can eat each day in order to reach that ideal weight. Your goal should be to work toward that ideal weight over a several-month period.
How To Feed For Good Health
Dogs should not be fed “free choice” as they tend to eat when bored instead of when hungry — which contributes to ever-expanding canine waistlines. Dogs should be fed two to four times each day, and all food portions should be measured exactly with a standard measuring cup.
Dog food label recommendations must be used cautiously. These guidelines are generic and most likely represent overfeeding for many U.S. dogs. Dogs must be fed according to their ideal body weight — not their current weight if they are obese. If your dog is even mildly overweight, feeding according to the recommendations found on the food bag will result in continued weight gains.
What To Feed?
Most regular dog foods are quite high in calories — usually between 450 and 550 calories per cup or can — making it very easy to unknowingly overfeed a dog and fail at weight-loss attempts. You must find out how many calories are in a cup or can of your dog’s food and feed it according to the number of calories he requires.
There is not one best diet for weight loss in dogs, and your vet can help determine what might work best for your dog. While weight loss can often be achieved by feeding less of a dog’s regular food, some dogs feel more satisfied on higher-fiber or higher-protein foods.
Weight loss is often easier to achieve by adding canned food to your dog’s feeding regimen. In general, it has higher protein, lower carbohydrates and similar or fewer calories when compared to a similar-sized quantity of the same dry food.
How To Give Treats
Dogs should be given no more than 10 percent of their daily calories as treats. Treats are a huge source of “hidden” calories, and dogs are often grossly overfed because treat calories are not accounted for. If the calories per treat are not printed on the treat package, call the company and ask for this information.
This is an alarming treat statistic: The average premium pig ear has 230 calories and when given to a 40-pound dog is the same calorie punch as an average adult eating two double cheeseburgers as a treat in addition to their normal meals.
The best and most healthful treat choices are fresh fruits or vegetables such as carrots, cucumbers, green beans or apples.
Get Exercise Right
Not only does an obese dog need to eat less, he needs to exercise more. Get your dog moving — take a walk or run, play fetch, go swimming, go up and down the stairs! Provide at least 30 minutes of brisk exercise every day to facilitate weight loss.
Monitoring Weight Loss
Weigh your dog every one to two weeks to monitor his weight-loss progress. Overweight or obese dogs should lose one to two percent of their body weight each week. If your dog is not losing weight, his daily calories may need to be restricted further.
Eating right and being physically active aren’t just a “diet” for your dog — they are keys to a healthy lifestyle and will reduce your dog’s risk of chronic disease and increase his chance for a longer life.
Dr. Donna Spector is a board-certified internal medicine specialist who practices in the northern Chicago area. She also owns a consulting business that focuses on bringing specialty veterinary care to underserved regions, providing consultations directly to pet owners and their veterinarians.
1. High And Low
This game is like squats for your dog or cat. With a kibble of food in one hand, have your pet lie down or sit. For dogs, lower the reward and coax your dog to jump up and follow it. Then quickly lower the reward again and return the dog to a sitting or lying position. An ideal “high and low” is when your dog explodes upward and immediately lies down again. Repeat this three to five times before giving the food. For cats, place their food on a counter or table (add a pinch of tuna or salmon for extra incentive) and have the cat jump up to get it. Return the bowl to the floor and repeat several times.
2. Hide And Seek
This is similar to fetch but without the throwing — and resulting broken lamps. Show your dog a favorite toy. Lead your dog into another room while you hide the toy from your dog’s view. Make the hiding place obvious at first, like the toy peeking out from under a pillow. When your dog finds the toy, praise and give a kibble of food. Hide the toy in progressively more challenging places as the game continues. This game is so much fun that after a few rounds, you won’t even need to offer your pet a reward.
3. Find The Food
Cats are natural predators. To tap into the instinct and encourage your cat to get its move on, try dividing the food into small bowls placed throughout your house. Have your cat watch as you “hide” the bowls. Your cat will “hunt” the food throughout the day. This is one of the best ways to get corpulent cats on their feet and burning calories.
4. Follow The Leader
This classic indoor game uses the same skills as “come and get it.” Show your dog or cat a favorite toy and call him to you. Walk around your house with your pet following you. Go as fast as you like, but just don’t blame your pet for any broken items.
5. Indoor Obstacle Course
Set up an indoor obstacle course made of empty drawers, buckets, pillows, boxes or broomsticks. Have your dog jump, crawl and navigate around furniture and objects for an intellectually stimulating activity. Playtime is about togetherness, not the quality of your toys. Get creative and resourceful to make even the dullest day bright with love and excitement.
6. Remote-Controlled Toys
Technology has provided pet owners an almost endless supply of remote-controlled toys. Many dogs and cats will chase a remote-controlled car or interactive talking toy. Look for a pet-friendly toy or car that has few small parts and is durable enough to withstand a paw strike or bite. Don’t scold your pet if he destroys the toy; fun happens.
One of the most entertaining activities for many dogs is fetch. Use a fun toy and start with baby throws. Get your dog’s attention and throw the ball or toy a couple of feet away. When he reaches the toy, praise him. As soon as he puts the toy in his mouth, take a few steps away while calling him to you. As your dog begins to approach, continue offering praise. When he reaches you, give the command “release” and show him a treat. Most dogs will trade the toy for a goody. Repeat this sequence, each time throwing the toy a little farther. Stop giving treats after two or three trips.
8. Come And Get It
Show your dog a favorite toy, such as a ball or Frisbee. As you do this, quickly bend over at the waist and extend your arms downward. This nonverbal communication cue signals you want to play. While you’re bending over, say, “Come and get it!” As soon as you’re certain you have your dog’s attention, turn and run away. When your dog gets within three or four feet, stop and offer praise and a tiny treat. If your dog isn’t interested in chasing you, don’t chase the dog because doing so may teach that it’s a game to run from you.
9. Outdoor Obstacle Course
Set up a basic agility or obstacle course in your yard. My favorite component is a climbing obstacle or ramp. Walking up and down uses your dog’s largest muscle masses in the rear legs. Weaving poles and jumping bars also are fun. While you can buy all these tools, you can easily make your own. Ramps can be as simple as wood raised on blocks, and weaving poles can be made from dowels or broomsticks. Teaching old dogs new tricks like how to maneuver through an obstacle course might not only help them lose weight but also stay mentally healthy.
10. Stair And Hill Climbers
A simple technique for healthy, overweight dogs is to find a hilly trail or flight of stairs and walk up and down. (Before you walk your dog on stairs or hills, ask your veterinarian to evaluate your dog’s knees and hips. Obese dogs can put more stress on their joints, resulting in higher frequency of injuries.) Maintain a moderate pace and avoid sharp turns or jumps. Five to 10 minutes of solid hill or stair climbing is a great workout for any pudgy pooch. If you have stairs in your home, feed your cat in places that make him climb up or down them.
If your dog likes to swim, indulge. Many breeds, like Retrievers, seem hard-wired to dive in. For dogs with joint injuries or arthritis, swimming is an excellent exercise.