Is Fido Fit or Fat? Canine Obesity

We love our dogs. They are beloved members of our families who share many special moments in our lives. They unconditionally love and support us, and we wonder how we could ever get through the tough times without our faithful companions. For many of our furry friends, however, we also share the American habit of overindulging in our meals and treats. This usually leads to extremely unhealthy results which can threaten their lives. Conditions such as arthritis and joint problems, collapsing trachea and other respiratory conditions, heart conditions, and in the case of kitties, diabetes mellitus, are all associated with or exacerbated by obesity.


Left to right: Fit, Fat, Obese  Diagram from Whole Dog Journal

Obesity is an epidemic for American dogs (and cats). Depending on the source, between 35-50% of American dogs suffer from obesity. Often, it is rationalized that our pets deserve these treats and extra portions of food or scraps from the table. After all, quality of life is important, isn’t it? But obesity shortens the quality of life by contributing to certain diseases, and when a pet is suffering from one of the conditions, this is not quality.
Arthritis, or inflammation of the joints, is often age or injury related, but carrying extra weight places considerable stress on weight-bearing joints, including between the vertebrae. This progresses joint degeneration which in turn leads to increased pain. Joint pain decreases a dog’s desire and ability to exercise which further compounds the issue. Controlling the weight may decrease the pain and may possibly decrease or even eliminate the need for some arthritis medications.
Respiratory conditions, such as collapsing trachea, coughing or snoring are exacerbated by the extra fat padding around the thorax and neck. This fat makes restricts the dog’s ability to fully inflate and deflate the lungs with each breath, leading to coughing. The trachea, which may be naturally narrow, or flimsy, based on the breed, is literally compressed by the fat, leading to chronic collapse and cough. Also, the dogs tend to overheat easily with extra weight.
There have been several studies demonstrating that among litters of various purebred dogs, obesity decreases the life-span by an average of 2.5 years versus the littermates who were of a healthy body condition.
Obesity also complicates anesthesia. Calculation of drug and anesthetic dosages is based upon lean body weight. These calculations become inaccurate when body fat is encasing the muscle mass of the body. Also, some anesthetics metabolize in a way that “stores” In fat. Therefore, obese dogs generally have a longer recovery from anesthesia because the medications take more time to be excreted from the body. Also, because normal respirations are more difficult for the dog and because anesthetic gas tends to suppress the heart and respiratory system, respirations can become much more challenging while under anesthesia.
Finally, dogs that have become accustomed to table food and/or high fat treats tend to be resistant to dietary changes. So when an owner attempts to “normalize” the diet, Fido refuses to eat the new food and often, the owner is concerned that their beloved pet is starving so he or she caves in and returns to the original food protocol. This teaches Fido that stubbornness works and that the owner has become trained to the dog’s idea of a proper diet.
Even when an owner is aware that their dog may be a few pounds on the heavy side, it may be challenging to figure out how it happened in the first place and how it can be managed. Remember that each dog is an individual with his own metabolic rate and his own genetics. Some breeds are predisposed to higher triglyceride levels and a propensity toward easy weight gain. Some of these breeds include Schnauzers, Labrador and Golden Retrievers, many terriers, Dachshunds, beagles, Bassets and Boxers. Also remember that is not just the number of pounds your dog weighs because one retriever’s 100 pounds may be perfect, and another’s is grossly obese. Veterinarians also measure your dog by Body Condition Score (BCS), which is a subjective assessment of your dog’s weight on a scale of 1-9 or 1-5 (usually depending on where your veterinarian was educated). BCS helps veterinarians grade whether a pet is under- or overweight or just right.
One of the most common things a veterinarian hears when asking how much food a dog is fed is either that his bowl is just filled up whenever it is empty, or that he gets a cup of food twice a day. Free-choice feeding (i.e. filling up the bowl whenever it runs empty) encourages the dog to gorge on as much as he likes, or snack continuously. It is impossible to regulate calories on such a diet. Also, when using a cup remember that cups vary greatly. Your “cup” may be 8 oz., 12 oz., a coffee can, a Big Gulp etc. When working on weight reduction and control, it is imperative to use a standard size measuring cup that can be designated for the dog food container. This way, anyone feeding the dog is feeding the same, measured amount. Many veterinarians have measuring cups supplied by various food companies that can be given to you.
Food packaging guidelines are just that – guidelines. And, a food company’s primary objective is to sell their product. Therefore, the guidelines may be more than what your pet actually needs. Your veterinarian can help you choose the most appropriate diet from the many available options, and can help you determine the correct amount to feed.
Treats count in the daily calorie total! Do not underestimate the number of calories in those tiny treats, snacks, flavored rawhides and ingested dental hygiene products. Depending on the treat, giving only a few throughout the day can quickly add up to an entire meal’s worth of calories.
Who feeds the dog? If multiple family members do the feeding, there may be inconsistency in the amounts being fed, or even in the number of meals per day if accidently fed the same meal twice! And if everyone gives treats each time Rex does a cute trick, this will add up the calories rapidly. If there are young children in the house, they may be slipping food under the table, or toddlers may be dropping unintended treats from the high chair. All of these tidbits add up.
Finally, metabolism changes occur throughout a pet’s lifespan and under certain conditions. Spaying and neutering, while essential for population control and overall health, does decrease the metabolic weight and caloric intake should be adjusted accordingly. Your veterinarian can assist you with this. There are also some endocrine conditions, such as hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease, that if left untreated, will greatly decrease metabolic rate. These conditions must be addressed with your veterinarian, as they each require specific testing to diagnose, and specific medications and dietary control to appropriately manage.
Weight loss, or even prevention of weight gain, does require diligence on the part of the owner, and commitment to calorie control and periodic weigh-ins and veterinary check-ups. Your veterinarian can help you identify a weight problem and will work with you to formulate a plan for control and management. Together, we can help your precious companion live a longer, healthier and happier life!
Robin Paterson, D.V.M.
Cerbat Cliffs Animal Hospital
4110 Stockton Hill Road
Kingman, AZ 86409