People are less active than they were in the days when most worked at manual labor or exercised by splitting wood, hunting, hiking, or other physical exertion. Television, computers, and spectator sports have replaced action and high-calorie snacks have hastened the decline. Even with the emphasis on low-fat foods, we still eat too much - and feed our pets too much - for the amount of exercise in our daily lives.
Obesity in dogs is a serious medical problem. Fat dogs are more at risk in surgery, more prone to injury, and have more stress on heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and joints. Excess weight can worsen osteoarthritis, cause respiratory problems in hot weather and during exercise, lead to diabetes mellitis, and generally lessen the quality of life for a family pet.
An owner can control his pet's weight by realizing that food is not a substitute for attention or a cure for guilt and that firmness can and should be applied to the relationship. An owner who cannot resist Fluffy's soft, pleading eyes whenever food enters the vicinity is an owner contributing to Fluffy's obesity and may even be shortening her life. An owner who cannot rouse himself for a few hours each week to make sure that Singer gets enough exercise is an owner contributing to Singer's obesity and may even be shortening his life.
A guide to determine if Pal is malnourished
Purina researcher Dottie La Flamme DVM, PhD, designed a system that helps owners identify potential obesity in their pets. This nine-point grading system defines ideal condition as that in which the dog's ribs are easily felt and the waist and tuck-up (the belly area between ribcage and rear end) are discernible without being prominent. The dog in ideal condition has a thin layer of fat over the ribs.
Overweight dogs have increasing amounts of fat over the ribs and minimal or absent waist and tuck-up. Obese dogs have heavy fat over the ribs, along the spine, and around the tail. Morbidly fat dogs have protruding abdomens and fat deposits throughout their bodies.
Owners can examine their own dogs for a fat layer on the ribs and the visibility of a waist and tuck-up. Breed characteristics should be taken into account of course, as some breeds have more prominent ribs and tuck-ups when in optimum condition. In general, dogs with protruding bones and the appearance of muscle loss are too thin.
Owners can take the situation in hand right now to prevent obesity in their dogs. First, assess the dog's condition. If he appears underweight, take him to the veterinarian for a physical exam to determine the cause and extent of the problem. If he appears overweight, have him checked as well and examine both feeding and exercise programs.
Many dog food manufacturers sell low-calorie diets for dogs that are worth a look, and some companies sell prescription weight-loss diets through veterinary practices. However, caution is the rule when using these rations.
"Dogs and cats do lose weight on these diets if fed the proper amount and if the animal's metabolism can handle the increased grain protein and fiber provided by the diet," said Susan Gayle Wynn DVM in an article titled 'Weight problems in pets - do diet foods work' published on the Alternative Veterinary Medicine website (http://www.altvetmed.org/articles/diet.html). "One common problem that we see is a gradual degeneration of coat quality. Many animals tend to stay overweight and develop dry, flaky skin."
Wynne said that a more dangerous problem can occur when a dog is kept on reduced fat diets for long periods.
"If they eat supplements of meat containing fat or even a maintenance pet food after becoming accustomed to low-fat diets, they may develop a potentially serious disease called pancreatitis," she wrote.
So what's a dog owner to do?
Be aware that obesity is a potential problem if Fido controls the amount of food and snacks he gets by begging or looking sad and get a head start by realizing that an empty bowl is not a clue that Fido needs more food. Dogs are scavengers; an empty bowl is often a trigger for pleading or browsing behavior and does not mean that Fido is starving.
At the very least, cut back a bit on the kibble in the food bowl. If Pal looks stricken and keeps looking for more, toss in some green beans, carrots, or other low-calorie vegetables as long as they do not cause intestinal upset.
Feed appropriate snacks. If you can't resist offering Muffin an evening gnosh, try specialties from natural food bakeries for pets or carrot sticks, unbuttered popcorn, orange or apple slices, pretzels or bits of banana instead of potato chips, pizza, or ice cream. If you split a burger with your pooch on an outing, cut back on his next meal.
Provide some opportunity for prolonged exercise a couple of times a week. Long walks, play sessions, and strenuous training sessions help keep muscles in shape and bodies functioning. Time alone in a yard is not sufficient; although dogs will run fence lines if a person or animal happens by, they are generally as lazy as people and will not run for the sake of exercise. Two dogs, however, will often run, romp, and play together and thus exercise each other.
Watch the fat content in the food you buy. Fats are energy sources; if the energy isn't expended, fats merely add unneeded calories. Fat content of dry food for adult dogs generally ranges between 11-16 percent, with sedentary dogs needing a lower percentage than active or performance dogs.
Check the calorie content of the food you are feeding and look for a diet with similar ingredients but fewer calories. When changing foods, watch for changes in your pet's coat, exercise level, and general condition because dietary changes can influence overall health even while reducing weight if the food is not compatible with the dog.
Watch the supplements you use. Some veterinarians, breeders and trainers recommend adding a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil to the kibble if the dog has a dry coat or skin, but this probably only adds unnecessary calories. It's better for the dog to use a food with sufficient Omega fatty acids or even to supplement with Vitamin E or with a balanced supplement such as Missing Link.
Keep in mind that dry skin and coat or itchiness can be caused by allergies or other diseases that have nothing to do with diet; if the dog scratches a lot and does not have fleas, a visit to the veterinarian is in order.
Unfortunately, some dog breeds (like some people) seem to have a head start on thickening waistlines. These include Labrador Retrievers, Beagles, Basset Hounds, Dachshunds, Cocker Spaniels, and Shetland Sheepdogs. If you own one of these breeds, you can take steps to make sure your pet gets enough exercise to work off his daily ration so he doesn't gain too much weight.
Don't blame weight gain on hormone changes after sterilization surgery. Some spayed bitches and neutered males may gain weight because of a combination of hormone changes, lowering of metabolic rate, lack of exercise, and consumption of too many calories, but the key is "combination of influences," not "sterilized pets get fat."
Keep Pal away from the table at mealtime, separate him from snacking youngsters, and don't let the kids feed him without supervision.
While exercise is vital in any program to prevent or dogs from becoming overweight or obese, some caution is necessary. Diving into a vigorous exercise program can tax underused muscles and, stress heart and lungs so start slowly and increase frequency and intensity of activities with care. An exercise program should begin with a visit to the veterinarian to assess general health and to set up an exercise program that will not stress the pet's heart or lungs or cause muscle strain or pain.
Short sessions of low or moderate activity (a walk around the block, a daily obedience routine, a regular obedience class, etc.) are a good way to start. Overweight dogs should be watched closely during exercise to make sure they do not have trouble breathing, especially in hot weather.
Remember, overweight and obesity don't happen overnight and cannot be corrected overnight.