An estimated 52 percent of dogs and cats in the U.S. are obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), which was founded by Ernie Ward, DVM. Among them is 45 percent of the dog population.
That’s right: Nearly half of the U.S. dog population is overweight. In the 2009 National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Study, findings showed that the number of overweight dogs had increased by 2 percent since 2007.
“Pet obesity is now the biggest health threat to pets in the U.S.,” said Dr. Ward, the lead researcher in the study. “The costs of obesity in illness and injury make it the number one medical issue seen in today’s veterinary hospitals.”
Still, despite the numbers showing that pet obesity is indeed a growing epidemic, pet parents are in denial. Canine health and nutrition writer Mary Straus writes in Whole Dog Journal that studies show “veterinarians considered 47 percent of their patients overweight, [while] only 17 percent of the owners agreed.”
The cause for concern is apparent. According to Modern Dog Magazine, dogs that are slender and in good health live two years longer than dogs that are slightly overweight. They also suffer fewer health problems and live a much better quality of life.
What Causes Dog Obesity?
It doesn’t take a veterinarian to know what can cause a dog to become overweight. Dogs that aren’t eating a proper diet or are lacking exercise are at risk for obesity, just like their human counterparts. Kibble, treats, table scraps and training rewards – it all adds up.
On the other hand, a dog with weight issues may not necessarily be a victim of overfeeding. Some dogs can suffer weight problems because of underlying medical conditions.
“I see a lot of second and even third opinions for weight issues, and basically we’re dealing with patients that may have hypothyroidism, or low thyroid disease, and nobody checked for that,” says Ward. “The first thing we do is run some basic blood and urine tests on any patient that’s overweight or obese. If you’re dealing with an underlying medical condition, you can try all the diets in the world but your dog’s not going to lose the weight.”
Genetics also play a part in how easily a dog may gain weight. Some breeds are more susceptible to weight gain than others, according to Modern Dog, which writes, “Nearly 70 percent of the risk factor for obesity in dogs can be traced to your dog’s breed.” For example, leaner breeds like Greyhounds and Whippets may naturally stay svelte, while stockier pooches such as Labrador Retrievers and Beaglesmay build more bulk when their diets and exercise regimens aren’t kept in line.
What Health Risks are Associated with Dog Obesity?
The following are some of the conditions a dog can suffer from if his weight isn’t under control. This list is a compilation of information from Straus along with Howard Wolinsky of Web Vet.
- Heart disease
- Disc disease
- Ruptured cruciate ligaments
- Hip dysplasia
Dogs with weight problems can also suffer from surgical complications and compromised immune systems.
How Can I Tell if My Dog is Overweight?
A lot of pet parents have difficulty determining if their dogs’ weight is ideal. When comparing dogs to humans, a pet parent might get a better idea of how those few extra pounds on their dogs can be really significant.
“A 90-pound female Labrador Retriever is equivalent to a 186-pound, 5-foot-4-inch woman, while a 12-pound Yorkshire Terrier is similar to 223 pounds on the same woman,” writes Ward.
Check for your breed on APOP’s list of ideal weight ranges. If your dog’s a mixed breed, you may try to find a middle ground between the two breeds’ weights.
If your dog’s a fabulous mutt with questionable lineage, not to worry; APOP has a simple way to determine if he’s in tip-top shape.
If your dog is at a healthy weight:
It’s easy to feel his ribs
- He has a tucked abdomen and his stomach doesn’t sag
- You can see his waist when you view him from above
If your dog is overweight:
It’s difficult to feel his ribs under the fat
- His abdomen sags and you can grab a handful of fat
- He has a broad, flat back
- He has no waist
The chart to the right, from APOP’s website, provides a good visual for assessing your dog’s weight. It dispels many misconceptions pet parents may have.
“Because we’re so used to seeing overweight dogs, many folks think a dog at his proper weight is too skinny,” writes Straus. “However, as long as the hips and spine are not protruding and no more than the last rib or two are slightly visible, he’s not too thin.”
If you still have doubts about your dog’s weight, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to be sure. Either way, if your dog is overweight, visiting your veterinarian is the next step on the journey to optimal health.
How Can I Help My Dog Reach His Healthiest Potential?
Once you’ve determined that your dog is indeed overweight, it’s best to take him to the vet before moving forward. Your vet can conduct blood tests to rule out any other potential medical conditions that could cause the excess fat.
Be sure to bring a detailed record of your dog’s habits: Eating, sleeping, playing, etc. Jot down any changes you’ve noticed and, if possible, when you first noted the weight gain and any changes in diet that have happened since.
Keeping a daily journal of your dog’s food intake is a good way to see just how many extra treats and table scraps he’s getting. This log will also help your vet make some determinations about your dog’s weight gain.
Once it’s determined that your dog’s weight gain is caused by too many treats and not a medical condition, your vet will likely advise you on ways to help your pooch lose weight. Primarily, you’ll have to change his diet and increase his exercise.
Start out by keeping track of your dog’s weight. A dog should lose between 3 to 5 percent of his body weight a month.
“A 50-pound dog should lose about half a pound a week, or 2 pounds a month,” writes Straus. You can either take your dog to the vet to be weighed during his weight-loss journey or, if you have a smaller breed, you can hold your dog, step on the scale and subtract your weight from the total.
Start out by weighing your dog once a week, recommends Straus, and once you see steady weight loss, you can check monthly.
When you’ve got a good idea of what the weighing routine will be, you can start making changes to your dog’s food.
Checkout this infographic to see wether your dog is obese or not
How Should I Change My Dog’s Diet to Help Him Lose Weight?
Make sure that any changes you make to your dog’s diet are done gradually so that you don’t shock his system. As always, before making any changes, be sure to consult with your dog’s veterinarian.
Dogs with weight issues are usually eating dog food incredibly high in carbohydrates, writes Straus. Instead, focus on foods high in protein. Look for dog food with a minimum of 25 percent protein, but a higher percentage is better.
“Protein and carbohydrates supply the same number of calories, but protein is preferentially used to build lean muscle, while carbs are more likely to be stored as body fat,” Straus writes. “L-carnitine, an amino acid derivative found in meat, fish, and dairy products, helps to burn fat.”
Limit your dog’s fat intake, but don’t eliminate it entirely. Fat is one of the best things for satisfying your dog’s appetite, so feed him dog food with moderate fat (about 12 to 16 percent) to keep him from trying to sneak food. Straus says that too much restriction can even lead some dogs to eat feces to find satisfaction.
For a homemade diet, Straus recommends feeding your dog the following:
- Lean meats
- Low-fat dairy
- Green vegetables (in place of grains and starches)
Take the skin off the poultry and use dark meat since white meat is too low in fat. You should stay away from very high-fat meats like lamb, pork and high-fat beef. You can also use some of these homemade foods to replace some of your dog’s kibble. Either way, if you’re switching your dog to a higher protein and fat diet, you’ll want to reduce his portions.
Controlling your dog’s food portions is another way to help manage his weight. Most pet parents have no clue what amount they should feed their dog and may not bother reading the portion instructions on the bag.
According to i Love Dogs, portions depend wholly on the food that you are feeding your pet. Lower-quality foods tend to require a higher number of servings to meet nutritional needs, while higher-quality foods require fewer servings. For a dog that’s overweight, eating fewer servings of a higher-quality food is the ideal situation.
On to the not-so-secret source of weight gain for many dogs: treats! Ward refers to many commercial-brand treats as “kibble crack,” noting they are packed with sugar and fat. For this reason, you should avoid opt instead for healthier treats like baby carrots, broccoli, celery or any other crunchy veggie or fruit your dog likes. You can also use a portion of your dog’s meal as a treat when you’re training him or for any other reason.
Straus recommends minimizing the size of the treat to tiny morsels instead of giving your dog a big chunk of biscuit with every new trick he does. Another option is rewarding your dog with play time or affection instead of treats. Get the whole family involved, and make sure that all table scraps stay on the table.
Lastly, put your pooch on a routine. If you set a specific feeding time and stay consistent, your dog’s less likely to beg during the day if he’s used to regular feedings. Decide on a time of day – twice a day is usually best – and put out half of your dog’s food portion each time.
You can also help your pooch along the way by making sure his nutritional needs are met with a multivitamin. Supplements such as decaffeinated green tea can also help your dog lose weight.
How Much Exercise Does My Dog Need to Lose Weight?
Every pet parent probably knows that walking your dog is the best thing to do for a dog’s health and sanity. But that’s not always enough incentive to get out the door with your dog. Consider this, though: About.com reports that a University of Missouri-Columbia study found that “walking the dog 20 minutes a day, five days a week produced an average weight loss of 14 pounds for study participants.”
Just like with food, gradually increasing your dog’s exercise is best.
“Proper exercise not only burns calories, but also helps convert fat into muscle, improving body condition,” states Straus. “As your dog loses weight and gains muscle, he will become more active, which will further speed up the [weight-loss] process.”
If walking’s just not your thing, Animal Wellness Magazine has a list of alternatives for you and your pooch:
Treadmill – So maybe you’re not the walking type, but your dog is: Try putting your pooch on a treadmill to help him lose those pounds at home.
Swimming – You never know, your dog might be a water wonder dog! Try taking him for a swim in the pool or at a local lake. Or you might even try surfing!
Canine Musical Freestyle – Love to dance? Your dog will too. You can both shake it up on the dance floor by learning to do canine musical freestyle – a series of tricks done to a tune.
Doga – That’s right, yoga for dogs. If your pooch is more mellow or a senior dog, a little dog yoga might do the trick.
Dog Agility – Known as a competitive sport, agility’s still very accessible for your average pooch. It’ll get him the cardio he needs to lose those pounds.
Disc Dogs – Some dogs absolutely love running and jumping up to catch a Frisbee. Try throwing a Frisbee around with your pooch.
Parks and Beaches – If you’d rather relax and watch your dog do the work, try a leash-free dog park or beach. Your pooch can roam free and run his little heart out.