Obesity in dogs could be considered a perception problem—a human perception problem. While a whopping 34 percent of dogs are overweight, only around 30 to 40 percent of the folks who put the food in the bowl for them know it. Canine obesity can cause or worsen musculoskeletal problems, exercise intolerance, cardiovascular problems and glucose tolerance imbalances. It also weakens the immune system and increases the risks of anesthesia; during certain surgical procedures, it can increase heat sensitivity.
Need more? The worst thing about dogs is that they don’t live long enough. Canine lifespan has been extended by as much as two years when the dogs are kept lean, and that’s the kind of life insurance we can all buy.
Why Are Dogs Fat?
What makes dogs fat? There’s the obvious answer—too many calories, not enough exercise—but that’s an oversimplification. Canine and human lifestyle issues, as well as human psychology, carry most of the blame, although hormone imbalances (see Balancing Act below), reproductive status and genetics play minor roles.
For most overweight dogs, the real culprit is a combination of free-feeding, boredom and not enough playtime. And then there’s the psychological component. No, don’t call the doggie shrink, because it’s not the dog’s psyche; it’s the psyche of the person who’s responsible for leaving a big bowl of dog food available all day and cutting the half-hour walk down to a five-minute backyard potty break.
Furthermore, although dogs of any breed (or mix) can be overweight, research shows that dogs of certain breeds are more prone to being overweight than others, which suggests a genetic component. These breeds include Cocker Spaniels, Labrador and Golden Retrievers, Basset Hounds, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Dachshunds.
Does spaying and neutering make your dog fat? Of course not. But there is a connection between how many calories a dog requires and reproductive status. This doesn’t mean that being altered “makes” your dog fat; it means that spayed and neutered dogs, as well as older dogs, generally require fewer calories and/or more exercise to maintain a healthy weight. As your dog ages, and after altering, you need to be especially aware of weight gain, and act immediately to reduce caloric intake and increase activity levels if necessary.
Healthy Weight Loss
While healthy, permanent weight loss in humans is hard to achieve, it’s much easier with dogs. They don’t eat a container of Ben and Jerry’s after a stressful day, and they rarely hit the drive-through instead of making a healthy dinner. As long as the human in the relationship manages not to overfeed and under-exercise the dog, weight-loss programs for canines are surprisingly successful.
Before getting started, head to the vet and make sure your dog doesn’t have medical issues that might be affected by a weight-loss and exercise program. Than ask your vet to help you calculate a reasonable caloric intake for your dog. Aim for a loss of no more than 1 to 2 percent of body weight per week.
There are a number of ways to determine a starting caloric level for healthy weight loss. Your veterinarian can use formulas known as Maintenance Energy Requirement (MER) or Resting Energy Requirement (RER) to give you a basic caloric level for your dog’s diet. Other practitioners simply restrict food below current levels by a specific percentage. While different methods may result in different figures, these differences aren’t important. Trial and error is required to determine your actual dog’s metabolic requirements, but any of these methods give you a place to start. If your dog doesn’t lose weight, or loses weight too rapidly, that particular caloric level is not right for that dog and should be adjusted up or down as necessary.