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The Big Fat Truth About Canine Obesity
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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.

 

Knowing how many calories a given commercial food contains in a serving can be confusing. Sometimes the calories are given per cup, and other times per gram, and sometimes both. A cup of one food might weigh more or less than a cup of another food, so buy a food scale and measure the food by weight, not by volume. Don’t just follow the feeding guidelines on a bag of food, as they are almost always too generous to support weight loss. If feeding a home-prepared diet, simply calculate the calories in the ingredients as you would for your own diet.

 

In addition, restricting calories too severely—especially for very obese dogs—can backfire, and can also result in nutritional deficiencies that can impair wound-healing and immune function. When it comes to healthy weight loss, patience is a virtue. Loss of more than 2 percent of body weight in a week can lead to the loss of lean muscle instead of fat. Don’t rush things; if your dog has a lot of weight to lose, decrease his or her caloric intake in stages, and realize that most dogs will lose ounces, not pounds, at a time. As long as the scale keeps moving downward, slow is better than fast.

 

One of the biggest culprits in canine obesity is lack of exercise, and not just because exercise cranks up the metabolism and burns calories. It’s also because our sedentary pets are bored, and eating is one of the things they do to alleviate boredom. If we leave food available to them throughout the day, as is extremely common, they will eat more than if we feed them on a schedule and then pick up any uneaten food after a fixed amount of time. So let go of the convenience of free-feeding, feed your dog two or more small meals a day at regular intervals and make your dog’s life more active and interesting with longer walks and increased playtime.

 

It’s Up to Us

A study at Ohio State University found that weight-loss programs for dogs were extremely successful as long as the people involved stuck with them. Being lean can add years to your dog’s life, and being obese can cause a myriad of health problems and significant joint pain. Our dogs can’t join a gym or eat better on their own; it’s up to us to make healthy choices on their behalf.

 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 37: Jul/Aug 2006
Christie Keith has covered canine health and welfare issues since 1991, is the lead science reporter for Pet Connection and writes the "Your Whole Pet" column.

Illustration by Michael S. Wertz

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