Your dog cant go to the fridge for a nosh if hes bored or rummage through the kitchen cabinets to see if theres anything good to eat in the house. That is, how much your dog eats and whether he maintains a healthy weight or becomes overweight is entirely in your hands. Thats a lot of responsibility, but it also completely empowers you to make sure your dog stays trim enough to be as active, pain-free, and happy as he can.
Start by getting a sense of his body condition score, which his veterinarian can help you with. It should be a 4 or 5, meaning you should be able to feel his ribs, and his waist should easily be visible when viewed from above. When viewed from the side, his abdomen should be tucked up. Each score above a 5 means a 10 to 15 percent departure from ideal. So if hes a 6 and should weigh 50 pounds, he weighs on the order of 55 to 58 pounds. His waist is discernible when viewed from above but no longer prominent.
At a 7, at which point you can feel the ribs only with difficulty because of a heavy fat cover and the waist is absent or barely visible, your dog enters the obese range; obese is generally considered at least 20 percent over ideal weight. An 8 means the ribs are no longer palpable at all, or only with significant pressure, and there are heavy fat deposits near the base of his tail, with no waist and no abdominal tuck. A 9 will show fat deposits even on the neck and limbs, and there will be obvious abdominal distention.
Owners routinely underestimate their dogs body condition score, so they dont even know that their pet needs to trim down. In two separate studies, almost 40 percent of people underestimated their pets score even after learning their veterinarians assessment of the score. In yet another piece of research, half of owners who correctly identified their dogs body condition score did not consider their pet to be overweight; they literally didnt know what overweight looked like. Its not surprising in light of the fact that even many show dogs are overweight and that in some instances, the breed standard is for the dog to carry excess pounds. That is, whats considered a perfect weight is often too many pounds for the breedss health.
Adding to the obesity epidemic among dogs is the same kind of portion distortion that makes so many people overweight. Owners often eyeball their dogs portions rather than measure them out with a measuring scoop, and it leads to the feeding of many extra calories. Research has shown that even veterinary staff accuracy in feeding a specific amount of food falls wide of the mark, with up to an 80 percent overestimate of the intended amount.
The lack of understanding about what a healthy-weight dog looks like and what a correct portion looks like is not without consequences. Overweight dogs are at increased risk for diabetes, pancreatitis, hypothyroidism, joint disease, osteoarthritis, intervertebral disc disease, compromised heart function, kidney problems, anesthetic complications during surgery, and finally, reduced quality of life as well as length of life. And their owners are in for increased heartache in addition to extra medical expenses.
If your veterinarian doesnt tell you whether your dog is overweight, ask at your pets next wellness exam. Breeds prone to excess weight, says the head of the Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals, Deborah Linder, DVM, DACVN, include Labs, beagles, Newfoundlands, dachshunds, and cocker spaniels.
If a weight-reduction regimen is in order, you might want to make an appointment with a veterinary nutritionist, who can work with you on a plan that will be sustainable over time. The aim is usually for a dog to shed about 1 percent of his body weight per week, with a minimum of a six-month reduction plan for a pet who is obese. But whats most important, Dr. Linder says, is not even necessarily that we start here and end there but that the strategies and the whole management of a healthier lifestyle is something that will work over a dogs lifetime. The change in behavior has to be something a family can live with permanently. That includes exercise, as long as the dog doesnt have arthritis or other medical problems that would preclude regular physical activity. For overweight dogs who havent been active, we typically recommend starting with two five-minute walks a day, working up to two 20-minute walks a day, Dr, Linder says. She also encourages aquatic therapy, when possible (although notes that exercise alone will not result in weight loss and must be coupled with a food plan).
If something the family can live with permanently means including treats, a veterinary nutritionist can calculate ways to keep treats in a dogs daily food regimen, often by coming up with treats that have a high volume so that the amount of food stays the same even while the calorie levels are being adjusted downward. Veterinarians want to know a familys non-negotiables, Dr. Linder says, so they can work with the family to implement a plan all the family members will be willing and happy to stick with.
For more information on a healthy dog diet, take a look at the Nutrition Toolkit of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (www.wsava.org), which contains the complete Body Condition Score chart for dogs as well as a body condition scoring video. And to find a board-certified veterinary nutritionist in your area, surf to the website of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition at www.acvn.org, and scroll down from the ACVN Diplomates tab to click on ACVN Diplomate Directory.
The good news in all this: its the very rare dog who doesnt lose weight on a weight-loss plan (although it is easier for the dog to regain weight than for a dog who was never overweight).