Obesity in Dogs
Definition of Obesity
Obesity in dogs is defined as an excessive accumulation of fat in the body, or an increase in weight beyond what is considered to be appropriate in relation to the dog’s age, gender, breed, height, and bone structure. Somewhere between 25 and 45 percent of American dogs reportedly are grossly overweight.
Symptoms of Obesity in Dogs
The signs of obesity can be subtle, especially to owners who see their dogs all the time and aren’t easily able to notice gradual changes in their weight. This can be even more difficult to identify in longhaired breeds. There is no uniformly-accepted medical way to measure whether a dog is or isn’t obese. Most veterinarians and owners assess their dog’s weight on a “look and feel” basis. Dogs are considered to be at their ideal weight if their ribs are easy to feel as individual solid structures without using very much pressure, and if their chest, abdomen and hips form a well-defined, waist-like “hourglass” shape when viewed from above.
Other signs of obesity include:
- A “waddling” gait (rolling from side to side when moving)
- Exercise intolerance
- Difficulty breathing (respiratory distress; dyspnea; increased respiratory effort)
- Noisy breathing (sterdor; stridor; wheezing; crackles)
Because these signs can be associated with conditions other than obesity, it is important to have an overweight dog examined thoroughly by a veterinarian before it is put on a diet or on an exercise program. This way, any potential underlying physical causes for its weight problem can be ruled out.
Even a moderate amount of excess body fat can reduce a dog’s lifespan and increase its chances of early death. While this association may not be completely direct, obesity does increase a dog’s chances of developing other conditions that can shorten its life, such as infectious disease, cancer, arthritis, skin disorders, high blood pressure (hypertension), respiratory disease, reproductive irregularities, diabetes mellitus and heart (cardiac), neurological and musculoskeletal (orthopedic) diseases. This is why it is so important to maintain a dog’s optimal body weight as best you can.
Causes of Obesity in Dogs
Obesity is caused by eating too many calories (excess energy intake), by not getting enough exercise (deficient energy output), or by some combination of the two. Extra energy from a dog’s diet is stored as fat. Factors that can contribute to a dog eating too many calories include being fed table scraps, snacks and other treats between meals, being fed energy-dense, high-fat, highly palatable commercial diets, or simply being fed too much of a well-balanced diet. Other factors can include age, breed, sex, heredity, hormonal abnormalities, and lifestyle. A strong human-animal bond often contributes to overfeeding and excess snacking. Basically, the combination of and balance between these factors can lead to overconsumption, excessive calorie intake, insufficient exercise, or some combination of these.
Dogs that are not given regular exercise can become overweight even when they eat an appropriate amount of food. Older animals, and those that are spayed or neutered, frequently become less active than they previously were and thus become predisposed to putting on weight. Aging dogs usually live an increasingly confined and sedentary lifestyle. Hounds, Beagles, Cocker Spaniels, Labrador Retrievers, and Shetland Sheepdogs are some of the breeds that more commonly are affected by obesity. Statistically, dogs that live with overweight owners are also more likely to become overweight. Finally, dogs with certain hormonal or metabolic disorders, such as hypothyroidism, can be prone to obesity because their body’s normal rate of metabolism is slowed down, which decreases their energy needs (that is, the number of calories they need to take in.)
Managing Obesity in Dogs
The best way to manage obesity is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Assuming that there is no underlying medical condition causing the weight problem, most obese dogs can be treated by reducing the amount of calories that they are eating and/or increasing the amount of exercise that they receive.
They should be fed a high-quality, palatable diet that is not too high in fat. One option to limit their caloric intake is to reduce the amount of their normal food, or switch to either a low-calorie or a less-flavorful food. Since reducing the amount of maintenance kibble would also be reducing the dog’s daily nutritional requirements, special reducing diets tend to be a better option. This way the volume of food fed doesn’t have to be greatly reduced and the daily nutritional requirements are still met. Feeding frequent small meals usually keeps a dog feeling more full than one large daily meal. Most experts recommend that table scraps and “people food” be avoided, because they usually contain a lot of calories and fat. Since some owners can’t resist their dog’s begging and desire for treats, raw carrots, rice cakes, and green beans are healthy alternatives.
Overfeeding puppies may lead to excess production of fat cells and a tendency to become overweight later in life. In young dogs, overfeeding may also accelerate their growth rate, which in some breeds can increase the risk of potentially serious skeletal diseases. Puppies should be fed an appropriate daily amount of a well-balanced, high-quality food with enough calories to promote a normal rate of growth.
Mature companion dogs should be given a reasonable amount of regular exercise, such as one or two brisk daily walks. Another great form of exercise for dogs is swimming. Increase in such exercise should be made gradually, to avoid potential cardiac or orthopedic problems. Certain medications have been used in combination with dietary and exercise programs to aid weight loss in dogs. Of course, the best way to discuss an appropriate dietary and exercise regimen for an obese pet is to speak with your veterinarian.