Obesity in dogs living in developed countries has become an epidemic matching human obesity. Overweight dogs have become so common that many people think dogs at their ideal weight look unhealthy and underweight. Like human obesity, a poor diet and lack of exercise is a recipe for obesity in dogs.
Overweight Dogs and Health Risks
It’s often said that a fat dog is a happy dog. This simply isn’t true. Overweight dogs cannot exercise, run or play to their full extent. A happy dog is healthy and has plenty of energy.
Overweight dogs are prone to health complications. Obesity places undue stress on a dog’s muscles, bones and joints. Muscle sprains are more common in overweight dogs than dogs at their ideal weight. In the event of an accident, bone fractures are likely to be more severe in overweight dogs.
Obesity in dogs stresses the joints. Osteoarthritis occurs at a younger than normal age in overweight dogs and obesity can hasten hip dysplasia, a common degenerative joint disease seen in larger breeds.
Checking for Obesity in Dogs
To check whether your dog is obese, run you hand over his ribs. While a health dog does have a thin layer of fat over his ribs you should be able to count each of your ribs by feeling them under the skin. If you can’t, your dog is probably overweight. If you can visually count the ribs, the dog is dangerous underweight.
A healthy dog should have a “waist”—an indentation between the base of the ribcage to the hind legs. Overweight dogs lack this waist.
Heavy layers of fat over the ribs, the spine and the base of the tail are all indicative of obesity in dogs.
Dogs, like humans, can become so overweight they are considered morbidly obese. Morbid obesity in dogs results in fat deposits along the entire body and a hanging, protruding abdomen.
Most cases of obesity in dogs result, as you might expect, from poor diet and lack of exercise. Because some medical conditions cause obesity having an overweight dog examined by a veterinarian is important.
The thyroid gland produces hormones integral to many bodily functions, and plays a role in weight control. A dog with hypothyroidism will gain weight. Unlike overweight dogs who simply lack exercise and eat too much, a dog with hypothyroidism will have other symptoms, such as:
- dull coat
- excessive fur shedding
- high risk of ear infections
- high risk of skin infections
- loss or thinning of fur
- low levels of activity
- lowered tolerance to cold.
Overweight Dogs and the Neutering Myth
A common belief is that neutering or spaying dogs results in weight gain. While the change in hormone levels associated with “fixing” a dog may result in a slight weight gain, lack of exercise and overfeeding are the true culprits of obesity in dogs.
Overweight Dogs, Diet and Exercise
Assuming that overweight dogs have no contributing medical conditions, obesity can be controlled with changes in exercise level and diet.
Consult with your veterinarian about the correct amount of food your dog needs given his ideal weight and age. Generally, food quantity is decreased over a period of several weeks with the goal being 25 percent less than the current amount. Reducing the amount gradually is necessary as a sudden change in diet can actually be harmful to your dog’s health.
While calorie-restricted “diet” foods are available for overweight dogs, many veterinarians don’t recommend using these foods to treat obesity in dogs. Diet foods may not contain all the nutritional requirements needed to keep a dog healthy.
Between feeding times, food should not be available to overweight dogs. This includes table scraps, treats and dog food. Dogs can be very persuasive and guilt inducing as they watch you eat, but stand firm on the “no mooching” rule. Clean, fresh water should, of course, be available at all times.
Like diet, changes in exercise should be gradual. Suddenly subjecting overweight dogs to five-mile hikes will exhaust them (and possibly you as well!) and may even trigger a heart attack in an overweight dog. Start small, with gentle walks and other exercise, such as active play. Be consistent with exercise times and gradually build up the amount of time your dog is exercising.
As your overweight dog loses weight and exercises more, you may notice some changes in his behavior. He may be more alert, attentive and happier. When you exercise with your dog you build the owner/dog bond, making him closer to you than ever. And as an added bonus, exercising with your overweight dogs helps keep you fit as well!