Let’s face it. Our four-legged best friends’ lives are much shorter than our own, therefore we all cherish every moment we get to spend with them. My own lab is 5 now and I often think how fast time has flown by. There is a growing problem with dogs that can in many cases, can shorten their life-span as much as 2 years. Additionally, this can lead to or exacerbate various other health issues, especially in their later years (not to mention cost you thousands of dollars in potential veterinarian bills). Issues such as diabetes; hip problems such as hip dysplasia (especially in larger breeds); and heart and lung related issues. The problem I am referring to is obesity in dogs.
Estimates range anywhere from 20% to as high 40% of dogs in the U.S. are overweight or obese. The main culprits are over-feeding and lack of exercise. The good news is you, the parent, have the ability to manage this. You don’t have to worry about your dog sneaking off to In-N-Out for a Double-Double Animal Style for a stress eating binge. On the other hand, it is estimated that 30% to 40% of dog parents of over-weight dogs don’t even realize that their dog is overweight.
First of all, how do you tell if your dog is overweight? There are several guidelines for determining the proper weight of dogs per breed. I provided a link to one that I find particularly good. For the best assessment for your particular dog, however, I strongly recommend that you speak to your veterinarian.
The most commonly used method for gaging whether or not your dog is overweight to obese is called the Body Condition Score of BCS. In short, it’s a chart that explains and shows how your dog (or cat) should look and feel. If you stand directly over your dog so that you are looking down on her back (you and your dog should be facing the same direction), her shape should curve slightly in from the shoulder down to the waist, then curve out a little bit towards the hips. It’s sort of like an hour-glass. When feeling your dog’s side along her rib cage, you should be able to feel her ribs. If you cannot feel her ribs, this could be a good sign that your dog has some fat in-between. I’ve provided a link to a useful BCS chart below. This chart will also help you gage if your dog is too skinny. This is a a useful system and I use it all the time (mostly for my cat).
If you learn that your dog is overweight, how do should you deal with this? There is no need to panic and severely restrict your dog’s feeding portions. First of all, I always want to preface any of my canine health and exercise tips with a reminder to first consult with your veterinarian. That being said, I have four basic tips that I personally live and practice by with my own dog.
1. Do not free freed your dog. What do I mean by that? You do not want to just fill up your dog’s food bowl with kibble and refill it as it empties throughout the day. As silly as this seems, I’ve seen this many times visiting other dog parent’s homes. I parallel this to a person blindly eating out of a large bag of chips while watching TV. You should know the proper amount of food to feed your dog based on her weight. The dog food you buy should include a guideline for the amount of food your dog should eat based on her weight. Also keep in mind that often, these guidelines are often too generous. It’s in the best interest for the dog food maker to instruct you to consume more of their product. It is important to note that you should also factor in any treats you give your dog throughout the day plus your dog’s activity level during the day. For example, if your dog is very active and you feed your dog several treats throughout the day, you should probably cut back a little from recommended amount of food she is to receive at feeding time(s).
2. Buy a good quality dog food. What do I mean by good quality? I’m no dog food expert but my rule of thumb is if I cannot pronounce most of the ingredients on the label, it might not be the best food to feed my dog. Just like when you shop for groceries, reading the label is very important. I want to know what my dog is eating. The more natural the ingredients, the better option the food is. Also, you want to avoid foods with a lot of fillers (food ingredients with little or no nutritional value like grain). These are processed foods. The label should also indicate the ratio of proteins to fruits and vegetables plus the ratio made up from fillers. Protein should be the highest and be make up more than 50% of the overall total. I feed my dog Orijen which is made by Champion Petfoods in Canada. They also make the Arcana dog food line. They are an all-natural and locally sourced dog food producer. The food ratio of the Orijen product my dog eats is 80-20-0 (80% protein, 20% fruit & veggies, 0% fillers). Please realize that the higher quality the dog food, the more costly it will be so it’s up to you to find the right mix between affordability and quality. For me, this is my dog (my baby) so I do not mind paying extra for her food.
3. Practice good feeding habits. What do I mean by good feeding habits? Two examples that I practice everyday are measuring and keeping track of what I feed to my dog and making healthy treat swaps. First of all, I measure out precisely how much food I feed my dog with a measuring cup and I stick to a daily schedule. I feed her twice a day (once in the morning and one more time around my dinner time). I determine the amount of food through a combination of what the bag label recommends and the 1 cup per 20 pound rule (1 cup of good, high quality dog food for every 20 lbs that your dog weighs.) My dog is exactly 55 pounds so I feed her around 2 1/2 to 3 cups of food daily pending on her daily activity and other treats that I feed her. She is very active so that’s why I may go as high as 3 cups in one day. Another helpful tip I practice daily is making healthy swaps for dog treats. You don’t have to give your dog that hot-dog/sausage link dog treat every time. My dog absolutely loves carrots so I always have a big supply of carrot sticks for her.
4. Get your dog some good quality exercise. That 10 minute walk around the neighborhood people give to their dogs is often not enough exercise. This is especially the case for higher energy breeds. Also, breeds like my Taylor, a labrador retriever, can be more easily prone to weight gain. Therefore it’s important to let your dog stretch her four legs in a more cardiovascular way. My philosophy is that most dogs need to run a little each day. Whether it be at the local dog park chasing their buddies (or a ball) or out for a run with their owners or a dog walker who specializes in jogging dogs (I know a really good one!), running helps dogs get a needed cardio workout daily. This is much like the same reasons this is good for people. Additionally, running, I’ve noticed provides the dog with good stimulation and a release of pent-up energy (energy that otherwise would have been directed at chewing up your favorite couch). I run on average 15 miles/day. My lab Taylor is with me for at least 10 of those miles. She absolutely loves running with me too!
Finally, some closing thoughts and helpful hints. If you learn that you have been overfeeding your dog and you actually need to cut back a lot, I would slowly taper your dog down to the proper amount. I would not go from say 3 cups of food down to 2 in one day. Gradually reduce so your dog does not really notice the reduction. Knowing the proper amount of food to give your dog can be as much art as it is science. The same can be said for the amount of physical activity you let your dog engage in each day. Many factors come into play such as whether your dog stays home all day while you are at work and whether or not your dog has a yard to run around in. Age and breed are other important things to consider. Both the diet plan and exercise plan will probably take some experimentation on your part to get the right mix but in the end, it’s extremely worth it. Making little lifestyle changes here and there now could mean that your dog is with you for a longer time later on in her life.
For links to my sources and data and for your further reading, please visit the links below.