The Health Risks of Obesity in Dogs

A large brown mastiff wags his way across the grass.

The National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council recently issued a report that dogs suffer the same health consequences from obesity as people: increased risks of cancer, a mild form of diabetes, liver disease, arthritis, and other ailments that put them at risk for premature death. One of the most important areas in which extra weight affects any dog is the joints—hips and knees hold up much better if they don’t have all that weight to support.

The health risks associated with dog obesity emerge after only moderate weight gain, and from an early age, an interesting and worrisome truth. Labrador Retrievers are the most popular dog in the United States—and they’re also a breed that tends toward fat. Half the dogs in America are overweight—and probably half the dogs in the country are Labs and Lab mixes. A fourteen-year nutritional study of 48 Labrador Retrievers showed that feeding them 25 percent less than the standard amount meant they lived two years longer than those fed the larger portion.

Is My Dog Overweight?

The obese dog has a rectangular shape—he’s boxy. He does not curve in at the waist, in front of the hips. His belly hangs down. When you feel the dog’s sides, they are mushy, covered in fat. Don’t kid yourself that “it’s just a lot of hair” or that your dog “is really big-boned” (an excuse made about overweight people, too).

How To Check Your Dog’s Body Fat

1. The neck: Press your thumb and finger deep into the side of the dog’s neck in front of the shoulder, then pinch the fingers together. If you have pinched more than a half inch of neck, the dog is overweight. Older dogs carry most of their excess fat in their necks and may actually look thin in other areas.

2. The ribs: Stand next to your dog, facing his tail. Put your thumb on the middle of his spine halfway down his back and spread out your fingers over his last ribs. Now run your fingers up and down that rib cage: you should be able to feel the bump of actual rib bones when running your hands down his flanks. The belly is tucked up—no flab hangs down behind the rib cage.

3. The hips: Running your hand over your dog’s rump, the area above his tail—you should be able to feel the two bumps of his pelvic bones without pressing in. Seen from above, the dog’s waist should nip in noticeably—there should be a curve behind the rib cage. The bird’s-eye view should not reveal a rectangular shape, or one that bows out at the sides—you should see a curvy flank with a waist.

How Much Should I Feed My Dog?

These strategies will help you feed your dog without fattening him:

1. Do not follow feeding charts on dog food bags.

These charts almost always indicate you should feed your dog much more food than is good for him—sometimes four to five times more. Obviously, the food company wants him to eat as much as possible so you’ll buy more dog food. But these charts do not take into consideration the variables in a dog’s life that influence how much exercise he gets, his energy level, and how efficiently his metabolism works.

2. Use a measuring cup for portion control.

Don’t just use any old cup or a plastic scoop. Get a one-cup measure and go by that to determine the portion you want to feed your dog. If you’ve been measuring “by eye,” you’ll discover the old rule of thumb that “your eyes are bigger than his stomach.” If properly measured, the amount of food may look like too little to you—if so, get a smaller bowl.

3. Offer less appealing dog food.

If the food is less delicious, most dogs will eat less of it. Do not apply your attitudes about food to your dog: it is not unfair or unkind to make a dog’s mealtimes less interesting when it will make the rest of his life more interesting—because he’ll be around to enjoy his old age in better health.

4. Add fiber to your dog’s diet.

Roughage can help control your dog’s weight because boosting fiber can make him feel fuller sooner. Adding ten percent of corn, barley, or wheat-bran products can satisfy a dog’s hunger sooner and do it with fewer calories. This is not one of those “if some is good, more must be better” kind of things. Too much fiber can prevent dogs from absorbing nutrients, so you want just a small fraction of your dog’s dinner bowl to be fiber.

5. Try the pumpkin diet for your dog.

This is a system some nutritionists swear by. Reduce your dog’s normal food by a third and replace it with an equal amount of canned pumpkin (not for pie—it should be minus the spices and sweeteners). Dogs seem to love pumpkin, which has the texture of canned dog food and provides vitamins and roughage with fewer calories. It also makes most dogs feel more full so they don’t beg and scavenge as much.

Help Your Dog Maintain A Healthy Weight

  • Adult dogs (especially senior dogs) need fewer calories than they did when they were growing up. The metabolism slows down, so the older dog needs fewer calories. Feed what maintains the weight—go by what your dog looks like. This is an ongoing experiment by you to determine how much and how often to feed your dog.
  • If the dog slows down, cut back. If your dog’s daily exercise decreases—if he gets hurt or you do (and can’t walk him as far or as frequently)—then he needs fewer calories.
  • The change in seasons can cause a change in exercise levels. Some dogs get out less in bitter winter weather; other dogs can’t take the heat and loll around in the air-conditioning during the summer months. Make an allowance in your dog’s diet for seasonal changes.
  • Don’t blame your vet if they tell you the truth. Some people actually leave good vets because they did not want to hear that their pets were fat. It’s not personal: your vet wants to help you take care of your dog.

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