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Does a Little Extra Weight Put Your Dog at Risk?

Looking for ways to keep your dog at a healthy weight? You've come to the right place! To start off our Beyond the Bed series, we check in with Dr. Sarah Wooten to answer the top 11 questions about canine weight management from "Is my dog overweight?" to "Can grain-free food help my dog lose weight?"

According to Dr. Wooten, discussing your dog's weight is one of the most uncomfortable conversations that veterinarians have with clients on a daily basis. Our culture doesn't consider overweight pets as a big deal and as a result, so many pets in the United States are overweight. In fact, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, about 60% of U.S. dogs are overweight. 

How can I tell if my dog is overweight? 

Talk with Your Vet

The first way to find out is by talking with your veterinarian. If your dog is overweight, they'll probably say "Hey Fido's packed on a couple of extra pounds, we need to talk about it." So one way is just talking to your veterinarian. Another way is to look at those body condition scores that are put out by pet food companies online. Purina has one that has been used for years. There's a body condition score chart that scores dogs between zero, basically a walking skeleton and 10, a walking loaf of bread. 

The Hand Test

Another method is the hand test  it's super simple. Feel your dog's ribs right behind their front legs, if they feel like the back of the hand, you're doing a good job and your dog is at a great weight. If their ribs feel like the palm of the hand, your dog's a little too fat. If they feel or look like the knuckles, your dog is too skinny. 

The Hand Test - Is your dog overweight?

Why is it so important to keep dogs, especially dogs with joint conditions, at a healthy weight?

The Morris Animal Foundation has done longevity studies on Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers, which means they followed these dogs from cradle to the grave. What they found in the long run for big dogs, the ones that are overweight have a harder time with arthritis and mobility. They have a harder time with joint pain and it's just physics.

You have increased wear and tear on those joints because there's more weight pushing on those joints. So one of the main problems that we see in overweight dogs is arthritis. And that is just a vicious cycle because if a dog has arthritis, then a dog doesn't want to exercise. That dog will want to sleep more and so they're just laying around and eating. This kind of lifestyle can lead a dog to gain 3-4 pounds a year which is a lot on a smaller frame. 

How does a dog feel when they're overweight and have arthritis? What's their life like?

Well, in a dog brain, they're either fixed or broken. So, if a dog thinks that it's fixed and it's not in pain, it's going to do normal dog things. It's going to run around, it's going to play. It's going to have good energy. It's going to want to be on the walk and stay in the walk with you from beginning to end. If a dog is in pain, especially chronic pain from something like arthritis, they don't necessarily yelp.

If you poke a dog, or a dog gets a cut or something that's very acute, or if you step on a dog, that dog will yip. And that's a signal. But if a dog has been accustomed to chronic pain over time, that dog's not going to cry out. That dog is going to sleep more, that dog's going to drag behind on walks. That dog is not going to play as much as he used to. Maybe that dog's going to be grouchier than he used to. There is a lot of signs of pain that are very subtle in dogs with chronic pain. And so those are the signs of joint pain that you look for that show that a dog is not feeling as well as he could, or she could.

Is there a secret to weight loss?

So veterinarians will tell you that the secret to weight loss is to eat less and exercise more. Same as in humans, but that is not very successful considering the numbers of obese and overweight dogs that we have in the United States. So the secret to weight loss I think is a good plan and some patience. And knowing that it took some time to pack that weight on, like pregnancy weight takes nine months on, nine months off. You need to have some patience and you need to be able to have a plan.

How to Create a Weight Loss Plan

When I talk to my pet owners, I say, "Hey, Fluffy is 10 pounds overweight and I think we can get this off in six to nine months, because you're not going to get that off in a day." So it's really important to have a plan. It's also important to make sure that everybody in the household is on the same page. If you're all gung ho about your dog losing weight, but your husband isn't, or your kids aren't, or grandma isn't, or the dog walker isn't, then you're going to be sabotaged by your weight loss program you're setting up for your pet.

And so you need to get everybody on the plan and say, "Hey, we love Fluffy, we want to keep Fluffy around. We want Fluffy to feel good. In order for Fluffy to feel good, Fluffy's got to lose 10 pounds, so we have to have a plan." So the secret to weight loss is patience, a plan and then lastly, checking your progress.

To check your progress, you can work with your veterinarian and make sure you're feeding the right amount. Go in once a month to do weight checks. If that weight isn't moving then there's something else going on, maybe there's a metabolic problem, maybe there's a hormonal problem, maybe there's a grandma problem. So, that's the secret: plan, check your progress and have patience.

How many calories should my dog eat?

There is a daily amount that of calories that is appropriate for your dog. It's usually calculated out by a veterinary professional. Once you know how many calories your dog should be eating, ask your veterinarian how to measure that out with your food. On the back of the bag of food, the calories are listed as kcal per cup and that will be what you're going to use in your calculations.

The other thing you could do is look online, there's a bunch of great dog calorie calculators out there. One of my favorite ones is from the Pet Nutrition Alliance.  Then it's your job to not go above that daily calorie count. Even if your dog is looking at you with those big eyes and you want you to feed them, just don't do it.

When should my dog eat? 

It depends on the dog and it depends on the human as well. Psychologically, some people really struggle with once a day feeding, even though dogs historically speaking can do fine with it. Not all dogs, some dogs. Some dogs don't do well with once a day feeding because they get a lot of stomach acid that bubbles up and it can make them feel nauseous.

So if you can, two meals a day is probably best. You can also supplement with some low-calorie vegetables like cucumbers which are awesome because they don't have any calories and dogs typically like them. Celery is great as well and it's a good way to increase your dog's fiber intake without adding a bunch of calories in and just helping your dog feel fuller.

Does weight-loss food work? 

Good question. Usually, if it's not working, it's because people are just feeding too much of the weight-loss food. They're like, "Doctor, I bought this food and it's just not working." I'm like, "Well, how much are you feeding?" They're like, "Four cups a day." I'm like, "Whoa, no!" So the thing is just because the bag says weight loss on it, it doesn't mean that it has a magic potion in there that will necessarily help your dog lose weight.

Unfortunately, a lot of over-the-counter weight loss formulas are just not as effective. There's a lot of leeway in what you can write on a bag as far as marketing. So you want to make sure that you're getting a product that is actually going to facilitate more rapid weight loss, that contains things like, L-Carnitine. L-Carnitine is amazing for fat burning. One of the best diets, I know we don't want to do product placements here, but one of the diets that I have recommended to a lot of frustrated dog owners is the Metabolic diet from Hill's, man that is a great diet. It's a bit more expensive, but you want to talk about rapid weight loss that is healthy and scientifically proven, it's a great diet.

How can I help a senior dog or dog with mobility issues lose weight? 

Great question! So those are some of the more challenging cases because you already have a dog that doesn't really want to exercise very much already. So a prescription weight-loss formula for that dog's health and longevity is really an important part of that dog's overall health treatment because you've got to get that weight off that dog sooner. The other thing is that you need to make sure that that dog is not in pain. If the dog isn't in pain, then even if it's an old dog, as long as it doesn't have like heart disease or something else that's going on, that dog is still inside his mind, is young at heart.

So, going back to if your dog is old. Well, old age is not necessarily a disease, though it might cause some chronic pain. So you've got to find the pain, you've got to treat the pain, you've got to control those calories and then check your progress. And if you do all that, you're going to be a lot more successful in your weight loss program. People usually will get 1-2 months into their weight loss program and they'll get really frustrated because they're not seeing the progress that they want. And then they'll just give up. But the thing is, if you stick with it, you'll get there. You just have to work with your veterinarian.
Senior Dog

How much exercise does my dog need?

It depends on the size of the dog and the breed of the dog. A 4-year-old fat Labrador is going to have a different exercise ability than a 10-year-old English Bulldog. It also really depends on what you're doing with your dog now, what your goals are in the longterm and what that breed is really capable of. So if you come in and you've got a 5-year-old Lab that's 20 pounds overweight, which happens all the time, that dog, as long as he doesn't have arthritis or any other chronic conditions, is capable of a lot of exercise, but you're not going to start out there.

It's like those Couch to 5K training programs for humans. That 5-year-old fat Lab is capable of going out and probably running 3 miles with you, but it's not going to be like that when you first start. You're going to have to start slow, just like you start with any other human body. Ideally, a 4-year-old fat Lab would work up to 1 hour of cardiac exercise a day.

What are some examples of cardiac or aerobic exercise?

Playing fetch, jogging, swimming, agility training, vigorous hiking - anything that gets that heart rate up. You want to get the heart rate up, not too high, but just enough so that you start burning fat in a more effective way.

If your dog isn't ready for any of that just yet, you can start building their endurance with walks. If all they can do is a walk around the block, then that's where you'll start. Now the next time it's going to be two blocks. The next time it's going to be three blocks. The next time it's going to be three blocks with maybe a walk-jog, maybe 1 minute of jogging and then 5 minutes of walking, that kind of thing. Just getting out there and ambling around is not really going to burn fat.

Will grain-free food help a dog lose weight?

There are a lot of fad diets out there. And it's funny that you asked this because the things that you don't talk about on the internet are religion, politics, and nutrition. But since we're here we'll go ahead and talk about it. No, a grain-free diet will not necessarily facilitate weight loss. What you want is to control the calories. The calories are what matter. And, the food you choose needs to be complete and balanced according to AAFCO standards. So, if you're feeding a grain-free diet and you want your dog to lose weight, you can stay on the grain-free diet, that's fine. But it's not going to be any different than a conventional diet, as far as facilitating weight loss.

Have a question? Leave it in the comments! ⬇️

You may find the following articles helpful: 

Is Your Dog Overweight?

Joint Care For Your Big Dog In The Cold Winter Months

Shannon Wells

Big Barker's Marketing Director

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