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Fighting obesity in dogs

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A study by the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention shows that 45 percent of dogs are overweight, including 9 percent who are obese, according to Ernie Ward, DVM, president of the association. Consider this story:

Sherrie Rose Maleson, 27, didn't have a dog as a child. So when she adopted Mojo, a five-year-old Akita-Rotweiler mix as a pup, the biggest puppy in his litter, she didn't know what to expect.

"I put out the bowl and filled it,'' said Maleson, a preschool teacher and school administrator in Palo Alto, Calif. "I let Mojo eat as much as he wanted.''

Big mistake. And it was a mistake compounded by the fact that Mojo wasn't much of an exercise fan. Maleson is convinced that Mojo once heard a truck backfire while leaving their home for a walk. The backfire left its mark. Mojo became a couch potato, skittish about going out for a walk.

Mojo topped out at a whopping 145 pounds. "He's a big guy. I didn't know he wasn't supposed to be that big. I didn't know he was overweight,'' she said. "I wasn't an informed owner.''

But her vet finally gave her the news: Mojo needed to lose 35 to 40 pounds.

What's a healthy weight for dogs?

Ward said you can tell your dog's weight is healthy if you can easily feel its ribs, its belly isn't sagging, and it has a visible waist if viewed from above.

In contrast, you can tell your dog is overweight when:

  • It is difficult to feel the ribs under the fat
  • The stomach sags to the point that you can grab a handful
  • The dog has a broad, flat back
  • The dog has no waist

What are the risks from obesity in dogs?

Extra weight poses health threats for dogs, just as it does in people.

Ward listed the following risks from obesity in pets:

What causes obesity in dogs?

Ward said too much food and too little exercise generally leads to overweight and obese dogs. But he said veterinarians and owners should not assume that is the reason the dog is fat. He said the vet should rule out underlying medical conditions.

"I see a lot of second and even third opinions for weight issues, and basically we're dealing with patients that may have hypothyroidism, or low thyroid disease, and nobody checked for that,'' said Ward, a triathlon competitor and personal trainer who practices in Calabash, N.C. "The first thing we do is run some basic blood and urine tests on any patient that's overweight or obese. If you're dealing with an underlying medical condition, you can try all the diets in the world and you're not going to lose the weight.''

Finding the ideal weight

Once medical conditions are ruled out, Ward said the dog's ideal weight should be determined using "body scoring.'' This entails measuring the length of the dog, akin to a person's height, and measuring his abdominal circumference, akin to taking a person's waist measurement.

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention lists ideal weights for the major breeds here. Some examples are 26 to 31 pounds for a beagle, 11 pounds for a miniature poodle, and 55 to 80 pounds for a Labrador retriever.

Ward said that after subtracting the dog's ideal weight from his actual weight, the goal for weight loss is set. He said dogs can safely lose from 1 to 3 percent of their body weight per week.

Ward estimates that 60 percent of successful weight loss relies on dietary changes and 40 percent on exercise. "So if you're going to cheat somewhere, cheat on the exercise. Skip the walk. Don't make it fast. Don't cheat on the diet because you get so much more return on it," he said.

He said the most important thing in the face of the epidemic of overweight and obese dogs is to do something: "Our dogs' health, longevity and happiness depend on it."

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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