Increase Your Dog’s Lifespan With Weight Management
I was consulting with a client recently who was distraught over comments she received at her dog park that her dog looked a little thin and she should consider feeding him more. As a long-time veterinarian, I quickly allayed her fears that she was neglecting her pet and assured her that her dog was at an ideal weight and in great, athletic shape. I couldn’t help but chuckle, as I think sometimes as Americans we are programmed to think that if something isn’t overweight, it must be underweight! As often as obesity is frequently a problem in our society, unfortunately obesity among our beloved canine companions often becomes an issue too. Obesity is the most commonly diagnosed nutritional abnormality in dogs affecting up to 44% of the pet dog population. However the good news is pet obesity is an easier battle to win. We don’t have to worry about our dog raiding the refrigerator at night! They are almost totally dependent on us for their nourishment so it is within our power to see that they are as healthy as possible.
Dogs, as well as other pets, tend to have a very high threshold for pain and often times it is difficult as owners to tell when pets are suffering from joint pain, labored breathing or another potential weight-related ailment. Unfortunately our pets are not able to tell us that shedding the few extra pounds could help alleviate their knee pain or ease their breathing. Other times the pain associated with an osteoarthritic or other condition can be hidden in subtle changes that we chalk up to as age-related signs. Although our pets may be overweight, unfortunately, it is not entirely the pet’s choice or within their power to fix it. Instead, they depend on us for a solution.
Interestingly, in a recent study, 32.3% of the pet owners participating indicated their pets were overweight, yet only 1% of those owners considered this to be a health problem. Unfortunately, our dog’s extra weight is not just a cosmetic problem, but can also lead to joint issues, diabetes, and, often times a shortened lifespan. Another study reported a 15% increase in the median life span of dogs with restricted caloric intake and maintenance of lean body condition. In addition to improving our pet’s health, a healthy weight can also save money short-term on food costs, but also more importantly in the long-run on costly arthritis medicines, supplements, and potential surgeries. One study by Purina found that dogs maintained at an ideal weight developed joint problems and arthritis a full THREE years later than dogs that struggled with weight issues. Another study showed that as little as 11% excess weight can cause an increase in required medication to control the signs of pain in dogs with osteoarthritis. As a veterinarian, I am often asked, “How much does my dog need to lose?” Unfortunately, due to the variation in size and build within breeds, there are no handy insurance charts with ‘target’ weights to refer to. This means that as owners and veterinarians it is all the more important for us to stay on top of our pet’s weight and be aware of the steps necessary to monitor and track our pet’s diet and, if necessary, make changes.
Pet food bag directions do not provide much help with feeding instructions as they include very broad ranges such as ‘2 to 8 cups a day’. These wide ranges account for the needs of many breeds and life stages, but don’t necessarily give you the information you need for YOUR dog. Instead, the Maintenance Energy Requirement (MER) formula should be used to calculate an estimate of your dog’s individualized caloric requirement to provide a starting point. Your dog’s MER is more helpful, but should be used in conjunction with other tools. An easy way to monitor your dog’s weight at home, with no calculations required, is what I call the “Knuckle Test”. It involves comparing the feel of your flattened hand’s knuckles to your dog’s ribcage at its widest point. You should be able to feel each individual rib as easily as your knuckle is identified beneath the skin of your relaxed hand. If present, the thickness of an extra fat layer will be apparent and should decrease over time with weight loss. Although not the most scientific method, the Knuckle Test will help you decide if your dog is carrying extra weight as well help you monitor your dog’s progress towards a longer life. Because commercial pet foods are nutritionally balanced, we must only manage the amount of food to we give to our dogs.
Below are a few easy steps to help monitor and track your dog’s weight management progress:
- Ask your veterinarian to determine your dog’s caloric goal – using this, you can determine how many cups of your dog’s food is appropriate to reach this calorie allowance
- Use a consistent measuring cup when feeding your dog
- For treats, use kibble from the measured daily ration – your dog is always thrilled to get any snack and it doesn’t add extra calories
- Consult with your veterinarian periodically to track and monitor the weight loss
- Increase your dog’s activity level
- Use the Knuckle Test weekly to monitor the layer thickness decreasing. Your dog will think the test is just more loving attention!
As a veterinarian, I am your pet’s advocate and a supportive teammate to you as the owner. I am here to help you identify problems, give you my advice on potential solutions and then step back and let you make an educated decision that is best for you and your pet. While there are numerous heartbreaking diseases we are powerless to control, as owners, we ARE in command of this one and that’s good news!
Dr. Kristen Hitt, Owner
Mainstay Veterinary Practice