This week on the RTE Today Show, the Petfix Club Pet Clinic featured the important topic of obesity. You can watch the video clip by clicking on the image above.
How common is obesity in pets?
Around two-thirds of dogs, and 50% of cats, are overweight or obese, making this the most common preventable health problem in the Irish pet population.
Pet that are overweight or obese have shorter lives than those with a healthy body weight, dying up to two years earlier.
The shortened life span is just part of the problem: pets carrying too much weight also suffer from a reduced quality of life, with more illness and less enjoyment of daily activities. Obesity is a chronic inflammatory disease, causing measurable biochemical changes in the bloodstream. Obese pets feel bad, move more slowly and have reduced enjoyment of life.
why do dogs get fat?
I remember a classic example from my own clinic. Cassie, a six year old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, was 30% overweight, and had aged prematurely. She lay around the house, unwilling to move from her bed. After losing 4kg on a special diet, she became a lively, active, exercise-loving dog. Her owner said that she was like a puppy again.
In theory, pet obesity should not happen at all: dogs cannot open fridges, help themselves to snacks or choose to have a secret second helping. They can only eat what we give them. Owners simply need to decide to feed their pets less. Yet the fact that most dogs carry too much weight tells us that this is not as simple as it seems.
Dogs carry too much weight because of complex human behaviour:
• Humans enjoy eating, so we like seeing our pets doing the same
• Giving food treats is an easy way of getting attention from your pet, and we confuse attention with “love”
• We see dogs as “little people” and we serve them food portions far in excess of their needs.
• Dogs have evolved to binge when food is available because there may be a long gap until the next meal; modern dogs can have an almost insatiable appetite.
• So many dogs are now overweight that our society now sees “curvy” dogs as “normal”.
+ Exercise is important, but animals are very efficient at exercising and it’s impossible to make an animal “run off” obesity: it is all about food intake
How to carry out a body condition score of your pet?
Another dog that comes to my clinic is a five year old Labrador, Bella. She is at her ideal body weight, yet she is regularly stopped in the local park by people who tell her that her pet is too scrawny and that she should offer more food.
The easiest way to judge if a dog is carrying too much weight is to use a body condition score chart. There is a video on how to do this on the Petfix Club website.
Basically, you assess the animal’s silhouette from above (an hour-glass shape is ideal) and use your hands to feel how much blubber covers their bones.
If you are unsure, ask your local vet clinic. Most dogs are weighed at their annual health check using walk-on scales; a comparison with previous years will soon tell you if there’s a problem.
controlling food intake is the key to maintaining optimal weight
Missy was a five year old Golden Retriever: her owner liked her “cuddly” shape. It was only when her annual check up showed that her weight had gone up by 30% in the previous two years (moving from 30kg to 39kg), that he grudgingly accepted there was a serious issue.
Your local vet clinic is also the best place to start in your efforts to slim a fat dog down. Vet nurses run obesity clinics that include regular weigh-ins, discussions of daily routines, and plans that include exercise and nutritional guidelines. The aim is to achieve a slow, steady weight loss (e.g. 1-2% per week). Special weight reduction diets are used: high fibre content or a high protein/low carbohydrate combination help dogs feel more satisfied with fewer calories. The simple, key, message is that food must be measured accurately every day.
Determination and commitment is needed: while around two-thirds of dogs successfully reach their ideal weight, one third fail. Once the target weight has been achieved, a long term change in feeding and exercise habits is essential to avoid the problem recurring.
The best approach is to prevent your pet putting on weight in the first place. Restrict feeding to a measured amount every day (use a measuring cup; don’t guess). If your pet gains weight, reduce this amount. If they are too thin, give them more. Most dogs prefer smaller meals twice daily, rather than one big meal in the morning or evening.
Risk factors for obesity include breed (Labrador Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels and Shetland Sheepdogs are amongst the breeds that are genetically predisposed to gaining excessive weight) and spay/neutering (this increases the risk by 50% by reducing the basal metabolic rate and activity levels as well as boosting the appetite). If your pet falls into a higher risk category (e.g. a recently spayed Labrador), you need to double-up on efforts to keep them lean.
It can be difficult to stop feeding treats: owners enjoy giving them, and they play an important role in training pets to behave well. Try using low calorie treats (e.g. rice cake, popcorn or raw vegetables).
Three final points
The three most common reasons for pets getting fat
• Offering table scraps
• Too many tasty treats
• Free choice, ad libitum, feeding