Obesity is the number one nutritional disorder among dogs. Studies suggest that approximately 25 percent of the dogs presented to veterinary clinics are overweight. This extra weight puts pets at risk for certain health problems involving the cardiovascular, respiratory and skeletal systems. Knowing how to recognize the signs of obesity and take corrective action is important. But more important is knowing how to keep pets in good body condition to start, thus avoiding the development of obesity in the first place.
Animals with an excessive accumulation of body fat to the point of being 20% or more over ideal body weight are considered obese. Weight gain occurs when animals consume more calories than they use. This gain may be slow and gradual or occur rapidly depending on the size of the difference between energy intake and energy use.
The causes of obesity generally fall into three categories: inappropriate diet, genetic predisposition and hormonal disorders.
Although this category is labeled diet, obesity is more accurately attributed to inappropriate feeding and exercising of the pet. As stated above, weight gain is a result of eating more calories than the pet uses. When calorie intake equals calorie expenditure, the animal will maintain its body weight. If intake exceeds output, the animal will gain weight. As a result, there are two ways to impact the animal's weight. The first is to feed fewer calories and the second is to increase the number of calories the pet uses by increasing the amount of exercise the pet gets. This means reducing the amount of food the animal receives and increasing the time spent walking or playing with the pet.
Certain breeds seem to be more susceptible to obesity than others including beagles, basset hounds, dachshunds and Labrador retrievers. While some breeds of dog may gain more easily, it does not mean an animal must become overweight. Maintaining a healthy body weight requires more careful attention to the amount of food and exercise the pet receives.
Diseases which impact hormone balances in pets may contribute to the development of obesity. These include thyroid or pituitary gland dysfunction.
Castration and spaying also alter the hormonal balance of pets, sometimes causing reduced activity and changes in metabolism. These factors can contribute to obesity and increase the need for carefully controlling food intake and increasing exercise in neutered pets.
How to Recognize Obesity
A good method for evaluating the body condition of dogs and cats calls for observing and feeling the animal's body. By using the pictures and word descriptions in the diagram at the end of this section, the pet's body condition can be determined. This system is most useful if assessments are repeated periodically. This allows the pet owner to continually adjust the amount of food they serve and the amount of exercise the pet receives to maintain the dog in good body condition. A veterinarian can provide assistance in determining a given pet's exact body condition.
Weight Control Guidelines
Preventing excessive weight gain is the best approach to weight control in pets. It is much more difficult to achieve weight loss once the animal has gained the extra pounds. For those pets at risk of becoming overweight or for those animals already carrying extra pounds, one or more of the following guidelines apply:
- Reduce or eliminate table scraps and treats. These are often high in fat and calories which contribute to excessive intake.
- Reduce the amount of the current complete and balanced pet food. It is best to measure the amount of food the animal receives. This helps keep the serving size consistent and prevents the natural tendency to pour a little extra in the bowl.
- Increase the amount of exercise the pet receives. This can simply mean walking the dog or playing catch in the backyard more often.
- Consider switching to a low-calorie pet food. These products are typically lower in fat and higher in fiber. This allows the owner to continue to serve a nice-sized portion while reducing the number of calories the pet actually receives.
- Consult a veterinarian before beginning any weight reduction program. The veterinarian can design a weight loss program for the individual pet and help identify specific problems and suggest alternatives along the way. It is also helpful to have the pet weighed periodically to track progress.