In developed countries, the proportion of overweight or even obese dogs is almost as high as that of humans. But no, a big dog is not a healthy animal! Overweight is a real disease that must be taken very seriously from its first manifestations.
Feeding - Composition & Quantity
Often out of love, we tend to overfeed our dog, most often to please him. But overfeeding is, on the contrary, the worst service that we can give him... Obesity poses the same health problems in dogs as in humans who suffer from it: it can lead to a real handicap, even reduce considerably the lifespan of the dog.
Obesity is the leading cause of nutritional consultation at the vet, and it is not surprising. A 2014 study by the Pet Food Manufacturers Association of Britain (PFMA) estimated that 45% of dogs were not just overweight, but obese. For 77% of vets questioned in this same study, the phenomenon worsened considerably between 2010 and 2015.
However, it can be extremely complicated for the vet to make the owner admit that his dog is overweight. Having to admit that you have caused harm to your animal by believing you are doing the right thing is never easy! However, this step must be accepted in order to set up the right diet and follow-up that will allow the dog to regain its normal weight and be in better health.
What is obesity?
Since obesity is a disease affecting both humans and animals, let's base ourselves on the WHO definition, which has the merit of being explicit: "overweight and obesity are abnormal or excessive accumulation of fat that can impair health. However, while the manifestations of obesity are obvious to anyone (a dog that is too round is immediately noticeable), the causes of this disease can be more complex to determine.
Obesity is indeed a multifactorial disease, which can have a genetic origin (certain breeds of dogs are more predisposed than others) or physiological (a metabolic or hormonal imbalance). Certain diseases like diabetes are also causes of obesity. The human factor and the living environment should not be neglected either: in addition to the "overfeeding", the stress linked to the psychological distress of its owner or quite simply boredom and a lack of activity, the fact that the living space is unsuitable or too cramped can cause a dog to take refuge in food (much like humans!).
Most often, it is the consequence of eating disorders, an unsuitable diet – dry or tinned – combined with a sedentary lifestyle of the animal.
The frequency of obesity increases with the age of the dog, and also that of the owner... 70% of obese dogs are over 9 years old. Females are more affected (nearly 60% according to some studies), sterilization being an aggravating factor for both males and females.
Behaviours that cause obesity
The social dimension of meals is a big risk factor for obesity in dogs. Owners often have their dog around the table at meal times and give him some of their own food, just because they feel sorry for the dog who sees them eat, and/or give him any left overs after the meal, on top of the dogs regular meals.
Another issue is when the dog becomes an emotional substitute and the owner who, to make his dog happy and get attention from his dog, gives him treats. And owners who, when they have children and can no longer give their dog the time they used to, give their dogs treats, often out of guilt, believing it will compensate.
All these behaviours are discouraged as they are a leading cause to the dog gaining weight.
The health risks of overweight and obesity are numerous and have been scientifically demonstrated:
- Early mortality: 20% earlier in young dogs 20% overweight, which translates to 2 years less life for a Labrador
- Locomotion disorders: risk of osteoarthritis, cruciate ligament rupture, hernia
- Cardio-respiratory disorders: hypertension, tracheal collapse in dwarf races, portal vein thrombosis and myocardial hypoxia. In brachycephalic breeds (bulldogs, pugs, etc.), being overweight exacerbates the clinical signs of laryngeal paralysis and airway obstruction syndrome
- Endocrinological disorders: metabolic disorders, acute pancreatitis, diabetes mellitus
- More cancers (bladder) and mammary tumours in bitches
- Marked incontinence in castrated females, which can lead to your dog messing indoors
- A drop in immunity: the dog is more susceptible to infections, which become more frequent
- More frequent anaesthetic complications
How to detect obesity in your dog
It is difficult to judge of the roundness of your dog when you see him daily... Isn't he simply in good health? In order to be objective, it is better to refer to the (impartial) opinion of those around you, and especially the vet. Moreover, determining the optimal weight of a dog, if it is based on a few tangible elements, remains difficult because it depends on the individuals and their breed.
Nevertheless: the optimal weight of a dog means that he has about 20% fat in his body. You can start by comparing the dog to the typical profile, and you can check yourself by feeling your animal:
- By stroking your dog against the grain with your fingertips, do you easily feel the rib cage (without exerting pressure)?
- Similarly, do you easily feel the spine, hips and shoulder blades?
- Do you feel the rib cage?
- If so, does it feel fatty?
- If not, with your hands flat, stroke your dog's flanks. Do you feel a narrowing of the abdomen at the waist?
- If so, does he have a flabby stomach?
- If not, does he have mobility problems?
What we must find at the end of these movements: we must easily feel the ribs, the pelvis, the apophyses in the dog (the rounded point along the line of the back) of certain vertebrae. The belly should be tight, the waistline clearly visible, and there should be a small amount of abdominal fat.
How to treat obesity?
Overweight and obesity should be systematically taken care of, ideally from their first manifestations (when we notice weight gain, even minor) with a complete medical check-up at the vet's (hyperthyroidism, diabetes, etc). And to treat them it is necessary to combine both a nutritional correction, the implementation of a supervised physical activity, and depending on the case, the management of possible eating disorders or even in certain cases the prescription of specific drugs. We give advice for dogs who are afraid of going to the vet's.
The first step in the management of the obese dog consists in evaluating the causes and consequences of overweight in a precise manner with the help of your vet. And it is clear that diet has a key role to play in the management of this disease. A weight loss diet will necessarily have to be put in place. For "simple" obesity (excessive calorie intake compared to expenditure), dietary measures and an improvement in lifestyle may be sufficient.
And don't forget vegetables and quality food: healthy foods rich in water that will help your pet feel full while limiting calorie intake.
On the other hand, if hormonal disorders are evident, specific treatment will be required. If there is an eating disorder, it will also need to be dealt with. The way meals are taken will need to be modified. For a gluttonous dog, dispenser systems such as dispenser balls or digging mats force the animal to make an effort and use energy to feed itself, as well as to ingest smaller quantities of food with each bite.
The rules of a successful weight loss diet
Each dog being different, there will be as many diets as individuals to lose weight! But there are nevertheless some basic rules, and three ways to set up a weight loss diet: by using a less appetizing food, by keeping the same type of food but by reducing the quantity proposed, or by using a less energetic food, rich in quality protein.
As for the composition of the food itself, several strategies are possible: reduce the quantity of carbohydrates or even fat, increase the fibre content and the humidity of the food. Care should be taken to avoid protein deficit and not to consume too many carbohydrates. The intake of L-Carnitine is also recommended, as it promotes the oxidation of lipids.
In general, you must:
- weigh the ration with a scale, as measuring cups are often not precise enough
- note the quantity distributed and ingested throughout the diet
- split the food intake into 2 to 4 meals a day
- cut out treats, table scraps and leftovers, and make sure that the whole family observes this rule!
- if your dog demands, offer him another form of interaction, such as play, which will divert its attention and, moreover, make it play sports! Maybe even get him a new dog toy or two, to get him excited to play
In addition to food, physical activity, in the absence of medical contraindication, is highly recommended and needed. When obesity is complicated, for example, by orthopaedic difficulties (osteoarthritis), the prescription of a treatment aimed at relieving joint pain can significantly improve the ability to move, thus allowing walks, sports, games... Weight loss is itself an excellent way to reduce the handicap of osteoarthritis.
In all cases, the objectives are the same: the vet will define the number of pounds to lose, and the duration to achieve it.
Your dog has lost weight, good news! The bad news is that it can also come back... if bad habits return. At the end of the treatment phase, which is often long and requires good motivation from the owner and good follow-up from the vet, all is not over, far from it! If you want to avoid the famous “rebound effect”, which is particularly discouraging, you have to think about what happens next.
Keep up the effort
Once the excess weight has been lost, do not overfeed your animal again! And keep exercising him. The key to success is changing your pet's lifestyle...which is greatly linked to changing your own habits.
Prepare for the return to the classic diet
To avoid too rapid weight gain, beware of two elements: not having administered too strict a diet during the weight loss period, and above all gradually preparing to return to a more traditional diet (always as qualitative and reasoned in terms of quantities, but less hypocaloric).
The low-calorie food (if used) should be replaced, in gradual amounts, by the usual food. Food intake can be increased by 10% every 2 weeks, until no further weight loss is recorded. This will allow the vet to define the daily food requirement to avoid a rebound effect.
Avoiding obesity before it arises
The best thing of all, of course, is to aim to help your dog avoid weight gain in the first place. Prevention is always better than cure, and it will help your dog avoid the many potential health issues discussed earlier.
From the moment you welcome your puppy or dog into your home, it is good to start good practices (and keep up with them on the long term), such as never feeding him at the table when you are having meals, never giving him left-overs, keeping treats as a reward in the context of educating your dog and not giving too many, choosing treats well, and not handing them out to make your dog happy or as a substitute to spending time with him. It is also vital to ensure your dog gets enough exercise! Aside from daily walks which are very important, there is a wide variety of activities you can do with your dog, which, aside from being very good for his health, will strengthen the bond between you and your dog.
Lastly, if you spend long periods of time away from home and don't have time to exercise your dog, it is a good thing to have someone walking your dog while you are away, or to take him to a dog day care centre where they will be stimulated, able to socialize with other dogs, while exercising through play, all at the right pace for your dog.