For the last two decades, I’ve been telling myself that when I retire from veterinary practice, I’m going to open a fat farm for dogs. Here’s why:
It all started nearly twenty years ago, during my first week in practice. I picked up my first patient’s file. “Sandy, five-year-old, female, spayed beagle,” read the medical record. “Here for a routine check-up.” I scanned her file. “Vaccines current. On heartworm prevention. Weight, 65 pounds.”
Wait a sec — 65 pounds? Surely that was a mistake. No beagle could get that big. She must be a beagle cross. I entered the room.
“Good morning, Mrs. Peabody,” I said as I extended my hand to Sandy’s owner. “How’s Sandy doing today?”
I glanced toward the lone dog in the room and made the diagnosis. She was a beagle. A very large beagle. She looked at me from her station next to her owner’s chair, her front legs barely propping her up. It was hard to tell, but the head and coat color were a giveaway. She had the typical beagle head, only it sort of melted into the rest of her body, a non-distinct black-and-tan blob.
“She’s good,” said Mrs. Peabody, “except sometimes she has trouble getting around. She seems stiff in the morning.”
“Does she get much exercise?”
“Oh, yes. During the day, she’s outside, and she has the whole backyard to herself. She can run as much as she wants.”
Knowing how little I work out when I have an exercise area available to me all day, I asked, “Do you actually see her run around much in the yard on her own?”
“No. She must run around when we’re not home. We take her swimming sometimes, though.”
Swimming is the perfect exercise for a dog, especially an overweight one. It would have a low impact on her overstressed joints, and, as a bonus, even in rough waters, Sandy would never need a life preserver, as she pretty much already was one.
I asked, “How often does she go swimming?”
“Once a month.”
“Oh, I see,” I thought to myself. “Not enough to make a difference.”
I knelt down and gave Sandy a dog treat before starting my examination, and she immediately turned to putty in my hands. As she sat politely, hoping for another treat, I examined her eyes, ears, mouth, lymph nodes. Then I listened to her heart. That took a bit longer, as my stethoscope, muffled by several inches of fat and masked by her labored breathing, was having trouble picking up the faint beats. Feeling for any abnormalities in the fat-filled abdomen was futile. I continued the exam, and when I was finished, I broke the bad news.
“Mrs. Peabody, did you know that Sandy’s a little hefty? At least 20 pounds too hefty? She needs to go on a diet.”
“I thought she was looking a little big,” she replied, as if my statement had settled a lasting argument between her and her husband. “But I only feed her cup of dog food a day!”
Hmmm. That didn’t sound like much. I quizzed her about the diet. Did she feed Sandy treats? No. Table scraps? No. Did anyone else in the house feed her table scraps? No. Then, when I asked her exactly what she considered a cup, she mimed the shape and size and described where her husband had gotten it.
Turns out they were using not a measuring cup, but a 7-Eleven Big Gulp container, which holds six cups of dog food. And Sandy was eating it all. Every day!
Sandy’s case was a surprise to me, but it was just the start of something I’d see week after week in my almost 10 years of practice. Only about one in every 10 cats or dogs I examine weighs its ideal body weight, and approximately one-third of all pets in the United States are actually obese — overweight by 20–25 percent. Luckily for them, there’s no social stigma to being pudgy, portly or plain extra, extra-large, but it does take a toll on the body. Overweight animals are prone to hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, breathing problems and heat intolerance, among other medical maladies.
According to a 2002 report in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, overweight animals live shorter lives, too. This study closely monitored Labrador retrievers from eight weeks of age until death. One group of 24 dogs was fed a nutritionally complete and balanced dry dog food, and the other two dozen dogs were given less of whatever the first group of dogs got. Naturally, the dogs fed less food ended up leaner. Surprisingly, though, these dogs also went 1.8 years longer before developing chronic diseases such as arthritis — and they lived that much longer, too.
With these facts in mind, you’d think pet owners would strive to keep their pooches fit and trim. The only problem is that many don’t know what trim looks like — not even people such as my exercise-addicted friend, Carol, and her equally healthy medical-doctor husband, Martin. One summer, when I was out running with Carol, she asked me, “What kind of dog food should I feed Chester, our Chesapeake Bay retriever? He’s nine months old now, and he doesn’t seem to like his food.”
“What makes you say that? Does he eat it?”
“Well, he just doesn’t eat with gusto.”
“How much do you feed him, and how often?”
“We fill his bowl in the evening. He eats it, but he doesn’t seem to really like it that much. We don’t spoil him with dog treats or people food, either.”
I was starting to see the problem, but to be sure, I had to take a look. We made a pit stop at Carol’s house to see this supposedly finicky Fido. When Carol opened the door and Chester came rushing out, I could tell immediately that Chester liked his food just fine. On dogs, and cats, you should be able to feel the ribs without having to press, and the region behind the last rib should indent to form a clear-cut groove. From the top looking down, you should see a slight hourglass shape. Chester looked more like a Ball-Park frank from the top, and the fat coated his ribs like breading on a corn dog.
Chester really should’ve had his food measured out and delivered in meals twice a day, preferably in a treat ball — a device with kibble-size holes that lets the food fall out as the dog rolls it around on the floor. In fact dogs should all have to earn their food some way — either during training sessions or out of a treat ball. That way, they use their “minds” more. It’s a form of enrichment.
In addition, feral animals that have to work hard to earn their food are usually at an ideal size or underweight, whereas pets who sit around at home with free access to food tend to eat what they need and then also take a bite whenever they’re bored. Nosing a treat ball around in order to make the food fall out is a far cry from foraging in the wild, but it does augment the fun time associated with feeding time.
How to Put Dogs on a Diet
Luckily, unlike keeping ourselves on a diet in the face of fast food and free access to the fridge, it’s easy to put a dog or cat on a weight-loss regimen. Just limit the food to the appropriate amount. For a dog that’s not yet a portly pooch, start by feeding the amount that’s recommended on the dog-food bag, but keep in mind that this recommendation is probably too high because they are designed for the most demanding life-stage for which the product is intended. For instance if the food says it’s for all stages of life, that means it has to provide enough calories for a puppy or a lactating female. Consequently, their feeding chart may err on the high-calorie-count side. Weigh your pet every two weeks, and feel for fat over her ribs and look for the hourglass figure. You’ll quickly know whether she’s at the right weight and thus eating the right amount.
For plus-size pooches, change to a measured amount of a low-calorie pet food and cut out the treats. But beware — you may need some help from your veterinarian here, as not all diets are what they appear to be. Foods that claim they are “reduced calorie” products are low-calorie compared to the company’s normal offering, but they may still be high in calories overall. Additionally, the amount to feed depends partly on your pet’s goal weight, as well as how hefty he is right now. Your veterinarian can make a more specific recommendation and can even run blood work to make sure that it’s not a hormonal imbalance that’s making Rover hold on to his fat. Your veterinarian can also steer you towards the specialty diet(s) that utilizes nutrigenomics (the study of how food effects gene expression) to help change the dog’s gene profile to that of a trim healthy dog. That is, the diet helps the dog lose weight and also turns genes on and off such that he is presumably less likely to gain the weight back.
Next, add some exercise: a brisk walk — note that the dog actually has to trot — at least 20 minutes each day, or a few extended games of fetch. Now realistically, this 20-minute rule is for lazy dogs, older dogs, or tiny couch potatoes. If your dog is young and/ or athletic he’s really going to need much more just for his overall well-being. My Australian Cattle Dogs regularly got one hour of fetch, running, and walks on a daily basis, as does my current dog, a Jack Russell Terrier.
What About Treats?
Whether your dog is hungry or not, he will probably want extra food from you, because getting extras is part of the game. He’s been rewarded so much in the past for looking at you with those begging eyes. What should you do? You can use low calorie treats such as carrots or air popped plain popcorn. Or better yet, take some of their regular daily allotment of kibble and use it as treats throughout the day. Best to reward tricks or polite behavior so you don’t train him to be rude to get what he wants.
Back to the Fat Farm Dream
See why I’m thinking a Doggie Fat Farm would be a great career calling? All you have to do is follow this simple diet-and-exercise regimen, or have a veterinarian formulate one tailored to your tail-wagger’s needs and your pet’s going to lose weight! Unlike humans, dogs can’t steal food out of the refrigerator or sneak out and secretly buy fast-food. And also unlike humans, dogs tend to love to exercise. Weight loss in pets is practically a no-brainer!