A common problem in dogs
Obesity, or excessive body fat resulting in an overweight condition, is sadly an extremely common and preventable problem affecting our pets, with more and more cases seen every year. In fact, canine obesity is the most common nutritional disorder seen in dogs. As with humans, it's caused by an imbalance of taking in more energy than giving out.
How to know if your dog is overweight
Signs your dog is overweight include:
- owners struggling to see or feel their dog's ribs, spine or waistline
- abdominal sagging
- a bigger, rounder face
- a reluctance to go for walks or lagging behind
- excessive panting
- needing help getting in and out of cars
- a refusal to move or play games
Problems associated with obesity
Vets see these problems all too often, with obese pets posing greater risks from anaesthetic and surgical complications, heat or exercise intolerance, complications from cardio-respiratory disorders, hormone problems, skin disease, cancer and urogenital disorders – even early death. Canine obesity may even contribute to tracheal collapse and laryngeal paralysis too.
Common canine problems suffered as a result of obesity include:
- Diabetes - where the pancreas fails to secrete enough insulin in order to regulate blood glucose levels
- Heart disease - caused by high cholesterol levels
- Arthritis - directly affecting mobility, making it even harder for your pet to lose weight
The dangers of fat
Until fairly recently, fatty tissue was thought to be just a relatively lifeless energy store and insulator; but we now know it secretes hormones affecting appetite, inflammation, insulin sensitivity and bodily function, as well as influencing water balance and blood pressure, leading to kidney disease and high blood pressure.
Factors contributing to canine obesity
Excess energy is stored primarily as fat but many other factors also contribute to canine obesity including age, sex, reproductive status, inactivity, owner's decisions on dog's food intake, diet and palatability, environment, lifestyle, and any underlying disease that impairs exercise and results in excessive weight gain. Some breeds appear to have a higher incidence of obesity, indicating that genetics may play a major part, with unneutered adult dogs often weighing less than neutered dogs of the same breed too.
Neutering is usually carried out at a young age - the same time as a natural decrease in growth and energy needs. Oestrogen also slows down fat production, with predictably decreased levels post spaying, so owners who are unaware of this change and continue to feed their pets the same amount of food will usually see a weight gain in their dog.
Like us, ageing dogs become less active, needing less daily energy too. So it's no surprise that if food intake is not decreased proportionately, they can easily pile on the pounds.
Feeding table scraps and other fatty treats may encourage many pets to overeat and gain excessive weight. In some adult dogs, up to half the calories they need are supplied as human food, particularly in toy breeds.
Not measuring out food
Surprisingly, some owners are still unsure about how much to feed their dog, failing to measure food accurately, and sometimes in denial about how much they feed. The size of cup used to measure dry food and the size of bowl used for feeding also affect the amount of food fed to a dog; with owners given a large cup and bowl often providing more food than when a small cup and bowl are used.
Eating with other dogs
The social setting of meals can also influence eating behaviour, with most dogs increasing their food intake when eating alongside other pets in what's known as 'social facilitation'. That said, being an 'only dog' has also been associated with the risk of obesity, which is probably due to being spoilt rotten by its owners.
Ways to prevent obesity
If your dog is overweight, then carefully start changing their feeding habits by:
- increasing exercise (e.g. taking more frequent or longer walks, or taking up a canine activity such as agility or flyball)
- looking at the type of food they eat, as well as their intake:
- create a feeding plan
- incorporate regular visits to your vet for weight loss advice and to have free weight checks
- record your success
Diets rich in protein and fibre but low in fat are typically recommended for weight loss, as it gives the dog the feeling of being full, but also provides them with more energy. Replacing traditional treats with carrot sticks is a great, healthy way to start. Ensure every family member is given their own pet feeding instructions and never leave any food lying around.
When to feed
Divide your dog's daily amount into several meals and try not to feed them too late, as they won't burn many calories when sleeping.
Remember, when introducing a new food, do it gradually over a seven-day period, mixing new food with the old, and always check the daily recommended amount.
Don't give scraps
Avoid feeding any leftovers or scraps from the table. Always check the daily recommended feeding guide on the packaging and weigh out the daily amount at the beginning of the day. You can then give 'treats' from this amount during the day, so you don't overfeed.
Speak to your vet
When your animal starts to lose weight, you will notice they are happier, more inclined to exercise, and have a lot more energy. So don't hesitate to book an appointment with your vet for advice and a healthy eating plan to help your dog battle the bulge.
This article was written by Marc Abraham, a vet based in Brighton who regularly appears on UK television.
Think your dog may be affected?
If you're worried about your dog's health, always contact your vet immediately!
We are not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article, please contact your local vet practice for further information.
Find a vet near you
If you're looking for a vet practice near you, why not visit the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons' Find a vet page.