By Tracie Korol
As we see our dogs everyday, the signs of obesity can be subtle. We’re not easily able to notice gradual changes in our housemates’ weight, especially if there’s a lot of hair involved. Plus, there is no uniformly accepted medical way to measure whether a dog is or isn’t obese. Most veterinarians and owners assess a dog’s weight on a “look and feel” basis. Dogs are considered to be at their ideal weight if their ribs are easy to feel as individual solid structures without pushing. I’ve seen owners jam a finger into a fat dog’s side and protest, “I can feel his ribs!” It’s more on the order of “can you strum your dog’s ribs?” Another sign is if their chest, abdomen and hips form a well-defined, waist-like “hourglass” shape when viewed from above.
Other signs of obesity include:
• A “waddling” gait — rolling from side to side like a ship at sea
• Lethargy — a dog that does not move nor want to move
• Exercise intolerance — when a walk to the mailbox leaves your pet sucking for air (dyspnea)
• Noisy breathing (sterdor and/or stridor) or sounding like Sebastian Cabot.
Even a moderate amount of excess body fat can reduce a dog’s lifespan and increase its chances of early death. While this association may not be completely direct, obesity does increase a dog’s chances of developing other conditions that can shorten its life, such as infectious disease, cancer, arthritis, skin disorders, high blood pressure (hypertension), respiratory disease, reproductive irregularities, diabetes mellitus and heart (cardiac), neurological and musculoskeletal (orthopedic) diseases.
Causes of Obesity in Dogs
To put is simply as I can, obesity, for all living things, is caused by eating too much (excess energy intake) and not moving enough (deficient energy output). Extra energy from a dog’s diet is stored as fat. Factors that can contribute to a dog eating too many calories include being fed energy-dense, high-fat, and highly palatable commercial diet, processed snacks and other treats between meals, or simply being fed too much of a well-balanced diet. Other factors can include age, breed, sex, heredity, hormonal abnormalities, and lifestyle. A strong human-dog bond often contributes to overfeeding and excess compensation snacking. Humans are apt to suffer from guilt and dogs are masters at manipulating that guilt with those big brown eyes.
Couple that with the fact that most pet owners will merely stroll their dogs around the block once or twice a day and you have a health crisis waiting at the door. Every dog, large or small, must have an opportunity to perform some real exercise every day. That means a brisk, get-your-heart-going, couple-mile a day walk. Big sporting breeds need more. For instance, a healthy lab can easily run 6 or 7 miles without breaking a sweat. That’s what they are designed to do as hunting dogs. Even small dogs — terriers and beagles, for instance — were bred to perform an energy-expending task — running down varmints. What happens to these dogs when they are fed too much and then retire to the sofa? The same thing that happens to you.
Older animals will become less active as they age and can become predisposed to putting on weight living increasingly confined and sedentary lifestyles. Statistically, dogs that live with overweight owners are also more likely to become overweight. Finally, dogs with certain hormonal or metabolic disorders, such as hypothyroidism, can be prone to obesity because their body’s normal rate of metabolism is decreased, which in turn decreases their energy needs.
Next time: What you can do if your Best Friend is obese.