Like the humans who care for them, dogs are not exempt from the battle of the bulge; they, too, struggle with weight gain and the health problems that come along with carrying around extra pounds.
“Dogs of all ages can suffer from severe health problems when carrying excess weight,” says Adria Lafferty, master trainer at Reserved Barking in Virginia. Excess weight results in a decline in their health, and it diminishes their overall quality of life.
Is My Dog Overweight?
In 2015, an estimated 53.8 percent of U.S. dogs were determined to be overweight or obese, and obesity is one of the most common preventable diseases in dogs. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there is a definitive difference between being overweight and obese. Obesity is a medical condition, a nutritional disease caused by an excess of body fat. Dogs are considered to be overweight when they are 15 percent above their ideal weight, and obese if they are 30 percent above the ideal weight, according to Dr. Leilani Alvarez, director of Integrative and Rehabilitative Medicine at the Animal Medical Center in New York City.
Veterinarians determine whether a dog is an ideal body weight and size by considering his body condition, or overall physique. “When viewed from above there should be a distinct waistline behind the ribs,” notes Dr. Alvarez. “When they’re viewed from the side, the ribs should be slightly visible, with the abdomen tucked in, no hanging belly.”
Similar to the Body Mass Index charts used to determine where a human falls on the scale, veterinarians use a grading system known as a Body Condition Score (BCS). On a grading scale from 1-to-9, an ideal body weight for dogs falls in the 5/9 range. Dogs with a BCS of 7/9 or higher become more prone to a variety of medical conditions associated with obesity.
Determining your dog’s ideal weight is based on a few factors, says Lazhar Ichir, founder of “Breeding Business,” an online magazine. “Two things to consider are the breed; a simple Google search will give the target weight for both a puppy and adult,” says Ichir. “And weight is also specimen specific; some dogs are just stronger, while others tend to be on the thinner side.”
The Effects of Added Weight in Senior Dogs
Risks such as osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, skin infections, and heart disease are just a few of the medical conditions more common to obese dogs that can cause an owner to worry. For senior dogs, the concern is even greater due to other factors, such as a decrease in activity level that comes along with aging. Because it’s harder for older dogs to lose weight, it’s important to keep them fit in their younger years.
While no dog is exempt from the possibility of becoming overweight, there are some breeds that are more prone than others. “Obesity is more common in Basset Hounds, Beagles, Labrador Retrievers, Dachshunds, Cocker Spaniels, and several of the small terriers (such as Cairn, West Highland White, and Scottish Terriers) among others,” says Dr. Alvarez.
For some breeds, like the Bulldog, the ability to exercise is a bit harder because of breathing problems. “Lower activity levels result in a slower metabolism and a lot less calories being burned,” says Ichir. “It’s only a matter of time before they have issues with weight.”
Creating Your Dog’s Diet Plan
Because weight isn’t something dogs can control, they’ll most likely keep eating whatever amount of food is in front of them. A structured feeding plan should be followed when your pet is young and into her adult and senior years.
Although opinions may vary about how many times a day a dog should be fed, Dr. Alvarez says twice a day is best, as it helps to maintain a more normal metabolism. “How much they should be fed is dependent on their size and level of activity,” she says. “It’s best for an owner to determine the correct amount based on her dog’s BCS and the advice of the veterinarian.”
“As a trainer, I often hear owners say they believe their dog is always hungry, so they keep feeding him,” says Lafferty. “Overfeeding is detrimental, and lots of dogs will keep eating no matter how full they feel, so make sure you are feeding the right amount for your dog.”
Deciding what type of food to feed your dog can also be a source of confusion for owners; it’s all about finding what combination works best for his needs. “Don’t be afraid to switch diets either,” says Lafferty. “It’s good to learn what your dog does well with, what he looks good on, and what he acts well on.”
For weight control, it’s important to stay consistent. “Most veterinary nutritionists recommend a consistent diet in order to ensure a balanced meal,” says Dr. Alvarez. “The most important nutrient for senior dogs is high-quality protein, due to a higher need for protein levels.”
Don’t be afraid to include some add-ins, like pumpkin or a bit of wet food, here and there, just be careful of how much and how often you’re doing so. If your dog needs extra enticement to eat his food, Dr. Alvarez suggests adding sodium-free or low-sodium chicken broth.
Treats are another source that can affect weight, especially when they’re given freely. Just as their name implies, Dr. Jeffrey Levy, a holistic house call vet and pet expert in New York City, says they should be used for training purposes and occasional rewards. “It’s also tempting to feed your dog table scraps, but make sure to count them as part of your pet’s caloric intake for the day,” he says.
Dr. Alvarez recommends staying away from treats like biscuits, which are rich in carbohydrates and do not offer any added nutritional value. Instead, she suggests healthier alternatives, such as carrots, cucumbers, green beans, blueberries, mango, apples, watermelon, etc. Just be sure to educate yourself on what foods are toxic, such as grapes or raisins.
Exercising Your Senior Dog
No matter your dog’s age, exercise, in addition to daily walks, is another important factor in keeping him healthy and fit. While exercise is important for maintaining health and an appropriate BCS, it’s also good for a dog’s mental state and is needed by some breeds more than others. “A Border Collie will literally go crazy without his daily exercise,” says Ichir.
For dogs that are older, or not extremely active, whether because of a medical reason or that they tire easily, it’s still important to get them out at least twice a day for mental and physical stimulation. “In the event of a physical disability, a harness or cart can be used,” suggests Dr. Alvarez. “And dogs with heart or respiratory disorders can be taken out for shorter periods of time and during the cooler parts of the day.”
It’s natural for dogs’ health to decline as they age, but if you stay on top of nutrition and exercise and make frequent visits to the veterinarian, you will ensure the best quality of life for your dog into his golden years.
Remember that before starting any exercise or diet program; a dog should have a complete physical performed by a licensed veterinarian to rule out heart, endocrine, and joint issues.