The Fat Dog Blues

Debbie Eldredge, DVM

Obesity – it’s having an abnormal  amount of fat on the body.  Medically speaking, the term is used for pets or people who weigh 15-30% more than the accepted norm for their body frame and size. Whether or not your dog is truly obese doesn’t matter. Being overweight is the real problem.

Our canine companions become overweight from eating too much, or not exercising enough – or both. Different pets, like different people, have different metabolic rates. Calories get burned up at a different speed for you than for your brother or sister.

For dogs, metabolism can vary by breed as well as among individuals of the same breed. Sighthounds rarely become overweight, although I have seen a pudgy Afghan. Beagles seem to be one of the breeds with the greatest tendency to corpulence.

The metabolic rate of a spayed or neutered pet is slightly less than that of an intact littermate. Therefore, the spayed/neutered dog will need slightly less food or more exercise to remain fit and trim. Spaying or neutering is not a valid excuse for a “round” dog.

We usually judge whether our pets are overweight by feel. You should easily be able to feel your dog’s ribs with just a slight amount of padding. If you have to actively dig, or can’t find the ribs at all your pet is too heavy. Most dog breeds have a waist or tuck-up. Viewed from above, their bodies should narrow behind the ribs and in front of the hips. Viewed from the side, the line of the abdomen should rise (or tuck up) from the rib cage to in front of the hind legs. On dogs with a full haircoat, it’s better to feel.

A distended belly is not usually a part of a weight problem. Young puppies with big full bellies may have just eaten, or could have an infestation of intestinal worms. An older pet with a distended abdomen may have decreased muscle tone or ascites (fluid accumulation) from congestive heart failure, liver or kidney failure. These senior citizens should be examined by your veterinarian.

Why do we worry about overweight pet? Being fat predisposes our pets to extra stress and some serious health problems. It can contribute to a shorter life span, and heaven knows, we feel their lives are too short at best. Overweight canines have a much higher risk of developing diabetes mellitus and some of the liver problems. The extra pounds aggravate arthritic conditions and many respiratory troubles — possibly turning a minor health problem into a serious, life-threatening one. The risks in surgery and anesthesia are greater for the pudgy pet, too.

An overweight, inactive pet who “overdoes” his exercise can do serious harm to himself. For example, a normally inactive, heavy pet running around playing Frisbee® on the first day of summer vacation is at greater risk of developing heat stroke or tearing ligaments (the cruciates) in his stifle.

Very often, overweight dogs are actually being fed the correct amount, but their owners overindulge their pets with dog treats and table food. Table food, or people food, is not very good for dogs. It does not usually provide a well-balanced diet and often has more fat and salt than is good or necessary for our canines.

Before you set out on a serious weight loss program for your pet, you should have him examined by your veterinarian. Your pet’s doctor can help you design a diet program and exercise schedule. The vet can also give you an accurate weight for your pet and a goal weight, too.

Fiber Doesn’t Reduce Appetite

A recent study verifies that fiber doesn’t reduce a dog’s appetite when given as part of a weight reduction program. Fiber is known to be an important component of the human diet and plays a key role in the management of certain clinical conditions in dogs and cats. A role for fiber in obesity management has not been established, though.

“Fiber is popularly believed to reduce appetite and food intake and to create a feeling of fullness,” said Jo Wills, B. Vet. Med., Ph.D., Head of Scientific Affairs at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition in Leicestershire, England. “However, there is an absence of well-designed clinical evidence to show that fiber is beneficial in weight-reducing programs.”

The Centre, which does research for Kal Kan and other Mars, Inc. companies around the world, studied overweight dogs. It compared the effect on satiety of low energy diets with added soluble or insoluble fiber. Satiety (a full feeling) was tested by allowing the dogs free access to canned food three hours after feeding the test diets. Inclusion of high amounts of fiber, was found to have no effect on satiety when fed to dogs on weight reduction programs.

Similar findings have been shown in a study on cats. Good Dog! suggests that you use a high-quality food without extra fiber, and restrict the number of calories your dog gets per day.

Light Food and Bad Skin

Good Dog! reader Christine Steadman wrote us, “I own six  dogs, three of whom are on reduced calorie foods. No progress has been made using different ‘Lite’ foods and the coat of one dog has become dry and lackluster. Medically, the dog checks out O.K.”

Is there any connection between feeding a light food and a dull coat? Yes, if you’re feeding a high fiber, low  protein, low fat food.

In a nutshell, here’s how most weight-reducing foods work: Dogs need protein to build strong bodies, carbohydrates and fat for energy, and a certain amount of fiber to keep everything moving through the system.

Too much fat in the diet means there is an excess, which is stored. The dog gains weight.

On the other hand, if there is less fat in the diet, as a percentage of calorie intake, fat stored in the body is used up, with an accompanying weight loss. Achieve a balance between calories taken in and calories burned, and the result will be a stable weight.

So, to reduce weight, you have two options: increase exercise to burn more calories, or use a diet lower in calories and lower in fat. The best choice is a combination of the two – exercise more and eat fewer calories.

Most light foods help you manage your dog’s weight by “diluting” the food with more fiber. Here’s a real-life example: An Adult diet has 3.5% crude fiber, while its sister weight-reducing diet has 7.5%. The extra fiber means there is less protein and less fat in each bite. The crude protein in the adult food is 25%, while the crude protein in its sister Light formula is just 17%. Similarly, fat goes from 15% in the Adult down to 8% in the Light.

What’s the point? The Light food may be providing all of the dog’s nutritional needs, but it’s doing it with less protein, less fat, and more fiber. The dog feels full sooner due to the higher fiber content, and he finishes the meal with less protein and fat.

What impact does this have on the dog? Nutritionally, the dog is still getting most everything he needs: protein, carbohydrates, amino acids, fat and fiber, plus a balance of vitamins and minerals. He will eat enough to get all of the protein he needs. In a good, balanced formula, he will get all of the other basics, too.

The high fiber content, usually from partially or completely indigestible ingredients such as peanut hulls, oat hulls, soybean hulls or cellulose, results in a higher stool volume. There will be more to clean up with Light formulas than Super-Premium Adult formulas.

Some dogs, such as Ms. Steadman’s, will have coat problems on a Light formula. Here’s why: More fiber makes food pass through the digestive system faster. And the faster food passes through, the less time there is for the body to absorb the nutrients in the food. Many dogs can’t handle the increased fiber in weight-reducing foods.

The dull coat problem shows that the dog isn’t getting enough fatty acids in his diet. The simplest solution is to switch off the Light formula. Go back and look at the Guaranteed Analysis numbers for the Adult Maintenance food you used before the Light. Try a food that has the same fiber content as the Adult food, but less fat and protein.

Your best bet is to feed a food from our Premium or Super-Premium II category. These are high protein (20% to 27%) mid-range fat (10% to 14%), with high-quality ingredients and low fiber content. The fat content is lower than the Super-Premium I category, but more than a Light Super-Premium. The fiber content is lower, too. While the dog may not feel as full, all of the nutrients are sure to be absorbed and that coat will start looking healthy again.

Even if the dog still seems hungry, the key is to cut the amount you feed. Again, you are trying to achieve a balance between fat and calorie intake and the activity level. Consuming fewer calories from fat than are used during the day will result in eventual weight loss.

It’s easy to give too much of a good thing with Super-Premium Adult foods. The dogs love the taste and get greedy. So measure portions carefully, and err on the side of too little food. Remember: the feeding instructions on the back of the bag are guidelines only. Use your own judgement, and don’t overfeed!

Fat Pets Die Young

Robert Hilsenroth, DVM

The other day Mr. E.Z. Mark  brought his four year old  Dachshund in for his annual physical examination and vaccinations. Mr. Mark complained that his dog, Insatiable, was losing energy and having difficulty getting around. I did a complete physical examination: nose, teeth, eyes, ears, heart and lungs, skin, hair coat, bones and joints.. it all looked pretty good to me.

The only abnormal finding I came up with was Insatiable’s weight. This dog that should have weighed 15 pounds tipped the scales at a whopping 34 pounds. I told Mr. Mark, “Your dog is fat!”

“Oh,” he replied, “I’d like a second opinion.”

So I gave him one: “O.K., he’s so fat, he’s ugly, too.”

It was obvious why Insatiable was unable to get around. He couldn’t stand up for very long holding twice his normal weight. So he spent most of his time sleeping, like a walrus on the rocks. I would do the same thing if I were in his condition.

After the holidays, most of our four-legged friends have a little too much weight to carry around. Too many goodies, not enough exercise, and we all put on a little extra weight.

“Well, how did he get so fat?”, asked E.Z.

“He probably gets his food from some human he lives with, wouldn’t you say?”

“It’s certainly not me,” was the prepared answer E.Z. Mark came back with. About that time, the blob of fat and fur on the exam table gave a whimper as he struggled to his feet. Old Mr. Mark handed him a tidbit he kept in his pocket for just such occasions. “See?” I exclaimed. “You’re feeding him too much.”

E.Z. Mark was well defended.

“He looks up at me with those puppy dog eyes as if he’s hungry all the time. I can’t let him starve to death.”

Since E.Z. used the word first, I felt  it was time to expound upon it. “Death? Death? That’s exactly what you are causing in this dog by feeding him so much…” And the 25 minute “Obesity in Pets” lecture started like an old rerun of my favorite movie. I almost forgot to vaccinate Insatiable at the end of the office call.

The point is, you may be killing your dogs with kindness. I don’t know of any other way to say it. Estimates vary, but some suggest that up to 85% of owned dogs are overweight. It’s not the pet’s fault. It’s your fault.

Pets suffer from most of the same things people do with obesity: heart disease, liver disease, kidney disease, arthritis, shortness of breath … the list goes on. Even if your pet doesn’t come down with a specific disease, his life span will be shortened.

How much fat should your dog have compared to muscle? We don’t really know. But body composition is so important the Morris Animal Foundation is funding a study at the Virginia/Maryland Regional Veterinary College to determine body fat composition in dogs. This will enable veterinarians to adjust drug dosages more accurately.

For now, though, you and your vet are on your own in handling your pet’s obesity. The biggest obstacle vets have with the obese pet is dealing with the owners. If you aren’t convinced that your dog needs to lose weight, the dog will stay fat. The problem encompasses the whole family. Everyone in the household must be aware that the dog needs to be on a diet, and must support the effort. It’s no fun being on a diet, so everyone must pitch in to help the dog lose weight.

One important fact to remember when working on a weight problem is that most dogs are instinctive eaters. Nature tells them to eat when food is there. Look at your dog’s cousin, the coyote. When he makes a kill, he eats all he can. He doesn’t know when the next kill is coming and he doesn’t have a refrigerator to store the food for midnight snacks. If he doesn’t eat it now, someone else will.

If you suspect your pet is overweight, consult your veterinarian. He or she will first rule out metabolic diseases that can cause obesity problems. Then you can get started on a weight reduction program. It will take some time and will-power, but it will be worth it if you can lengthen your dog’s life. So how about it? Start the new year right. Don’t make excuses like E.Z. Mark!

Robert Hilsenroth, DVM is staff veterinarian at the Morris Animal Foundation. For more information, (or to make a contribution) write: Morris Animal Foundation, 45 Inverness Drive East, Englewood, CO 80112.

Fiber Doesn’t Reduce Appetite

A recent study verifies that fiber doesn’t reduce a dog’s appetite when given as part of a weight reduction program. Fiber is known to be an important component of the human diet and plays a key role in the management of certain clinical conditions in dogs and cats. A role for fiber in obesity management has not been established, though.

“Fiber is popularly believed to reduce appetite and food intake and to create a feeling of fullness,” said Jo Wills, B. Vet. Med., Ph.D., Head of Scientific Affairs at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition in Leicestershire, England. “However, there is an absence of well-designed clinical evidence to show that fiber is beneficial in weight-reducing programs.”

The Centre, which does research for Kal Kan and other Mars, Inc. companies around the world, studied overweight dogs. It compared the effect on satiety of low energy diets with added soluble or insoluble fiber. Satiety (a full feeling) was tested by allowing the dogs free access to canned food three hours after feeding the test diets. Inclusion of high amounts of fiber, was found to have no effect on satiety when fed to dogs on weight reduction programs.

Similar findings have been shown in a study on cats. Good Dog! suggests that you use a high-quality food without extra fiber, and restrict the number of calories your dog gets per day.