Our dogs’ lives parallel our own in many ways. As our lives change, so do theirs, for better or for worse.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest health risks to Americans is now prevalent in dogs as well, and many consider it to be the leading health problem among our dogs today. It’s obesity.
Depending on who you ask, obesity is defined as being 10% to 30% over the ideal weight. Statistics vary, but obesity is now a major health concern worldwide, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. Up to 59% of dogs and cats are overweight, it says.
Other estimates are that up to 30% could be considered obese, and the problem is getting worse.
Even just a few pounds can mean a lot on dogs whose overall body size is generally smaller than ours. For example, if an ideal 20-pound dog is two pounds overweight, that’s the equivalent of a 150-pound person carrying an extra 15 pounds. An ideal 50-pound dog that is 10 pounds overweight would be like that same person with 30 extra pounds.
That’s like lugging a big bag of dog food around all day long, every day, which means a lot of extra wear and tear on a body. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of related health issues.
It’s hard to believe that such a highly preventable problem is so prevalent. But many people don’t recognize their pets are overweight.
With so many overweight people and dogs out there, “normal” has shifted to some degree. And so many pet owners are not accustomed to seeing dog that are truly at “ideal weight” and incorrectly identify them as “too thin.”
How exactly can you tell if a dog is overweight? There are two standard body condition scoring systems, known as BCS, used to rank dogs on a numerical continuum from emaciated to obese, using numbers 1 through 5 (emaciated, thin, ideal weight, overweight, obese) or 1 through 9 (allowing for more subcategories).
Let’s start by describing a dog at ideal weight, a 3 on the 1 to 5 body condition scoring scale. When looking at the dog from above you should be able to see a noticeable waist behind the ribs. And when looking at the dog from the side you see a marked tuck up at the abdomen behind the ribs.
Next, use touch: Just moving your hand lightly across the rib cage, you should be able to feel the outline of the bones. With a little pressure you should be able to make out the hip bones. If ribs or other bones are visible, the dog is too thin.
An overweight (No. 4) or obese (No. 5) dog has no waist and no abdominal tuck. The more extra pounds on the dog, the more abdominal distention and fat deposits at the shoulders, ribs, hips and base of the tail. If you must use pressure to find the ribs, your dog is overweight or obese.
Most of us can spot a morbidly obese dog. It’s the somewhat overweight dogs we have trouble identifying.
Carrying extra pounds puts extra stress on bones, tendons and ligaments. The extra weight can affect a dog’s ability to move and is linked to arthritis. Even dogs that are only moderately overweight are at higher risk for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, heat intolerance and respiratory, liver and skin problems. They are more likely to struggle under anesthesia. Extra weight also affects the immune system and the hormonal system.
It’s not just a matter of quality of life. Overweight and obese dogs have a shorter life expectancy.
While dogs of all ages are at risk, older dogs are frequent victims of obesity. Just like us, their metabolism slows, so adjusting their food intake is necessary.
Obviously, too much food and too little exercise are big contributing factors, but the more we learn about obesity the more complex we are finding it. Type of food (there are lots of added fats and sugars in dog foods these days that encourage overeating), type of feeding, food beliefs (food equals love), lifestyle and habits, overall stress levels, genetic factors, perhaps pollutants and, yes, a few diseases (which your vet can test for) can cause dogs to be prone to weight gain.
But the No. 1 way to help an overweight dog, once disease has been ruled out, is the same as for humans: fewer calories and more exercise.