Weighty problems – excess kills

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-photo by J. Renzoni

Spicy was my beagle-mix. She was a 30#, brown velvet eared, lovely eyed beauty of a dog.  I took her along with me when I went to live with my Grandfather and go to college.  She was an easy dog in many ways, people friendly, and soon had the  dairy-farming neighborhood in her pocket. I assume she saved up the rolling in cow pats for her return to grandpa’s jog, because her new friends were not put off and rewarded her mightily for her visits. She gained weight and needed baths at an alarming rate.

I tried lots of things to keep her in trim, but grandpa and the neighbors were beyond my control. I was gone to college classes most of the days and grandpa freed her to go visiting. He seemed not to mind her love of manure.

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photo by J. Renzoni

Food and exercise imbalance, with neutering thrown in to make overweight more likely is a common problem. For many there is an assumption that dog attention needs feeding, there is a delight/naughty, shame/guilt burden around the use of food to cajole and win friendship, about eating food, about sharing food, about them not having enough or feeling hungry or worried over getting food.

As a dietitian (RD), I personally have trouble with food compulsions – I think (and studies back me up on this) that personally having tried lots of diets and focused so much on external eating/satiety controls creates excessive attention on food. But I have no difficulty at all (barring Spicy) keeping my dogs at 4 – 5 on the 9 point body condition score. I believe the science that says they will live longer and better.

Here is a site with evaluation tools for identifying body composition score   http://www.pet-slimmers.com/pet-obesity/how-to-tell-if-your-pet-is-overweight.aspx

Ideal body condition looks ‘underweight.’ More and more I’ve noticed people thinking a working weight dog (close to ideal) looks underweight to them. Quick glance evaluation – look at the dog’s head compared to his body. If the head looks small, the dog is overweight. If the head looks large comparatively, then maybe he’s underweight (take the dog’s breed into account).

Sparsely coated dog? The last several ribs will be visible through their coat when they are at close to ideal weight.
Sparsely coated dog? The last several ribs will be visible through their coat when they are at close to ideal weight.
Max at 11 years old, he's 12 now and doing well. He's pretty furry so a hands on eval is needed.
Max at 11 years old, he’s 12 now and doing well. He’s pretty furry so a hands on evaluation needed. Photo by J Renzoni

From studies on overweight/obese dogs – owner factors of importance (these are not necessarily causes, the relationship could go either way or be connected to a third unidentified issue) related to obesity in dogs: duration owner observed dog eating (longer in obese dogs), interest in pet nutrition, obesity of owner, health consciousness of owner (both for pet and for themselves) and lower-income. It seems the more we concentrate on the problem (especially without adequate funds) the more difficult it is  to resolve or conversely the more difficult it is to resolve, the more we concentrate on it.

Overweight dogs are more likely fed inexpensive vs expensive food, fed more meals and snacks, fed table scraps, and be present when owner is preparing their own meal. Type of diet: prepared pet food vs homemade didn’t matter. And fiber levels had to be above 21% to have a positive effect (obviously more intake of cow pats and horse apples needed –  ya hey, free fiber and doggy perfume in one package).

In a study of free feeding (eat as much as they want) vs controlled amount feeding (25% less than the free fed ate), the energy restricted group had body condition scores closer to optimal (ave. 4.5 out of 9 vs 6.8 out of 9 for free fed dogs), lifespan averaging 2 years longer than the free fed dogs and less hip dysplasia, osteoarthritis and improved glucose tolerance.

We want to be happy.  We want our dogs to be happy. My grandfather felt Spicy should get to roam, the neighbors thought she needed rewards for her visits, Spicy thought cow poo was delicious to roll in and I thought they all were making me crazy (she was getting fat and needing baths all the time and I was worried about her getting hit by a car). My answer: I gave up and let her be grandpa’s dog. She lived to 11 out of a likely life span of 13-15 years, obesity has a price tag.

Happiness includes being comfortable in our body.

Reggie, 9 year old, neutered, JRT at near ideal body condition.
Reggie, 9 year old, neutered, JRT at near ideal body condition.  -photo J. Renzoni

It’s a short and long-term thing. Short – I want that, that is good; long – being able to do things is so fun. Imbalance can mean too many limitations either on the short-term side (being fearful of offering anything) or on the long-term side (being overweight, becoming chronically ill and having mobility problems).

To decide how much to feed I use a combination of things: printed recommendations on the food being offered, appetite, seeming too hungry (I’ll increase measure up to 25%), stool consistency/frequency and volume (too much/too loose = decrease quantity), dog appearance (are they gaining or losing weight when I want them stable?) and occasionally the veterinarian’s scale compared to the breed standard (many of them give weight ranges).

I’ve had veterinarians express concern about using food as a reward (and teaching people in class) for training – worry about too many treats.

I use many things as rewards; toys, games, praise, pats, massage, lap privileges and food. Robust appetite and enthusiasm for food is a positive indicator of health – both body and mental.

Food is a great reward and when I’m training I may use all of it in training, so very little gets offered in a dish, but it is still measured out for the day.  For younger dogs it is important to feed some from their bowl or they may think they only eat from my hand (which is not something I want them to think). Growing pups and mother dogs nursing pups get much attention to appetite and body composition.

Food is calming, licking food may be even more calming. Food tends to encourage thinking. Food is a good thing to use to start the process of training something new. Food doesn’t usually increase speed – if you want speed add a toy/game. Food for rewards can be kibble (high quality is preferred) or very high value to the dog, like cheese or meat. The amount is the size of one piece of kibble and for a jackpot, several pieces the size of a piece of kibble given in succession – adjust size of reward to size of dog. Dogs do know the difference in size, large being better than small, but for training, a series of small pieces, given in sequence is more effective.

“The way to his (her or its) heart is through his (her or its) stomach.”

I read a blogger’s comment about the advantages of free feeding, they did not think that being observed offering food was a significant advantage for the dog/person relationship. I believe they were unobservant. Years ago when my husband needed to get my dogs to pay attention to him I offered him the task of feeding them. It made a significant difference in a short time. In class when a student is having trouble getting their dog to focus on them and not on everyone/everything else, I ask them to hand feed all food, voila.

Food is a primary need, of course the source is important.

What about the picky dog? The one that is uninterested in food. After assuring there is no medical cause then make the food more interesting – the dog has to find it, work for it, figure out something to get it and cut back the offered quantity by 25%. Dogs, like children who are picky, are seldom actually underweight and often get significant attention and excellent tasting replacement foods for remaining picky (unfortunately the replacement foods are often lower nutritional density – ie not as good for them).

What if there’s actually a medical cause and coaxing is in order? Then offer variety, and high value foods in small frequent meals. Just like in people, having too much offered can overwhelm and discourage intake. Elderly declining dog – give them what they will eat.

Prevention and early intervention when a dog starts getting overweight is the easiest.

Many dog professionals are hesitant to say anything about the dog’s weight because just like a child’s weight, it’s a touchy subject. Of course, most dogs aren’t touchy about it at all. And if I need to decrease the amount given the most I’d cut it back by would be 25% and if they seemed to want something more I’d offer raw veggies, which are a favorite of my dogs anyway.

I’ve noticed the time likely for problems is when the pup’s growth spurt has ended and they’ve also been neutered. This combination decreases their food needs abruptly. Another time is after they’ve matured, somewhere in the 3-5 year old zone and their activity may decline with less play, decreasing food requirements, but if the same amount of food is offered most dogs will continue to eat it.  Also switching from a large chunk/disk kibble to small pieces (the small pieces fit more weight in the same volume scoop), so slow weight increase can happen, oops.

Has your dog run into a weight problem?





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