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A recent survey indicates over 50 percent of America’s pet population is overweight or obese. If you or your veterinarian feel that your pet would benefit from a reduction in body weight, this discussion should help you to understand how to help overweight dogs lose weight. Weight loss for obese cats, however, is more complicated and should not be done without a veterinarian’s supervision.

Very simply put, if your pet is overweight it is taking in (eating) more calories than it needs. Set all excuses aside … excessive weight in an otherwise healthy pet is a direct result of consuming unnecessary amounts of food. If your pet is overweight it should be examined for heart, thyroid or other metabolic disorders. A detailed history should be taken with emphasis on frequency of exercise, amount and type of food being provided and other parameters relative to calorie requirements.

To begin let us set the record straight on some common misconceptions regarding obesity. Healthy dogs and cats do not necessarily need to eat every day; the pet food industry has painted the picture for us of the “eager eater.” The impression is that a happy, healthy pet will eat every meal with gusto. Please do not try to entice your pet to eat if it isn’t interested. If you provide a good quality food and a liberal amount of water, your pet will eat when it wants and do better than having to eat when you want.

Another common myth maintains that spaying or neutering causes obesity. This is absolutely false (see other myths about spaying and neutering here). Any pet, neutered or not, will gain weight if it is over fed relative to its energy requirements. The surgical procedure may slightly slow the pet’s metabolism, as will normal aging, and it will then burn calories off more slowly; therefore, it may require less food. Keep in mind the surgery doesn’t cause the weight gain, eating too much does and you have control over that.

Let us explore four typical settings we veterinarians encounter when presented with a dog that is overweight. See if any of these sound familiar! The quotes are the usual responses pet owners give us when we politely suggest that “perhaps your pet would benefit by losing some weight” …

Type I: THE NIBBLER: “But doctor, she hardly eats a thing.”

This dog probably has food out for him/her all day and nibbles a little at a time. When dinner time comes and the pet picks at the leftovers, it will take the choicest morsels, leave the rest, and still appear not to have eaten very much. However over a 24-hour period “THE NIBBLER’S” total calorie intake is excessive and it gains weight. Hardly eats a thing, eh?

Type II: THE BEGGAR: “But doctor, this rascal won’t keep quiet unless she gets her treats. And she won’t go to sleep at night until she gets her little dish of ice cream.”

What has happened here is that the pet has discovered that the more noise and fussing it produces the more likely it is to be rewarded for this behavior. The owner finally “gives in” to keep the pet quiet and the pet sees the food as a reward. In effect the owner is training “The Beggar” by rewarding his/her behavior. It turns into a fun game but the dog’s health may suffer if obesity is the result.

Type III: THE GOOD DOG: “But doctor, s/he’s such a good dog we don’t want her to go hungry.”

This dog became overweight because the owner’s signal of affection for their pet has focused on feeding. (Usually each family member secretly offers treats to the pet … and doesn’t know the other family members are doing exactly the same thing!) It is an understandable trait but unfortunately for the dog it can be a case of too much of a good thing. The owners’ method of showing affection should be directed more toward physical activity than feeding. Think “FETCH” not “FOOD”!

Type IV: THE GOURMET DOG: “But doctor, s/he just refuses to eat dog food.” In this case the dog has trained the owners to feed him/her such things as chicken, liver, ice cream, cookies, etc.

Although most table scraps are just fine to feed (remember, stay away from bones of any kind!), this dog has been given a choice of what to eat and has chosen certain people food. If a child is given a choice s/he would probably choose cake and candy over vegetables, and their health would suffer. The Gourmet Dog usually overeats because s/he isn’t getting a proper balance of nutrition, plus everything tastes so good there is a reward factor in eating. The solution is … you choose, not your pet.

What To Do About An Overweight Dog

Be sure your veterinarian evaluates the thyroid gland’s function if the dog is overweight or obese. Hypothyroidism is a very common instigator of excess weight in pets and this needs to be corrected or your attempts to reduce your pet’s weight will probably fail. So even if your veterinarian says thinks your dog doesn’t “look like a hypothyroid case,” request the blood test for hypothyroidism anyway.

As previously mentioned, research has show that, in general, a healthy dog can abstain from food for five days before any noticeable health effects occur. (Very small breeds are an exception … but unless there’s really some medical problem present, missing a day of eating isn’t a major catastrophe.) That said, you should always be sure to provide your dog with fresh water and a high quality, complete and balanced diet. Look on the ingredients list. Meat should be the first item listed (read what else to look for on the food label here). You may also want to supplement your dog’s diet with vitamins, minerals, or fatty acid products. Just be careful about over-supplementing, too!

After recording an accurate pre-diet weight, you should reduce your dog’s daily ration by one-third. That total should include all treats, snacks, or leftovers — that is, if you insist on continuing to provide these. Reweigh the pet in 2 weeks. (Remember if the pet begs for food, that’s a good sign! But don’t give in. You may have a Type II Beggar).

If after two weeks you find that your dog has lost even a little weight, you’re on the right track; keep up this schedule! If no weight loss is evident, again reduce his/her food intake by one-third and re-Weigh them in two weeks.

There are some veterinarians that believe certain “Reduced Calorie” or “Lite Diets” or “Senior Diets” are not beneficial for dogs. Some of these diets have restricted fat levels to reduce the calories, but by necessity have increased the carbohydrate percentages. This increased carbohydrate could stimulate additional insulin secretion, which tells the body to store unused calories as fat. As such, there are some dogs that have actually gained weight on “reduced calorie” weight loss diets. Consult with your veterinarian as to which diet is best for your pet. Typically, what is recommended is a meat-based diet that is high in protein (which isn’t stored as fat) and fat and low in carbohydrate. Now … all YOU have to do is adjust the quantity being fed to achieve a state where the dog takes in fewer total calories than it is using for the day’s energy requirements. Simple! Just don’t forget to consult your vet before starting.

It is also quite important to get everyone’s cooperation in restricting the dog’s food intake. There is usually someone in the household who feels sorry for the dieting pet and surreptitiously provides “just a little” something extra. What would actually be more helpful is if that person took the dog for a walk or a run or other exercise routine every day to burn off a few calories.

Keep in mind most overweight or obese dogs have a slow metabolism. They simply don’t burn off those calories very fast and, in fact, don’t generally have “eager eater” appetites. Because of this slow metabolism, though, they don’t require very much; so “just a little extra” will make a big difference over a period of time.

So, what are you waiting for? Assisting your dog with a diet can help your him/her live a longer, leaner and more enjoyable life.