Canine Obesity: A Leading Health Concern

Tracy Libby
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I've been criticized by friends, breeders, and judges for keeping my dogs too thin. I disagree, and a recent study proves my point that owners tend to underestimate their dogs’ body condition score. In other words, people are becoming so conditioned to seeing overweight dogs that their perception of what is "overweight' is skewed.

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) estimates that nearly 53 percent of U.S. dogs are overweight or obese. That means roughly 36.7 million dogs are at increased risk for obesity related diseases, such as diabetes, increased blood pressure, and congestive heart failure. Other studies show a varying rate of obesity in dogs from 24 to 44 percent—depending on the study and the country, be it the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria or Australia.

Either way, experts agree that obesity is a leading health concern in today's pets, with one in three dogs seen by U.S. veterinarians being overweight.

Health Issues

Fat works as an insulator, which is great if you’re a hibernating bear. Otherwise, consider that overweight dogs:

  • have difficulty breathing because extra fat restricts the expansion of their lungs
  • are less capable of regulating their body temperature; making them more susceptible to heatstroke
  • have less stamina and endurance
  • have increased surgical risks, decreased immune functions, and are more susceptible to osteoarthritis, as well as injuries to joints, bones, and ligaments
  • are more susceptible to hypertension, digestive disorders, and certain cancers
  • have mild but significant elevations in cholesterol, triglycerides and phospholipids

Simply put, allowing your dog to become overweight subjects him to a diminished quality of life, and he is likely to die at a younger age—nearly 2 years earlier—than his physically fit counterparts. Also, juvenile obesity increases the number of fat cells in your dog’s body and predisposes him to obesity for the rest of his life.

Some medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease, can contribute to weight gain. So too can certain medications such as prednisone and phenobarbital, which can influence a dog’s metabolism and appetite. Yet, those cases represent a very small portion of overweight dogs, perhaps less than 5 percent, according to experts.

The primary cause of canine obesity is an imbalance in the "energy balance equation." Simply put—if your dog consumes more calories than he burns, he's going to pack on the pounds.

Is My Dog Too Fat?

It's hard for owners to imagine their 60-pound dog being 15 pounds overweight, but if his ideal weight is 45 pounds— he's considered obese at 60 pounds. Dogs are considered overweight when their weight is 15 percent above ideal and are obese when their weight is 30 percent above ideal. For instance, a small dog whose ideal weight is 12 pounds would need to gain only 2 pounds to be overweight. An extra 3.5 pounds would push him into the obese category. Like humans, some dogs require very few surplus calories to result in extra weight. A 1 percent daily increase in calories can result in a weight increase of 20-30 percent by mid-adulthood.

Some owners think if they can feel their dog's ribs, he’s too thin. Not so! You want your dog to be fit and lean. Not too skinny, but not too fat. Follow these simple guidelines for assessing your dog's weight:

  • Run your fingers up and down along his ribcage. You should be able to feel the bumps of his ribs without pressing in.
  • Run your hand over his croup (his rump). You should be able to feel the bumps of his two pelvic bones with little effort.

Ideally, when looking at your dog from the side, his abdominal tuck—the underline of his body where his belly appears to draw up toward his hind end—should be evident. When standing over your dog and viewing him from above, his waist—the section behind his ribs—should be well proportioned. If your dog is more sausage-like than fit and trim, he probably needs to shed a few pounds.

Seek Veterinary Attention

Your veterinarian can help you determine the ideal weight for your dog, and develop a long-term plan to condition his body and provide him with a longer, healthier, and happier life.

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