Canine well-being is a series of articles sharing the experience I have gathered while living with and caring for dogs. They address common canine health concerns. I am not a veterinarian. The contents of these articles are intended to inspire looking beyond conventional ideas and practices. Be responsible and do your own research and seek appropriate veterinarian advice (from a holistic vet such as Dr Pearson from Paws to Heal).
The term responsible dog ownership is usually discussed in regards to effective off-lead control over dogs in public but to me it covers all well-fare issues, including a dog’s weight. The number of overweight and obese dogs is rising. Just like with humans, this brings with it serious health problems, especially longterm heaviness: Joint injuries, diabetes, breathing difficulties, cancer, arthritis, high blood pressure, heart failure, the list goes on. Being overweight has an impact on quality of life as well as lifespan.
How do I know my dog is overweight?
When a dog’s waistline is barely visible or none-existing and you can’t feel their ribs when putting your hands on their chest, your dog needs to lose weight. There are body score cards that can help you determine if your dog is too skinny, just right, or too chubby. These are general guidelines and breed specific looks need to be taken into consideration. For example, some hound breeds have a very lean physique with ribs clearly showing when they are at their optimum weight (whereas ribs visible would commonly mean a dog is underweight). On the other end of the spectrum are bulky-looking breeds – such as bulldogs, mastiffs and staffies. With them it’s important to discern between their natural solid and muscular appearance and being a plump barrel.
When my clients’ dog is on the chunky side, I usually start the conversation by asking them if they are happy with their dog’s weight. Most people reply that they are aware that their dog needs to lose some kilos and how it came to that. Here are some of the common reasons I hear.
- We just want to finish this big bag of puppy food we’ve got. [Their dog is fully grown.]
- My dog had an injury and was crated for 6 weeks with strict ‘no walking’ orders.
- I got sick/injured and wasn’t able to walk my dog.
- Work got really busy, I haven’t spent as much time with my dog as I should.
- My dog loves to clean up all the food my toddler drops.
- My mother just loves giving the dog treats.
- My relationship broke up, I am on my own now, my dog just doesn’t get walked as much.
- I used to take my dog on bike rides/runs but then we started a family and I am out of shape and/or don’t have time for this anymore.
- Our other dog died. They used to play a lot but now the remaining dog is mostly lying around.
- It’s all the treats we use for training.
- I just can’t resist these puppy eyes. I don’t want my dog to hate me.
- My dog is getting older and is not as active anymore as he used to be.
- It’s just been too cold/too hot/too wet to go for walks.
Some people react a bit defensively when I ask them if they are happy with their dog’s weight. They say things like
- I feed my dog according to the instructions on the bag.
- It’s my dog’s fluffy coat that makes her look overweight.
- He’s old already, I don’t want to take away the few joys he has left and he just loves food.
- She’s a rescue and was severely undernourished when we got her.
- My dog is a foodie, like me.
Life happens, I get it. So we need to adapt. What does that mean in regards to maintaining your dog’s healthy weight?
Injuries and sickness
When my Cane Corso (Italian Mastiff), Enzo, ruptured his cruciate ligament and needed to rest for an extended period of time, no walking other than for toileting and definitely no playing ball, I immediately reduced his meals by a third. I also chose carefully the treats I gave him as ‘consolation prize’ for having to stay inside when I took my other dogs out, usually a carrot, half a cucumber or a cut up apple (seeds removed). I kept a close eye on his waistline and a few weeks in, when I noticed it was slowly disappearing, I cut down his meals even further. When he was allowed to start hydro therapy and short walks, I upped his food a little again.
If your dog has an injury or sickness which restricts her activity level and you keep feeding her as usual, she’ll gain weight. Joints are build for normal not excess weight. If they are compromised, such as when injured, we should be especially mindful to not put additional stress on them through a surplus load.
Different life stages
Your dog’s dietary requirements are different when he’s a puppy as compared to when he’s becoming an adult, or after desexing, or when he becomes a senior. If you feed your dog kibble and buy in bulk and still have a huge amount of puppy food left when your dog doesn’t need it anymore, pass it on to someone with a puppy or simply feed your dog smaller quantities until the bag is finished. There are no fixed ages that mark your dog becoming an adult or a senior, there are general and breed-specific guidelines but each dog is an individual whose body matures and metabolises in their unique way.
A puppy’s growing body needs richer food and more meals per day than once she’s reached her full height. If your dog is desexed the traditional way, meaning their endocrine system is deprived of a whole set of hormones, their metabolism changes. Science knows the connection between desexing and weight gain. When your dog is in her senior years and her activity level decreases, she’ll need to be fed less too.
What you feed, of course, plays a role too. Kibble is one of the best marketing scams there is: The illusion that everything your dog ever needs is in a highly processed, dry biscuit. ‘But I buy the good stuff,’ you might think right now, ‘with none of these nasty, cheap fillers and additives.’ I’d like to argue here that the marketing departments of the big dog food companies have discovered a new niche, the one of the health conscious pawrent that is willing to pay a little extra for quality. Unless you go for the freeze-dried, real meat (not meat by-products or meat meal) options, however, you are still buying highly processed, denatured food. Kibble is convenient. That’s its best selling point. Don’t take my word for it, though. Do your own research. A good starting point is the Dogs Naturally Magazine, on their website search for ‘kibble’ and read holistic vets and nutritionists’ opinions on it.
One last remark on the topic: Most dogs that are being fed according to the instructions on the food bag end up pudgy. The recommended quantities are general and generous. If your dog loses her waistline eating the suggested amount, feed less!
Getting into a relationship, breaking up, having children, changing careers or jobs, becoming sick or injured, mental health challenges, caring for ageing parents or other dependents, loss, moving, a pandemic – these are all changes that can affect your ability to care for your dog. Life happens and suddenly there is not as much time to exercise your dog as there used to be or the activity intensity reduces (for example, you don’t go on bike rides with your dog anymore). Your dog’s vanishing waistline and hard to feel ribs should alert you to the fact that you need to adjust the amount you feed him.
Whether it’s a record heat summer or freezing cold winter or a La Niña epic rainfalls spell, none of it is a reason for your dog to gain weight. Cut down her meals if you really are unable to adapt by dressing appropriately, changing the times when you walk or protect your dog’s paws if necessary. If you know that both, you and your dog, hate a certain season (too hot, too cold, too wet, too humid), adjust her food intake accordingly or find a climate controlled indoor activities option.
It’s the training
It’s positive reinforcement training 101 to decrease the amount you feed your dog at meals (or substitute meals altogether) while you are at the beginning and need to reward frequently, or when you are working on counter-conditioning. As a side note, for the latter, learning the Trust Technique can be a more effective way to go about helping a dog overcome anxious or aggressive behaviours.
Bad hair day
It is true that a thick, fluffy coat can obscure a dog’s body shape. A good time to assess such a dog’s weight is when they are wet – after a swim or bath – their figure is revealed. You can also use your hands to feel for their waist. Put them on your dog’s ribcage and slide them towards their hips, following the body’s contour. Is their midriff indented, or are you feeling just a straight line from ribcage to hips, or is the area even bulging? The ribs should also be easily felt once your fingers are through the thick or fluffy coat at skin level. If you need to dig to find them, chances are your dog is too heavy.
Naughty family members
If your toddler, mother, roommate or other household member keeps feeding the dog lots of extra treats, it is your responsibility to adapt. Keep the biscuit tin where your children can’t reach it and reduce the number and size of treats they can give your dog. You can also switch to healthier treats such as pieces of apple or carrot. Have a talk with any adult family members to express your concern for the dog’s health and request they limit or stop the extra feeding. Giving a dog a treat makes us feel good because we just made someone else happy. Suggest calorie-free alternatives that people can engage with with your dog that also give the experience of shared joy such as playing tug. If you can’t stop others feeding treats, cut down the amount you give your dog at mealtimes.
What it means to be a good pawrent
At the beginning of this article I mention that to me responsible dog ownership includes maintaining your dog’s healthy weight. There is much public outcry when a dog has been undernourished or starved, the neglect is obvious. But what about a dog on the other end of the spectrum? Obesity kills but is usually not given as direct cause of death. There is a clear connection between your inability to withstand your dog’s puppy eyes and his non-existent waistline. Being a good pawrent means understanding that even if you think your dog hates you when you don’t share your pizza with him anymore you know that this is for his overall well-being.
As a responsible caregiver we take the time it needs to regulate ourselves so that when our heartstrings are pulled, we can truly look out for our dog’s best interest. When my dog, Enzo, injured his knee and wasn’t allowed to play ball, it was as if his world had come to an end. His distress deeply affected me and I felt so sorry for him. Then I realised what a disservice I did to both of us by maintaining this attitude. I knew abstaining from his favourite past-time was important for his recovery and my angst was replaced by peace. This shift in me caused a palpable shift in him. He suddenly was accepting of ‘being left behind’ when I went outside with his fur siblings. I did create special one-on-one times with him for extra cuddles or a massage. And when he had the okay to start his rehab with swimming, he loved leaving the others behind at home and come with me all by himself.
A good pawrent faces these emotionally triggering circumstances, getting help if it’s too much to resolve on our own. Not giving in to beseeching puppy eyes can be really hard for some people. We might interpret the look we get from our dog as being accused of betrayal, being a meanie, or some other form of resentment. We might be afraid that our dog hates us now. This inner narrative unchecked will make us hand over that slice of pizza every time even though part of us knows better. We need to rewrite that internal script. As a good pawrent we can be steadfast in the face of our dog’s momentary woe because we keep in mind the bigger picture of their well-being and happiness and let our actions flow from there.
How to help your dog lose weight
Part of my business is boarding dogs. When one of my holiday dogs arrives overweight I ask their pawrent if they would like the dog to regain their waist. If they agree to a diet for their dog, I reduce the quantity of what they are usually being fed by a third or by half. Treats, if any, are small, and grain and sugar-free. Walks and other activities support the shedding of the excess weight. It’s so satisfying to witness their slimming and with it, rejuvenating. Their stamina increases and the huffing and puffing becomes less and less. They go home a younger-looking, fitter and healthier version of themselves.
If your dog is on medication or if you have any other concerns about putting your dog on a diet, consult a knowledgable vet.
Providing your dog with more exercise is a good way to support the slimming process. If you don’t have time or the physical capacity to do so consider hiring a dog walker. Swimming or underwater treadmills are other great ways of exercising a dog and they are gentle on the joints which is important if your dog is quite overweight. Playing fetch or other high impact activities are better left for when your dog has shed the excess layer.
Cutting down on treats and making smarter choices about which ones you feed will also support your dog losing weight. Try some fresh fruit and veggies. Don’t be discouraged and decide your dog doesn’t like them after offering them only once or twice. Offer them in different ways: whole, big chunks, tiny bits, or make them into a smoothie (banana, berries and kale is a good combination, or apple, carrot and celery) and add just one spoon or two to their normal meal. You can also dip them in nut butter or coconut oil. Try a variety, such as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, apples, pears, bananas, watermelon, carrots, zucchini, cabbage, cucumber, pumpkin, cabbage. Some dogs like crunchy food, others love sweet taste.
Making your own dog treats (raw or baked) gives you complete control over the ingredients as well as their size. You can find lots of great recipes online or invent your own creations.
Don’t feel bad or guilty if you just realised that your dog needs to lose some weight. I hope this article inspires you to take a look at the reason(s) it happened, and in doing so helps you to make a plan to change the situation for the better.