The past year of dealing with the pandemic has been challenging for all of us. Our pets have been there with us through all of it, from the good (the extra companionship) to the bad (overeating, binge-watching TV and not exercising regularly). Unfortunately, our altered lifestyles have also taken a toll on our dogs, including their eating habits, activity level and weight gain, which can affect their quality of life.
One study found that with people spending more time at home, treats were often given as a form of love, and more than half of people say they’ve been giving their pets treats for no apparent reason. A recent survey from Hill’s Pet Nutrition, conducted in partnership with Kelton Global, found that while pet obesity has been on the rise for years, COVID-19 has intensified the issue. According to veterinarians, more than 71% of pet professionals say the pandemic has impacted the way pets eat.
Since the start of COVID-19, one-third of owners with an overweight pet say their pet became overweight during the pandemic. More concerningly, nearly two in three veterinarians say most owners act surprised or even defensive when learning that their pet is overweight.
In North America, obesity is the most common preventable disease in dogs. Approximately 25% of the general canine population is obese, with nearly half of dogs aged 5-11 years old being over their ideal weight. Dogs are considered technically obese when they weigh 20% or more above their ideal body weight.
Obesity shortens a dog’s life and makes him more likely to develop disease. It was always accepted that heavy dogs had a shorter lifespan than lean dogs, usually by 6-12 months. But a large, lifetime study of Labrador retrievers found that being even moderately overweight can reduce a dog’s life expectancy by nearly two years compared with their leaner counterparts.
Fat used to be considered a relatively inactive tissue used to store excess energy calories and adding to body mass. Recent evidence, however, revealed that fat tissue is actually biologically active. Fat secretes inflammatory hormones and creates oxidative stress on the body’s tissue, both of which contribute to many diseases. Thinking of obesity as a chronic, low-level inflammatory condition is a new approach.
Obese dogs develop an increased risk for:
• Many types of cancer, diabetes mellitus, heart disease and hypertension.
• Osteoarthritis, and contributes to faster degeneration of affected joints.
• Urinary bladder stones.
• Anesthetic complications, as they are less heat tolerant.
Before starting any exercise or weight reduction program for your dog, consult your veterinarian. Your vet will assist you with an accurate assessment of your dog’s current weight status and the ideal goal weight. Your vet will also diagnose whether there are any underlying medical issues contributing to the increased weight, such as hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland) or Cushing’s disease (overactive adrenal glands). Your vet will form a plan to achieve balanced weight loss and create an exercise program individualized for your dog’s needs.
If it’s determined that your dog is technically obese, your vet might make specific suggestions for certain types of food made to help with healthy and safe weight reduction in dogs. In cases of obesity, it isn’t appropriate to simply reduce the volume of food, as this could cause malnourishment over time.
It’s important to feed your dog a nutritional product that has lower overall caloric density yet still maintains an appropriate nutrient balance. Your veterinary health care team can help you determine which diet and nutritional products are best suited for your dog, and for how long.
Proper portion size must be determined, and treats should make up no more than 10% of your dog’s daily calorie intake. Fresh or frozen green beans, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as air-popped popcorn, all make excellent snacks if approved by your veterinarian.
Consistent weigh-ins every three to four weeks at minimum are important to verify weight loss, ensuring that weight loss is neither too rapid nor excessive.
Once an ideal body weight and condition has been achieved, it’s important to maintain that weight. Your veterinarian can help you find an appropriate food and portion for weight maintenance.
Yo-yo weight loss and gain is no healthier for dogs than it is for humans. The benefits of normalizing body weight and condition make the effort well worth it.
Keeping active and fit is important for both people and dogs. The most recommended and safest exercise to improve fitness is walking. Walking improves muscular strength, circulation, memory and weight loss. It increases energy, helps with sleep and reduces stress. The American Heart Association recommends that people walk a minimum of 150 minutes per week.
In 2018, the American Kennel Club developed the AKC Fit Dog program, encouraging people and their dogs to walk together on a regular basis to improve their health and strengthen their bond. Dogs and people in good shape are expected to walk for at least 30 minutes, five times per week, for a total of at least 150 minutes for approximately three months. For dogs or people who would benefit from a shorter walk (i.e.,seniors), they’re expected to walk with their dog for about 15 minutes per session (two sessions per day), at least 10 times per week for at least three months. Visit the AKC website to learn more about participating in the AKC Fit Dog program: https://www.akc.org/sports/akc-family-dog-program/akc-fit-dog/
Staying fit and active is good for you and your dog. A dog with a healthy weight will live a longer, happier and healthier life.