Slim down your stout pet.
– by Shirin Merchant
Sliver’s* (names have been changed to protect owner and dog privacy) day starts at six in the morning with three slices of buttered bread. Through the day the dog happily consumes a breakfast of porridge with full fat milk, lunch consisting of five chapattis, three cupfuls of rice and half a kilo of mince, high tea consists of a packet of biscuits (sugar-coated) and more milk and finally dinner, which is lunch repeated. In between, the dog snacks on potato chips, pizza, mithai and fried puris.
Sliver is a misleading name for this forty-kilo Labrador. Sliver’s vet opines that he is her fattest client till date. His owner, Mrs. Batliwala* begs to differ, “Sliver may be a wee bit overweight but then he is just like me; both of us live to eat and both of us are nice and ‘well-fed’”, she argues, “If either of us lost any weight, the neighbours would think we were ill!” Sliver is not alone. Woof! estimates that three out of ten pet dogs in Mumbai city are overweight.
Most dogs pile on the pounds for about the same reasons as humans – too much food and too little exercise. Pet owners are wont to show their love towards their pet with food. Pets make the most of it by perfecting the art of begging for food. Add to that a sedentary lifestyle and what you soon get is an unfit, overweight dog. Certain breeds like Labrador Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Beagles, Basset Hounds, Pugs, Dachshunds and Miniature Poodles are particularly susceptible to obesity and need extra care to stay slim and healthy.
If your dog is on a sensible diet and gets plenty of exercise but is still overweight, it could be due to certain health conditions; diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, hypothalamic or pituitary dysfunction, hyperadrenocortism and Cushing’s syndrome can be contributing factors to a dog being overweight. Hormonal conditions can also cause a dog to put on weight. If you suspect that this is the case, it is advisable to get a vet to give your dog a complete and extensive check-up. Often, certain medications, like steroids can affect weight gain. Ask your vet about such possible side effects if your dog is on medication.
Obesity is a frightening disease because, in addition to causing serious discomfort and body dysfunction, it exacerbates other diseases. Research has increasingly shown that obesity directly or indirectly contributes to a shorter life span in dogs. Fat dogs are at risk of developing cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension and congestive heart failure, respiratory disease, liver problems, diabetes and even neurological problems. Carrying too much weight also increases the severity of hip, back and joint problems. An obese dog is at risk when performing simple activities, like jumping out of a car or off the furniture, as this puts an enormous amount of strain on the joints. In fact, diagnosis of joint disorders is often what brings an animal’s weight to an owner’s and vet’s attention.
Is your dog tipping the scales?
What constitutes an obese dog? Experts say that a dog that weighs 15% more than its ideal weight is termed as an overweight dog. Since dogs vary in height, musculature and bone structure, it is difficult to estimate one correct weight for a dog of any given breed. The best way to check if your dog is overweight is to use your eyes, your hands and your common sense. Here we show you two different ways to check if your dog is overweight.
To see if your dog is trim, stand behind him and place your thumbs on the dog’s spine and fan out your fingers. With your thumbs lightly pressing down on the spine and fingers on the ribs, slide your hands gently up and down. As you start you should be able to feel the ribs slightly. Continuing down the body you should be able to feel the bumps of the two pelvic bones without pressing down too hard. If you have to squeeze through layers of fat to detect the ribs, or worse, if you cannot feel them at all, it’s time for your portly pet to shed some weight.
Profile and overhead check
Another way to check if a dog is overweight is to examine your dog’s profile. The area between the ribcage and the hips where the abdomen tucks upwards from the bottom of the ribcage to the groin is commonly referred to as the ‘tuck-up’. Fit dogs have a noticeable tuck-up area; in obese dogs it is non-distinguishable. Do keep in mind though, that the depth of the tuck-up depends on the breed of dog – hounds tend to have a deeper tuck-up whilst most breeds have a moderate tuck-up and few have a non-discernible tuck-up.
A fit dog has a definite narrowing or ‘waist’ behind the ribcage, in short, an hourglass figure. Ideally the dog should have just a thin layer of fat over the ribs.
An overweight dog has a noticeable paunch and a broad conformation. The ribs have noticeable fat; waist and tuck-up are discernible but not prominent. Fatty areas on the hips, neck and front of chest may be present.
An obese dog looks rotund when viewed from above. The abdomen protrudes from the sides and massive fat deposits accrue on the chest, legs, tail base and neck. The tuck-up is completely absent; instead the dog has a hanging belly.
Turning Fat Dog into fit fido
The first step to reducing a pet’s weight is for the owner to recognise that the dog is fat. “Owners are often unaware of a weight problem in their pet because ‘ideal body weight’ is far removed from ‘desirable body weight’, specially in our country where plump and roly-poly is appreciated more than lean and fit.” States Dr. Sangita Vengsarker-Shah, a practising vet and Mumbai’s only pet cardiologist.
If your pet is on the portly side, it is time you take corrective action. Commence by taking your dog to the vet to rule out any underlying medical problems that could be causing the obesity. Once any medical cause is ruled out, start your pet off on a controlled weight-loss programme. Here again it is imperative that you enlist the help of your vet so that he/she can help tailor the programme to your pet’s individual needs, can track progress and help with any problems that crop up along the way.
Weight-loss should be a family effort; the entire family must commit to the programme, or the programme will be doomed to failure even before it starts. There is no point in the entire family making sure that the dog gets fed a healthy, balanced diet, if Grandma sneaks him fried dhoklas and samosas at regular intervals through the day.
The vital ingredients that make up any successful weight-loss programme, in humans and in pets, are large amounts of dedication, willpower and a huge amount of patience. Avoid getting swept into the latest canine diet craze. Fad diets for people seldom work, and the same is true for dogs. Don’t put your dog on any diet without first speaking to your vet. Besides missing out on essential minerals and vitamins, a dieting dog risks losing lean muscle mass, which is vital in keeping the dog healthy and energetic. In addition, a diet that is unbalanced or completely cuts out fat can be harmful to the animal; fat is an essential nutrient in a dog’s diet. Since it is unsafe for a pet to lose weight quickly and it takes months to see results, owners must prepare for the long haul and be tough with themselves. “A healthy benchmark is to aim to reduce your pet’s weight over a period of three months as a sudden reduction of weight can be harmful”, says Dr. Priya Dahanukar, a practising vet and small animal acupuncturist in Mumbai city.
To slim down, chubby pets need to eat sensibly and exercise more. Here’s how to help them do that.
Tone that torso
Exercise is as important for pets as it is for humans. Exercise has many a benefit – it generates increased amounts of serotonin in the brain; this neurotransmitter helps in reducing the appetite. “Virtually every dog that is overweight lacks a good amount of exercise in his daily routine. A dog needs at least two sessions of thirty minutes of brisk exercise daily to keep in shape,” says Dr. Rustomjee, a practising Mumbai vet. “Sadly, very few of our dogs get that kind of exercise.” The problem is compounded by the fact that most owners leave their dog’s exercising in the hands of household help whilst they are out at work. “Owners must get actively involved with their pet if they want things to change,” says Dr. Rustomjee. According to her, only 10% of Mumbaiites exercise their dogs themselves. And those who do do it, you can see the difference in the dog immediately. So it is time that owners start taking more interest in their pets if they want them to live longer, healthier lives. An owner who cannot rouse himself from his sleep to give his pet half an hour of exercise should feel guilty about contributing to the dog’s obesity.
For most dogs, simply increasing the amount of exercise the dog already receives is enough. Take your dog for longer, brisk walks in the morning and evening, and play fetch more often. As you and your dog get fitter, you can slowly increase the length and intensity of the walks. Once your dog has lost a certain amount of weight, you can even enrol him in other dog sports such as agility and flyball classes.
Play it safe
Many owners rush into activities without taking proper safety precautions. Suddenly doubling your dog walks can lead to heat exhaustion, damaged joints, torn paw pads and sprained muscles. So increase the exercise very slowly and always under your vet’s supervision. Make sure you give your dog enough water to drink before and after exercise and monitor your pet for signs of heat exhaustion and fatigue.
Activities that can help keep your tubby pet trim.
Hiking – Going hiking with your dog is a relaxing and enjoyable way to experience the joys of nature together. Besides being great exercise for both of you, the new sights, smells and experiences keep your dog’s mind stimulated.
Swimming – Swimming is a great exercise for overweight dogs; it burns calories without putting any stress on the joints. Not all dogs take to water naturally; if your dog hasn’t been around water before, introduce him to it carefully.
Canine Agility – Dog agility brings out the athlete in both of you. You dog will stay slim and trim as he jumps over hurdles, dashes through tunnels and weaves through poles on the course. However, this sport is not for even slightly overweight dogs as it can damage their joints. Your dog will have to be slim to undertake this sport.
Obese dogs are usually fed more what they really need to survive. Dogs are opportunistic scavengers and will often eat whatever is offered to them. As keeper of the calories it is up to you to control how much and what your dog is eating. Free feeding – keeping the dog’s food out all day long isn’t a good idea. Not only does it get the dog into the habit of eating all day long, but it many cases, the dog will eat the food out of boredom, not hunger. Feed your pet only at mealtimes, leaving the food down for just ten minutes before picking it up. If you think your pet will feel weak without all the ‘excess’ food, try feeding smaller meals twice or three times a day. Not only will that keep him satiated but smaller meals will also boost his metabolism, enabling him to burn calories faster.
Just like humans, individual dogs vary in their metabolic rate and some dogs need less food than others do. If you are feeding your pet a commercial diet, you should read the labels carefully, they often recommend feeding more food than what your dog really needs. The guidelines are high because the dogs that the food is tested on get plenty of exercise. Don’t feed your dog a diet for active dogs if his only exercise is two sedentary walks a day. Also if circumstances such as injury, illness or bad weather curtail your dog’s activities, cut back a bit on calories till the situation becomes normal. Older dogs need a special diet that keeps in mind their geriatric needs.
Cut that fat
In most cases, just decreasing the dog’s food intake is not enough – a change in menu is needed. Too often a dog is fed a diet high in fats and carbohydrates, leading to weight gain. According to Dr. Rustomjee, it is not uncommon for a dog to relish fatty foods such as offal, paneer, malai, butter and mithai on a daily basis as part of the main diet. The trick to a successful diet change is to keep the protein intake the same, whilst reducing carbohydrates and fats. By simply adding more dietary fibre to your dog’s food, you can keep him satiated without adding extra calories. So reduce the amount of white rice, idlis and bread you feed him and fill the bowl with vegetables, brown rice, jowar and bajra chapattis, fruits and vegetable soup.
Another option is to switch to a commercially prepared low-calorie diet. This will reduce the calories the animal eats whilst keeping the portion size the same – thereby reducing any hunger pangs. Is it important to restrict diet foods to the amount recommended – eating too much diet food is still overeating.
Keeping the weight off
- It is often safer for a slimmed down dog to stay on a reduced calorie diet, although he may need greater amounts to account for the increased activity that usually accompanies weight loss.
- Avoid feeding table scraps and keep treats to a minimum. If you do happen to split a burger with your pooch, cut back on his next meal to compensate.
- Routine monitoring of the dog’s weight and body condition is needed to prevent the kilos creeping on again.
- Reward good behaviour and training with love and attention rather than treats and snacks.
- Keep up the amount of exercise your pet gets. Don’t go slack in that department.
Losing excessive weight can enrich your dog’s life. Most owners notice a positive change in the dog’s behaviour and temperament. The dogs play more, sleep less and become lighter on their feet. As Mrs. Anjaria, an owner who successfully got her Dachshund, Timmy, to lose five kilos puts it, “When Timmy lost weight he gained back his youthful energy and his puppyish ways – it’s the best gift we could give our dog to show how much we love him.”
Switching over safely
Whenever a change in diet is made, it should be done gradually. This helps avoid digestive upsets and food refusals that can occur if a diet is changed abruptly. The experts advise switching foods by gradually mixing an increasing amount of the new food with the old one over a seven-day period until the dog is receiving only the new food. Keep in mind that consistency in diet is more important than variety. Frequent changes in the dog’s diet are not necessary or recommended; they only contribute to making the dog a finicky eater and increase the potential for stomach upsets.
One of the biggest contributors to a dog’s obesity is the treats and snacks that he is fed. Owners often mistake food as a substitute for attention or a cure for guilt. If you absolutely cannot resist the sad melting eyes and the mournful look on your dogs face when food is around, at least make sure the snack is a healthy one. Carrot sticks, unbuttered popcorn, apple slices, banana, fruits, steamed broccoli. Pizza, ice cream, potato chips, cheese.
No Chubby Puppies. Please!
One of the most important means of preventing obesity in adult dogs is to make sure that they are not chubby puppies. The development of too many fat cells in a puppy, through overfeeding, usually causes obesity in adult dogs. Teach and reward your pup’s good behaviour with more love and attention instead of food and encourage it to play lots of games as a pup. This will set the pace for a fitter dog later in life.