The subject of obesity, whether in humans or dogs, is very controversial. Alas it is a sign of the times and needs to be tackled. Giving people practical advice on how to avoid this problem, or how to deal with it should they realise that their dog is obese, can have dramatic effect on the quality and length of your dog’s life.
Obviously, this is a huge subject, so in this article we will cover a few of the essentials. Obesity can not only affect the quality of your dog’s life in the short term, but it can also lead to many associated, and serious, health conditions, both physical and emotional / behavioural.
So, what is an obese dog?
This is actually more complicated than it may sound! Firstly, a ‘healthy’ weight for a dog can vary for many reasons:
- Breed of dog: some breeds, such as hounds, are naturally designed to be skinny, whereas other breeds, such as Pugs or a Bulldog, naturally carry a lot more muscle and will look bigger.
- Time of year – no animal is designed to stay the same weight all year round. Seasonal variation is completely normal – most animals (I can resonate with this) will aim to store fat leading into the winter months, and will be leaner in warmer summer months. Food is likely to be scarce in the winter, and temperatures lower meaning the requirement for extra energy reserves. Therefore, dogs are adapted to retain and store fat for times of scarcity or stress.
Figure 1: How to Check if your Dog is Overweight or Obese
The secret is to know your animals well Below is a guide for a dog.
As general guide, for most ‘average’ dog breeds, if the last 2 ribs can be easily felt, without pressing hard, and they are just visible in movement, but not prominent, this is normally a ‘good weight’. However, again, we do advise caution with any simplistic approach, as every breed is different, holding different fat and muscle levels which will affect their visual appearance.
Overweight vs Obese?
Again, this is subjective, and both should be taken seriously. Obviously, an overweight dog can quickly progress to an ‘obese’ dog, if lifestyle changes are not implemented. For the benefit of this article, we are classifying obese as:
- When the extra fat / weight that your dog is carrying is manifesting mobility, health and / or behavioural concerns;
- When the extra weight is affecting your dog’s quality of life.
Taking steps to make changes as soon as you notice your dog is overweight, will really help avoid many serious long-term problems. It is a good idea to check your dog against the above chart (or a similar breed specific weight chart for your dog) regularly. When we see our dogs everyday problems can creep up on us, so keeping a regular check of your dog’s weight will ensure that changes are noticed quickly so that you can take action quickly.
We have seen above that no animal is designed to remain the same weight all year around, just as no animal, of whatever species, would eat the same calories intake and exactly the same meal every day of their lives. Food intake should vary according to many factors, including exercise, external stress etc. In nature, it is completely normal for dogs to have forced fasts fairly regularly – dogs in nature would not be faced with constant abundant supplies of food without having to work really hard to hunt it. Similarly, they would not be loving in centrally heated homes! If an animal is surrounded by abundance all the time, then fat will accumulate, and quickly.
Please also see our blog on “Pancreatitis. How Can I Prevent It or Support My Dog If It Has It?” In here we also give advice on intermittent fasting and how this can help digestive health.
What Causes Obesity?
Obesity is not just calorie intake against energy output, as there are so many contributing factors including:
- Quality and composition of the food e.g. amount of carbohydrates and fats, fibres, organic or conventional, raw or heated/cooked/extruded etc.
- Lack of certain nutrients like Taurine and Leucine
- Hormonal imbalances – which can be caused by multiple factors including neutering / spaying; diet / vitamin / mineral imbalances; stress of all sorts;
- Chemical Contamination e.g. from heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, other chemical contamination e.g. products used on your dog or in its environment; certain medications • Lack of sunlight
- Lack of breed appropriate exercise
Common Health Problems Associated with Obesity
There are many physical and behavioural problems linked with obesity. Some of the most common problems include:
- Restricted mobility / increased structural problems
- Increased cardio-vascular demand
- Decreased / lack of lust for motion
- Ultimate coach potato character (can be linked to depression / anxiety)
- Diabetes (type 2)
- High blood pressure
- Heart and respiratory disease
- Kidney disease and failure
- Depression / behaviour problems
- And many more!
Typical, when your dog is overweight, it will not be able to expend enough energy. The body of your dog has a way of keeping itself fit – your dog is designed to move a certain way every day e.g. just as a horse would gallop madly for a while then settle calmly to graze, a dog is designed to play energetically / hunt then settle and sleep. These sharp bursts of energy are really important for a dogs structural and cardiac health, as are longer walking exercise, with time allowed for sniffing for mental stimulation. More on exercise in another blog!
When your dog does not have enough opportunity to play or hunt, some key hormones involved in weight and stress regulation e.g. cortisol, adrenaline, nor-adrenalin, leptin etc. get out of balance, which causes white fat tissue to accumulate. Predators like dogs need more nor-adrenalin stimulation through hunting, catching prey and eating it, or through playing a similar game like fetching or short bursts of pulling, which has a huge impact on energy expenditure. Remember that the body can down-regulate regeneration and repair of the internal organs if adrenalin (anxiety) overpowers nor-adrenalin. This imbalance occurs quite often and can escalate quickly in a multi-dog environment like kennels or shelters, as well in environment with dominant/harsh children, noise and other mental stressors. On the other hand, a healthy pack can help the dog by regulating the impulses according to their nature.
The brown fat tissue is used as and when needed, but the white fat tissue is generally stored for longer and can build up to dangerous levels, with associated health effects.
Fat soluble toxins are stored in the fat tissue, as the body is not planning to use the fat straight away, the fat deposits are the bodies safest option to store any toxins that it can’t get rid of straight away, as it then keeps the toxins out of circulation, to be dealt with later. However, if the accumulated fat levels are too high, the associated toxin levels will also be high, and as the fat is utilised the toxins can be released causing serious problems like liver damage, low energy, vomiting, diarrhoea, reduced quality of blood composition, hair loss etc., depending on the type of toxin.
If your dog is overweight, it is much more susceptible to joint problems due to the stress the extra weight puts on its structural system. In addition, extra weight affects the way your dog can actually move, and when it can’t move in a natural gait due to excess weight this puts unnatural stress forces on the joints. As joints become stressed, early arthritic changes can occur, leading to extra pain and inflammation, causing the dog to move even less.
Normally overweight dogs can get quickly obese if a high energy diet e.g. too high in fat, is fed. If the ingested fat is not used straight away for energy / exercise, it is stored immediately. Many people don’t realise that a Labrador is designed to have up to 60km per day range of movement, and have appetite and metabolism accordingly! So, if your lab does not have a lot of exercise (impossible for city dwellers), weight will quickly accumulate, as the dog’s instincts are telling it to eat a lot, but it is not expelling nearly enough energy, so the whole body quickly gets out of balance
Quality of Food and Obesity
It is obvious to most people that the quantity of food fed will affect your dog’s weight, but the quality of food also has a big impact on your animals’ weight and health. One such example is taurine. Taurine in your dog’s body reduces the amount of fat that is stored in the body, so feeding foods rich in protein and taurine and lower in fat (as a dog’s wild prey would be), will ensure your dog’s body processes the fat quickly, reducing any fat build up. Correct taurine levels in your dog ensures its body actively metabolises any extra fat in the body, because the hormones signal the body to utilise the fat rather than store it. We will talk more about taurine in our DCM (Dilated Cardiomyopathy) Blog.
In an obese cat or dog, the hormone system is completely out of balance, resulting in many problems. One example is that the hormone called leptin can’t control the amount of fat anymore, so the dog’s body stores all the fat it ingests.
Factors such as neutering can also obviously affect the hormone balance, and hence fat metabolism. When mobility levels start to decrease, due to excess fat accumulation, hormonal imbalances etc. then the energy expenditure drops even more, then the problems really escalates from there. Sometimes a problem can be quite severe before a dog owner realises that their dog is struggling with pain etc. Knowing your dog well and performing lots of touch-based examinations will alert you to any problems such as lumps, pain, fat accumulation early.
What about supplementation?
The starting point for keeping your dog healthy should always be its diet and exercise Your dog’s diet should be species / breed appropriate, unprocessed as possible and organic where possible. Adequate daily exercise for the breed and age, to ensure appropriate mental and physical activity is also key. Supplements can also play an important role, especially when joint / structural pain is limiting mobility and the quality of life.
Off the shelf supplements often consist of Glucosamines, MSM, and chondroitin sulphate. Gelatine is also commonly used. One of the advantages of gelatine or taking collagen is that they contain all the building blocks needed to repair the joints and connective tissues, which can increase mobility and decrease inflammation. However, thinking that by giving your dog collagen you can replace the connective tissue is not correct – the collagen that the dog eats has to be broken down to the amino acids and then rebuilt – and for that it also needs extra Vitamin C, silica etc.
Chondroitin sulphate is actually the extract that you get from the cartilage of the animals, so it again provides extra building blocks for the cartilage but again the dogs needs to be broken down and rebuilt, and for this your dog also needs to be able to produce adequate hyaluronic acid (HA), as without HA our dog cannot produce connective tissue. Normally with enough sugars in the food every animal can produce enough HA – that is never normally the issue. The main issue for domestic dogs is normally a deficiency in Vitamin C, which prevents them rebuilding connective tissue.
Reducing the inflammation is very important so there are also many herbal supplements such as turmeric that can help. These will be covered in detail in separate blogs. Making food choices that aren’t triggering inappropriate inflammation is obviously key.
Dogs can show a lot of inflammation due to inappropriate or contaminated protein sources used in foods and supplements. Examples include when dogs consume factory farmed animals, the animal they are consuming are in an inflamed, stressed state, often full of toxic chemicals etc. All of these toxins and stress hormones get into the dog when they eat it, typical low-quality chicken or beef are prime examples. The poor-quality industrial food that is fed to the animals that are then subsequently fed to the dogs creates a chain reaction of stress in the body, which causes hormonal imbalances, inflammation, behaviour issues to name but a few. This ecosystem of bad choices can result in all the problems we mention above.
In summary, to avoid or tackle excess weight and Obesity follow these following steps:
- Feed good quality, clean (toxin free) species appropriate diets
- Limit exposure to external and internal toxins and remove toxins from the body
- Reduce inflammation
- Bringing joy back into exercise
- Check your dog’s body condition regularly so that any problems can be tackled quickly
- Take gradual action to reduce weight – no crash diets
- Build up exercise slowly to a suitable level for the age and breed of dog – and ensure exercise is consistent – 30 mins extra walk, short games, playing with other dogs, etc helps a great amount to reduce the stress and get rid of the extra calories
- Consider hormonal imbalances and seek vet advice when needed
- As well as looking at fat levels, feed low starch and sugar diets (as they would eat naturally) – no dogs have evolved to eat high starch levels.
- Most all dry pet food is at least 40% carbohydrate, whereas natural levels in a wild prey would typically be a maximum of 4% – your dogs’ body simply can’t cope with this discrepancy, so make sensible food choices!