Obese dog in Morocco. Photo by Jeremy Vandel via Flickr.We’ve all heard about the obesity epidemic in the United States. Movies like “Supersize Me” and “Fast Food Nation,” TV shows like “The Biggest Loser,” “Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition,” and “My 600-lb Life,” as well as First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-childhood-obesity campaign, have done a pretty good job of driving the point home. What you may not know is that canine and feline obesity is just as real, and just as big a problem. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, an estimated 53% of adult dogs and 55% of cats are classified as overweight or obese, and the majority of pet owners are either unaware or in denial of the very real danger this poses to their beloved companions. In this blog, we’re going to help you understand what pet obesity is, how to recognize it, the health risks it creates, and what to do about it.

Generally, a dog is diagnosed as clinically obese when it’s 15-20% above what would be considered its ideal weight. (Ideal weights for many popular breeds can be found here.) In addition to body weight, body condition is taken into consideration by vets when evaluating a pet’s status. Vets will look for whether or not the ribs are palpable, if the dog has a defined waistline when viewed from above, whether the abdomen is tucked up (creating a slope that angles up towards the hindquarters), and if there are extra fatty deposits on the body (particularly on the lower back, tail, neck, and limbs).

Here are some quick facts on pet obesity:

  • Some breeds, such as labs, are more prone to obesity.
  • Obesity can begin as a puppy, and obese puppies between 9 and 12 months of age are 1.5 times more likely to be obese as an adult than puppies at a normal weight.
  • Female dogs are more prone to obesity than males; one study showed that more than 60% of obese dogs are female.
  • Dogs that live in a house with other dogs are less likely to develop obesity than a dog that’s the only pet.

One of the biggest difficulties in recognizing obesity in our pets, much like recognizing it in ourselves, is that we are seeing our pet every single day, and so the small, progressive weight gain can go relatively unnoticed. Obese dog. Photo by Lisa Cyr via Flickr.How many of us have thought we’d only gained a few pounds until we were confronted with a photo that made our eyes widen with the realization that a few pounds was more like 20? Same goes for our pets. We often don’t realize that they’ve been putting on weight because it’s a generally such a gradual process. (Note: if your pet suddenly puts on a LOT of weight, make sure to get him to the vet, as it could be an indicator of a serious illness or hormonal imbalance, such as a thyroid disorder.) But typically the weight gain is a slow process, and we laugh it off when people call our pet chubby or fat, and don’t really think much of it. Then comes that fateful day at the vet when we’re blindsided by the announcement that Fido is, in fact, obese.

So, once we’re confronted with that diagnosis, what do we do? And why should we care? The answer to the latter is the same for our pet as it is for us: excess weight opens the door to a host of health problems. In fact, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention maintains that as few as five pounds above a dog’s ideal weight can put it at risk for type 2 diabetes, respiratory and heart disease, osteoarthritis, ligament injuries, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and many forms of cancer (especially intra-abdominal cancers). Extra weight can affect a dog’s energy level and playfulness, and ultimately shorten a dog’s life (by as much as 2.5 years!). We love our dogs, and obviously want as much happy, healthy time with them as possible, and keeping them at their ideal weight is one of the best ways to accomplish that.

Obese dog. Photo by Jim Whimpey via Flickr.When it comes to helping your dog lose weight, the first place to start is with your veterinarian. It’s important for your dog to get a full physical to determine if there are any underlying factors contributing to his weight gain (such as thyroid or adrenal disorders). If your dog gets a clean bill of health, your vet will work with you to create a custom diet plan that will generally include restricted, scheduled food intake, and possibly a prescription food in a weight-loss formula.

Getting your pup on this new diet plan can often be easier said than done. Many dogs are beggars, and will give you those big ol’ puppy dog eyes until you break down and give them a treat or table scraps (which is a big no-no). Some may whine or cry or be disruptive, and it may seem easier to just give them what they want. Unfortunately, when you have a dog on a diet, YOU have to be the one with all the discipline. Not fair, we know, but we promise you that the end result is worth it. Here are some tips and tricks from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention that may help you deal with a difficult dieter:

  • Don’t use a self-feeder. It’s pretty much an unlimited candy machine for an overweight dog. If your situation requires you to do so, use an automated feeder instead, which you can program to release a specific amount of food at programmed times or intervals.
  • When your dog begs for food, offer it affection instead. Much like people, dogs can often use food to fill an emotional need, and by playing or cuddling with your pup, you might just break that association.
  • Try distracting your dog when he begs by taking him for a walk; he just might forget he wanted food in the first place!
  • Feed small meals frequently, and for dogs that like to wake you up in the middle of the night begging for food, make sure to feed them right before bed. You’ll find that doing so will also get your dog on an elimination schedule, which will be helpful for you in planning walks (and avoiding accidents).
  • If the food bowl is empty and you’re being stared down by those big, sad eyes, compromise by adding a few kibbles to the bowl – no more than ten or fifteen; just enough for a small snack.
  • Try offering veggies like raw baby carrots, celery, broccoli, or asparagus as a snack or treat. Dogs love crunchy treats, and this offers them a healthy alternative to packaged, store-bought treats (which tend to be the opposite of nutritious).
  • Try offering fresh water instead of food. Many dogs love fresh water, and it will hydrate them, fill them up a bit, and hopefully distract them from the empty food bowl.

Another important thing to note: if you have multiple dogs, unless they’re all obese and on the same diet plan, you’ll most likely have to feed them in separate rooms to make sure that you’re able to tell who’s eating what (and how much). It’s a bit of a hassle, true, but it’s best and safest for all the dogs, as some diet dog foods might not provide sufficient caloric intake for a healthy, active dog, and overweight dogs may have a tendency to steal their companion’s food (and cheat on their diet).

Increasing your dog’s daily exercise (and exercising more effectively) will also more than likely be part of your dog’s diet plan. Walking for weight loss is a lot different than a typical walk in the park with your dog; you should keep the leash short (generally within two to four feet of your body) Jogger and his dogs. Photo by Don DeBold via Flickr.and maintain a pace of about 12-15 minutes per mile. It may seem like a lot for your dog, but remember, the majority of dogs were made for this. The hard part is keeping your dog at this pace when there are so many distractions like chipmunks, other dogs, fire hydrants, etc. Many people find that head halters work well for this, as they can offer more control over the dog. Try taking your walk in two “legs” – the first at a brisk pace for exercise, then the last little bit at a leisurely pace so your pup can stop and smell the roses, so to speak.

With a good diet and proper exercise, most dogs are able to slim down to their ideal weight within a year; some within six to eight months. Just remember, before starting your dog on any diet or exercise plan, take it to the vet for a physical and consult. Your vet will be able to custom-tailor a plan that takes into consideration your dog’s unique nutritional needs, and will follow up as needed to assess any new needs or concerns that may emerge over the course of the weight loss process.

For more information on pet obesity, check out these great sites:

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention

Pet Weight Translator and Pet-to-Human Weight Equivalent Charts

Weight Reduction in Dogs, by Dr. Ernest Ward, Jr.

Calories in Dog and Cat Foods

Body Assessment Rating for Canines

Photo credits, top to bottom:

Jeremy Vandel via Flickr

Lisa Cyr via Flickr.

Don DeBold via Flickr

Jim Whimpey via Flickr.