Canine obesity is a growing health concern for veterinarians, and is in fact the primary nutritional disorder seen in dogs. A 2012 survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that 58.3 percent of cats and 52.5 percent of dogs in the United States were overweight. The ready availability of unhealthy food for dogs, and the positive feedback we receive when we share our own food with them, sets many dog owners up for disaster where their dogs nutrition is concerned. To be classified as overweight, dogs only have to be on average 10-15% heavier than they should be – an easily reached threshold.
Appropriate weight for dogs is calculated by eye, rather than by human scales such as BMI. This is usually done by grading a dog’s body shape on a scale called the ‘body condition score’. This score runs from one to nine, or sometimes one to five, with the healthiest weight dogs in the middle, underweight dogs closer to one, and morbidly obese dogs at the top.
Looking at this scale it is easy to see that many dogs are overweight, often without their owners even knowing. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 45.3 percent of cat owners and 45.8 percent of dog owners assessed their pet as being normal weight when their veterinarian assessed the pet as being overweight. This discrepancy between reality and perception creates a difficult gap that often is not being bridged.
Problems Associated with Canine Obesity
At a basic level being obese restricts the normal behaviours we would expect from a dog. Carrying extra weight means it is more difficult for dogs to play and express themselves, and even this simple reduction in the ability to be themselves should be motivation enough for us to keep our canine companions fit and healthy.
Unfortunately, however, this restriction of behaviour is not the only consequence of canine obesity. As we know from human health, there are many serious secondary problems associated with carrying extra weight, and these problems are also seen in dogs:
- Diabetes. Diabetes is a failure of the body to control sugar levels within the blood. This is a very dangerous condition and requires intensive and often expensive medical management.
- Arthritis. Arthritis is a degeneration of the tissues of the joint that occurs due to wear and tear. Being overweight puts much more strain on joints, leading to early development of arthritis. This in turn often leads to reduced exercise tolerance, and can exacerbate the original weight issues.
- Heart disease. Carrying a lot of extra weight puts strain on the circulatory system. The heart has to work harder, leading to a higher risk of failure.
- Breathing difficulties. The harder the body has to work, the more oxygen is required. This means the lungs have to put in more effort to support an obese dog’s need than a slimmer dog. It is also more difficult to breathe if you have a lot of fat around the ribcage, especially during sleep.
- Heat stroke. Dogs cannot sweat and therefore need to lose excess body heat through panting. This can be difficult, especially in hot conditions and bearing in mind they always have a fur coat on! Being overweight means dogs are at a higher risk of overheating. Rising body temperature can be really dangerous, and can cause multiple organ failure and even death.
- Anaesthetic risk. Although any anaesthetic comes with risk, having underlying health conditions, including obesity, increases the risk of death under general anaesthetic.
All of these combine into a severe reduction in both quality and quantity of life for an obese dog.
Rising awareness of human health concerns associated with obesity is helpful for highlighting the concerns around animal obesity. Although there is still a chronic lack of awareness surrounding obesity, there are more management strategies available to help dogs and owners than there ever have been before.
Veterinary approved diets have been developed, both with calorie restriction and that act on the metabolic genetics of the dogs themselves. Removing unhealthy treats is a key part of this, and one that can be very difficult to do!
Naturally, one of the most important strategies for weight reduction is an increase in exercise level. Unfortunately, in many cases, part of the problem is a lack of time to adequately exercise the dog in the first place. If time is a concern then it can be very difficult for owners to manage the increased exercise demands of their dog, including the fact that a lighter and healthier dog will often want to walk further and exercise more frequently!
How can we manage this issue?
Dog weight vests are a great tool to increase the calorie burn from a current exercise program without a large increase in time commitment from the owner. Carrying extra weight in the form of a well-fitted vest increases muscle work-out as well as promoting cardiovascular health. Increased weight pushes dogs closer to their capacity, resulting in the steady, sustained exercise that leads to fat burning.
Of course, vests should be used with the dog in mind. Building up weight slowly, making sure not to allow dogs to overheat, and not using weight vests as a substitute for exercise are all very important considerations for healthy and maintainable use of weight vests as a weight loss tool.
Used correctly, however, weight vests can be an invaluable asset to an exercise regime. They work on improving weight management, owner compliance, and also result in a contented, well exercised dog. Weight vests should be considered as part of any weight loss program and are a fabulous asset to help drive forward health and happiness in our dogs.
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