The MyStetho blog

Help for overweight dogs

For stylist Marissa Gimeno, 32, of Brooklyn, New York, it didn't take the help of a rocket scientist - or even a veterinarian - for her to realize that her 8-year-old dog years old, Lolita, needed to slim down. "She was about 2 pounds overweight," she said. "For a Chihuahua, that's hard to miss."

Is your dog overweight?
To find out if your pet could lose a few pounds, feel their ribs and spine. You should be able to locate both with only a thin layer of fat separating the skin from the bones. If you can't find the rib cage, you have an overweight dog.

Ask your veterinarian to assess your dog's size at each check-up. Once your dog reaches maturity, ask for his optimal weight. Typically, 15% above this weight is obese; zero to 15% is overweight. If your dog falls into either category, he's not alone. According to a 2011 study, 53% of dogs are overweight or obese.

Tips for weighing your dog
Hit the scale periodically (weekly or monthly) to make sure your dog is on track.

"Your vet will be happy to let you use the scale in the office," says Louise Murray, DVM, director of medicine at ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital.

If that doesn't work for you, step on a scale at home. Then walk again, this time holding your pet. The difference between the two weights is your dog's weight. For small breeds, invest in a baby scale.

“Regardless of the method used, it is imperative that your pet is weighed on the same scale consistently,” says Todd R. Tams, DVM and Chief Medical Officer of VCA Antech.

Overweight dogs: blame the breed
Some breeds are prone to obesity, while others (Ghounds, German Shepherds, Yorkshire Terriers) are generally lean. Small breeds with a propensity for heaviness include:
Cairn Terriers
scottish terriers
Cavalier King Charles Spaniels

Medium breeds:
cocker spaniels
Basset Hounds

Large breeds:
gold scavengers

Giant Races:
Bernese Mountain Dogs
Saint Bernards

Do you make your dog fat?
Another non-genetic reason for an overweight dog is more obvious: YOU, the owner, can abuse your pet, most likely with treats or people food.

“Food is love, and people want to make their pets happy,” Tams says. “Very often it is not the official dog food that is causing the weight problem; it's all the extra treats or snacks between meals,” Murray says.

Portion control is essential
Knowing the right portion of food for your overweight dog is imperative to success. Companies often place information on labels or include graphics on their websites. But since many variables, such as size, factor into the equation, ask your veterinarian for advice on how often and how much to feed your dog.

Put your dog on a diet
After verifying that your four-legged friend needs to lose weight, think about everything he eats on a daily basis. “Make an honest assessment, covering all treats and snacks, including those given by other family members, neighbors, dog sitters and dog walkers,” Murray says. "You may find that all you have to do is cut them out."

You don't need to cut out treats altogether. “Be realistic — if you or your family love giving them away, a no-treating policy is unlikely to succeed,” Murray says. "Choose healthy alternatives, like vegetables or rice cakes, and decide at the start of each day exactly how much the dog is allowed; put that amount in a bowl, and when they're gone, they're gone."

Another tactic to try is to reduce portions. Murray recommends immediately reducing daily food intake by 15% to 20% for a period of six to eight weeks, then analyzing the results. Plus, your veterinarian can calculate the exact amount of calories your pet needs per day to lose weight based on its current size, ideal body weight, energy level, and overall health.

Don't give in to begging
If your overweight dog whines and cries for more food, hold on tight. “It sways a lot of owners,” says Tams.

Murray says, "Your dog will definitely whine if he knows it will get him more treats and snacks." If you serve the right portion, more food will only contribute to weight problems.
Diet Foods for Dogs: Making the Switch
If you've tried all of these things and they haven't worked, it might be time for a diet dog food.

Gimeno attributes certain brands of food and lack of exercise to Lolita's weight problem. And because small breeds are more susceptible to heart failure, she decided to visit her vet and take action.

With a diet of organic brands, such as Newman's Own and AvoDerm, and more walks in the park, Lolita shed her excess weight. Both Murray and Tams advocate this type of diet for dogs.

Consult your vet on the right food for your dog. Factors such as height, age and general health dictate the type or brand. Your vet may even suggest a prescription dog food.

"Certain diet foods high in certain types of fiber can help a dog feel full while ingesting fewer calories," says Murray. If you decide to switch to diet dog food, do it slowly, each day mixing in more and more healthier foods.

Exercise your overweight dog
Exercise is as important for animals as it is for humans. If you don't have time, hire a dog walker or a teenager looking for extra money.

“Dog daycares are a great option if everyone is away during the day,” says Tams. "Your dog can run and play all day."

Tams recommends 10 to 15 minutes of activity several times a day. If you live in a hot region, exercise early in the morning or late at night. For heavier dogs with joint problems or those who overheat easily, swimming is a great alternative.

When to Try an Rx for Your Overweight Dog
If diet and exercise don't work, medication might help, but only as a last resort.

Tams recommends Pfizer Animal Health's drug Slentrol. “We always try to exercise and change our diet first,” he says. "But some animals have seen weight loss with Slentrol, which helps decrease appetite and fat absorption."

Still not losing? Maybe it's medical
If eliminating unhealthy snacks and table scraps, serving diet dog food, increasing physical activity, and medications don't do the trick, an underlying health issue has likely triggered weight gain. "That's why it's so important to see a vet who can do blood work," says Tams. Your veterinarian will check:

Low thyroid level
Hormonal imbalances, such as Cushing's disease, excess adrenal hormones
Just like humans, overweight dogs can face a litany of health issues, so a diet can save your pet's life. Potentially devastating consequences of obesity include:

Difficulty breathing
Increased risk of heat stroke
Orthopedic problems
Compromised immune system
Reduction in service life
Mammary tumors (especially in unspayed females)
Skin diseases
Heart problems
High blood pressure
How long will it take to see results?
Aim for gradual weight loss and expect significant improvement to take several months. “The ideal would be a loss of 1% to 2% of the initial weight per week,” says Tams.

Once you're successful, maintain the weight loss by sticking to what you know. "Hopefully, while achieving your dog's weight loss goals, you've both developed healthier habits," Murray says. “Stick with this: avoid snacks and treats between meals, regular exercise and portion controlled food. It is essential for the whole family to adopt healthy habits for dogs for long-term weight management.