I recently saw three young dogs in one evening that were so morbidly obese that they are in danger of having severe health problems if they don’t lose a significant amount of weight as rapidly as possible. We see a lot of cats and dogs with weight issues. It’s common. It’s common among pet owners, so why should it be surprising that our pets share the same problem? My concern is that if a pet is already dangerously obese when it is seven or eight years old, how bad will it be by the time it’s ten years old? Will it have a chance even to see ten years? Diabetes becomes a serious threat. Heart and lung problems are certainly much more likely in the really obese patient, and joint problems abound. A two thousand dollar surgery to repair a torn cruciate ligament is just not in the cards for a lot of pet owners. In those with a tendency for back problems, a disk problem is likely to be much more severe and the recovery process much more prolonged in an obese dog. To be honest, virtually any health problem is going to be significantly more complicated in the obese patient. (This article is about weight loss in dogs only. We’ll discuss cats in another article.)
Unfortunately we live in a society where our dogs are taught to be food-oriented. We may not succeed at teaching our dogs much with all of our training efforts, but the one thing we do drill in is that food is the single most important thing in life. From day one we offer treats for everything: treats to come, treats to stay or lie down, treats for going outside, treats for going to the bathroom, treats for coming back inside, and so on.
The biggest obstacle to losing weight is that most pet owners don’t have a clue about how to proceed. Veterinarians will test thyroid function. But thyroid supplementation isn’t the answer to obesity. Only weight loss will help. What nobody has the heart to tell you is that serious weight loss takes serious work! It’s going to take an iron will and far more time and effort than you have ever spent with your dog. To be successful, we need to institute a profound change in lifestyle, and we need to be aggressive and intense with our efforts.
Years ago I hospitalized a small dog that was nearly 100% overweight. Other than being obese, the dog was young and healthy. She was presented for breathing problems. But she also could barely walk and was just plain miserable. After doing radiographs and a complete laboratory workup and determining that the patient did not have any underlying health problems, I gave the owner my recommendation for an intense crash diet. The owner tried briefly but just didn’t have the heart to enforce my recommendations. She came back to me and begged for my help. I suggested we board the dog for a month and try to knock off as much weight as we could, and she agreed to my plan.
For the next month we boarded the dog in a cage with frequent short periods of outdoor exercise and unlimited water to drink. Three times a day the dog was given a few nuggets of diet kibble to eat, and nothing else. In a matter of about 30 days, the dog lost 40 percent of its body weight and became gradually more and more active. The breathing problems subsided and the difficulty walking vanished and when the owner picked her up at the end of the period, she could not believe the little waggling mass of legs and tail was the same dog she had left with us a month earlier. It may seem like cruel and unusual punishment, but we saved that dog’s life. I sent home explicit instructions for care and feeding, and I’m certain the dog probably gained weight again, simply because the owner obviously lacked the ability to say no. But, the proof is in the pudding. It can be done.
I don’t expect you to be able to be that aggressive and that clinical in your approach when dealing with your own dog. It’s just too difficult for most people. But the closer you can come to that kind of intense weight loss effort, the faster you will meet your goal. And the sooner you reach your goal, the sooner you can relax the intensity just a bit.
Now a few facts:
Your dog is too fat. “But why? I don’t feed him that much.” I don’t care how much you are feeding; the answer is that you are feeding too much. I get this every time from people who seem to think that their dog is fat for no reason. THERE IS ONLY ONE REASON THAT YOUR DOG IS TOO FAT. HE IS GETTING TOO MANY CALORIES AND THAT MEANS TOO MUCH FOOD. I don’t care that it’s “diet” food, I don’t care that you aren’t feeding him that much. I don’t care that he has a “thyroid condition.” Ditch the excuses and face the facts! You are overfeeding. If you’re not willing to accept this simple fact and face up to it, you are going to continue to have a fat dog. And, since he doesn’t make his own decisions about what and how much is fed, it’s YOUR fault. He has no control over how much he eats. You are in full and complete control here. All excuses notwithstanding, if you feed less, he has no choice but to eat less.
EXERCISE IS NOT THE SOLUTION. If you take your dangerously obese dog out running, you are injuring him. This is when those serious joint injuries occur – when the owner refuses to believe that the whole problem can’t be corrected with “a little exercise.” He doesn’t need exercise at this stage; HE NEEDS TO LOSE WEIGHT. Once he has lost a reasonable amount of weight, then you can start a program of careful exercise to shape him up and help him continue to shed the pounds. Often, once a morbidly obese animal loses a significant amount of weight, there is a tendency for it to become more active and the vicious cycle begins to reverse. More activity leads to increased weight loss, which results in more activity.
Now, one more point before we go on: Before undertaking an aggressive program of weight loss, your dog needs to have a complete physical exam and diagnostic workup – blood work for certain, and probably radiographs. You need to know before you start whether there are any underlying health problems that might be lurking in the background. Once you have the green light to proceed, go for it. Don’t let your husband or your wife or your child or even your veterinarian talk you into being gentle or being less aggressive with your diet. The more aggressively you approach this project the sooner you will see results and the faster you will get those “dangerous” pounds off. The faster you get the dangerous pounds off, the sooner you can ease up just a bit on the intensity (Although, once you are having success I don’t recommend you ease off until you reach your goal weight.) Pet owners virtually never have the heart to be as aggressive as they should be (let alone as aggressive as they can safely be) when it’s their own pet. It’s just a fact of life. We can’t stand to be “mean,” and we can’t stand to say “no” to our pets. That’s why they’re fat in the first place!
Let’s get started. For those of you who are ready to try, I offer up the following:
The very first step to treating your dog’s problem is to find out how much you are feeding. Frankly most people do not have a clue how much is being fed. If I tell you to cut in half the amount you are feeding, how can you cut a number in half if you don’t know what the number is? You already know you’re feeding too much. That however doesn’t answer the question of exactly “how much?”
In stepwise fashion here is what I suggest:
1) Proceed for another 7 days while you continue to feed exactly what and how you have been feeding. DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING. During this period you are going to measure every morsel, count every biscuit, record every treat that you are giving each day. WRITE IT DOWN! Count the dog food, the people food, the treats, and even count those little things you think don’t matter, so you have an explicit accounting of every item that is being fed. It’s not that hard and it’s only for one week. Everybody in the house needs to do the same thing – no cheating or you’re simply wasting everybody’s time, and you can just slowly but surely continue to kill the dog like you have been. At the end of the trial week you then add up how much of each item has been given each day. Tally it all up and divide by seven and you should arrive at what you are feeding per day. Now you have an idea of what you are trying to cut in half!
2) Once you know how much dog food you are currently feeding, you will have some idea of a starting point for reducing that amount. Since your dog is seriously obese, you need to aim to reduce the amount of dog food fed by fifty percent. You may not be able to reduce it that much immediately, but over a period of two weeks you should be able to gradually cut it in half.
3) Eliminate ALL of the treats and all of the junk food items – EVERYTHING that is not dog good. Treats are a MAJOR source of calories, mostly because owners simply don’t count them. The best “dog treat” for the dieting dog is a piece of your dog’s kibble taken from that bowl in the cupboard (so it is already figured into his calculated daily allotment) and carried in your pocket and offered up as a special treat from your hand.
4) Each day, first thing in the morning, measure out that calculated amount of dog food (Remember, our goal over the first couple weeks is to get to 1/2 of the dog food amount he used to get.) and put the entire day’s allotment into a container up in the cupboard where he can’t get it. EVERYBODY IN THE HOUSEHOLD NEEDS TO KNOW THAT THIS IS THE ONLY FOOD HE IS ALLOWED TO HAVE EACH DAY. WHEN THE CONTAINER IS EMPTY, HE IS DONE EATING FOR THE DAY. It needs to be metered out throughout the day in reasonably small increments. He is never going to get to eat “his fill.” He needs to adjust to the much smaller meals. That’s why we are taking a couple of weeks to wean him down.
5) If you are not already feeding a low-calorie dog food, now is the time to make a gradual switch over to the lower calorie food. Lower calorie foods, because they are low in fat, tend to be less palatable. In our case, less palatable is a good thing. The less eager he is to eat, the faster he’ll lose the weight. Don’t quibble over brand names and all that, just aim at getting the weight off.
6) Take him out for a short walk as often as possible, and take along a couple of his treats (pieces of kibble from the bowl in the cupboard). Don’t overdo the treats. The walk itself should be the biggest treat. Increased contact time and interaction with you will help him to forget about eating. Enrolling in a dog training class will give you some direction and some focus and purpose for this change in his and your lifestyles. The more distractions you both have, the better.
7) At the start, weigh the patient on a reliable scale. Small dogs you can pick up and hold and weigh at home on the bathroom scale. Large dogs you can take to your veterinary office and walk onto their scale. They should be happy to accommodate you for free. Stick with the program for at least two or three weeks before you weigh him again. Also, it’s a good idea to take some pictures along the way – at the start, a month along, two months along, and so forth. There is no motivating factor quite like success, and the more ways you can see that success, the more motivated you will be to continue. Also weigh-ins and photos serve as an ongoing reminder that this is a program with a beginning, a middle, and a final goal.
8) Once you have embarked on a program to save your dog’s life, it is important that you are watching for all of the things that can go wrong. He’s going to be hungry. Watch for an increase in sneak attacks. He will be trying to break into the food storage area, steal the cats’ food (Put it up high where the cats can get to it and he can’t.), break into the garbage, eat the cushions on the couch, and just about anything else he can find. Don’t let a catastrophe happen. Breaking into the garbage and eating a wad of plastic or attacking the furniture and eating a gob of stuffing can be expensive or fatal. Supervision is important. In addition, it is not at all unusual for the weak-willed pet owner to give in to the urge to offer more treats. This can be a disaster. When this happens, very often instead of losing weight the patient ends up gaining. Don’t give in to that urge.
If your dog gets medication on a regular basis, find another way to give it, and resist the temptation to hide it in a fattening glob of peanut butter is (or whatever else you choose to utilize) day in and day out. If the medication is a steroid such as prednisone, it will stimulate appetite and contribute to water retention making your goal that much more elusive. Regardless, the cards are stacked against you. You must be committed to success.
Remember: to be successful you need to be heartless and allow yourself to see the bigger picture. Your heart must be aimed at the love you have for your dog and your desire to return him to a healthy, happy, active lifestyle with proper, healthy eating habits.