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Obesity in dogs

Introduction: Obesity in dogs is a serious medical problem, and it's the owner's fault. Fat dogs are more at risk in surgery, more prone to injury, and have more stress on their heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and joints.

Fat complicates diseases, injuries, and surgery and stresses the body.

According to dog food manufacturer Ralston Purina Company, the health factors associated with obesity include skeletal stress, cardiopulmonary disease, interference with normal reproductive functions and puppy delivery, complications to diabetes, difficulty in regulating body temperature, and potential inflammation of the pancreas. Surgery takes longer if the veterinarian has to work his way through layers of fat, and obesity complicates drug therapy, anesthesia, and recovery from injury.

Some breeds are susceptible to obesity and need special attention to stay thin and healthy, but most fat dogs get that way because their owners can't say no. All Sandy has to do is cock her head, soften her eyes, and raise a paw, and Mr. Jones will fork over everything but the steak -- and he'll give her the scraps to that later.

A dog is an opportunistic scavenger. He learns your number early and dials it often. He can look starved and forsaken at the creak of a refrigerator door or the buzz of a can opener. He'll eat himself into oblivion if given half a chance, so you must be on your toes.

According to Purina, approximately 25-30 percent of dogs either suffer from obesity or are at risk of becoming obese. Dogs become obese because they take in more calories than they use.

Any owner can control his pet's weight by realizing that food is not a substitute for attention or a cure for guilt and that the concept of "tough love" can and should be applied to the relationship. An owner who cannot resist Fluffy's soft, pleading eyes whenever food enters the vicinity is an owner contributing to Fluffy's obesity and may even be shortening her life. An owner who cannot rouse himself for a few hours each week to make sure that Singer gets enough exercise is an owner contributing to Singer's obesity and may even be shortening his life.

Body condition scoring

Purina researcher Dottie La Flamme DVM, PhD, has designed a system that helps owners identify potential obesity in their pets. This nine-point grading system defines ideal condition as that in which the dog's ribs are easily felt and the waist and tuck-up (the belly area between ribcage and rear end) are discernible without being prominent. The dog in ideal condition has a thin layer of fat over the ribs.

1. Emaciated: Dogs with ribs, hips, and other bones protrude and are visible from a distance. Emaciated dogs show a loss of muscle as well as an absence of body fat.

2. Very thin: A step up from emaciated; bones are visible but not as prominent and muscle loss is slight.

3. Thin: Ribs and top of spine may be visible and the pelvic bones prominent. (Some breeds are naturally thin, so don't be fooled at the bony appearance of Salukis, Afghan Hounds and other sighthounds.) Waist and tuck-up are evident.

4. Underweight: Some fat on the ribs; visible waist and abdominal tuck-up.

5. Ideal: Ribs are easily felt and have a thin layer of fat. Waist and tuck-up are obvious but not exaggerated.

6. Overweight: Ribs have noticeable fat; waist and tuck-up are discernible but not prominent.

7. Heavy: Ribs are covered with a heavy layer of fat and noticeable fat deposits appear on the spine and at the base of the tail. Waist is absent or barely discernible.

8. Obese: A heavy fat layer completely obscures ribs and heavy fat deposits appear over he spine and around the tail base. Waist and tuck-up disappear.

9. Morbid: Massive fat deposits in the chest area, along the spine, and around the tail base. No waist or tuck-up. Abdomen protrudes, and fat deposits accrue on legs and neck.

The tuck-up is the area on the dog's body behind the rib cage and in front of the hind legs when the dog is viewed from the side. The depth of the tuck-up depends on the breed of the dog; sighthounds tend to have a deep tuck-up, most breeds have a moderate tuck-up, and a few have little discernible tuck-up at all.

The dog's waist is the area behind the rib cage viewed from the top.

If you assess your dog's body condition by this method and suspect he has a problem, contact your veterinarian for an exam and a diet and exercise plan. Individual dogs have different caloric needs depending on breed, age, level of activity, and dietary habits. Labrador Retrievers, Miniature Schnauzers, Miniature Poodles, and Cocker Spaniels seem to be especially susceptible to obesity.

Breed characteristics should be taken into account of course, as some breeds have more prominent ribs and tuck-ups when in optimum condition. In general, dogs with protruding bones and the appearance of muscle loss are too thin.

Some weight control strategies

Owners can take the situation in hand right now to prevent obesity in their dogs:

1. First, assess the dog's condition. If he appears underweight, take him to the veterinarian for a physical exam to determine the cause and extent of the problem. If he appears overweight, have him checked as well and examine both feeding and exercise programs.

2. Feed appropriate snacks. If you can't resist offering Muffin an evening gnosh, try carrot sticks, unbuttered popcorn, orange or apple slices, pretzels, or bits of banana instead of potato chips, pizza, or ice cream. Cut back a bit on meals if you just can't say no to those pleading eyes.

3. Provide some opportunity for prolonged exercise a couple of times a week. Long walks, play session, or strenuous training sessions help keep muscles in shape and bodies functioning. Time alone in a yard is not sufficient; although dogs will run fence lines if a person or animal happens by, they are generally as lazy as people and will not run for the sake of exercise. Two dogs, however, will usually run, romp, and play together and thus exercise each other.

4. Watch the fat content in the food you buy. Fats are energy sources; if the energy isn't expended, fats merely add unneeded calories. Fat content of dry food should range between 12-16 percent, with sedentary dogs getting a lower percentage than active or performance dogs.

5. Watch the supplements you use. Some veterinarians, breeders and trainers recommend adding a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil to the kibble if the dog has a dry coat or skin, but this probably only adds unnecessary calories. It's better for the dog to use a food with sufficient Omega fatty acids or even to supplement with Vitamin E.

Owners should keep in mind that dry skin and coat or itchiness can be caused by allergies that have nothing to do with diet; if the dog scratches a lot and does not have fleas, a visit to the veterinarian is in order.

6. If you have a puppy, get off on the right dietary footing. Feed a premium food two-to-three times a day.

7. Pick up the bowl in 15 minutes even if he doesn't lick it clean. Keep your pup a bit thin, especially if his breed is subject to skeletal disorders such as hip dysplasia or knee and elbow problems. Discontinue puppy food before six months of age to keep his rate of growth under control.

8. Don't leave the pup or dog alone with the kids at snack time; the dog is likely to feast on anything the kid doesn't want as well as lots he does want. Separating kids and dogs at snack time eliminates battles over food that can end when dog bites child.

9. Keep the garbage out of the dog's reach to avoid stealing, and if your dog is a food thief, keep food off the counters as well.

10. If your dog has a slight weight problem, reducing his regular ration by a bit or switching to a food for less active dogs may do the trick. However, if he's considerably overweight -- or you suspect that he is -- don't embark on a reduction plan without consulting a vet. This is especially important for owners of small dogs; the under-20-pounds gang may experience complications from reducing diets because they tend to have a high metabolic rate and to dissipate heat rapidly, factors which can result in too-rapid weight loss.