Dr. Louise Murray is Vice President of the ASPCA Animal Hospital in New York City and author of Vet Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to Protecting Your Pet’s Health.
Q: How do I know if my dog is overweight?
Dr. Murray: The best way to know if your pet’s weight is appropriate is to ask your veterinarian during an appointment. One good tip is to feel your dog’s ribs and spine. You should be able to feel, but not see, your dog’s ribs and spine. If you cannot feel your dog’s ribs, he or she is likely overweight. If you look down on your dog from above, he or she should not have a bulge at the waist. When looking from the side, his or her belly should not hang down.
Q: What can I do diet-wise to control my dog’s weight?
Dr. Murray: One of the most important steps for controlling your dog’s weight is to cut out the treats and snacks. Very often, it is not the dog’s official food that is causing the weight problem, it is all the additional treats and/or snacks your dog is eating between meals. Many pet owners do not realize how much those treats and snacks are adding up, especially if more than one family member is involved. If you feel you must give your dog treats, choose low-calorie options (such as veggies or a piece of rice cake) and decide how many treats your dog will get each day, and stick to this. Make sure everyone in the family understands the plan and agrees with it.
Q: When it comes to losing weight, is diet or physical activity more important?
Dr. Murray: Both diet and physical activity are very important; regular exercise will certainly help your dog lose weight (and help you keep in shape too). However, a pet who is not taking in too many calories should not become overweight, and all the exercise in the world will not help if your dog is snacking all day, so the most important thing you can do is to control the number of calories your dog takes in.
Q: What are some of the health problems that can develop due to obesity?
Dr. Murray: Obese dogs can have difficulty breathing, and can develop respiratory distress, as well as being more susceptible to heat stroke. They are more prone to a serious inflammation of the pancreas called pancreatitis. Obese dogs have more orthopedic problems, such as torn cruciate ligaments in the knee, and have more trouble with arthritis. Obese dogs may be more prone to diabetes. It has also been shown that the immune system is compromised in obese dogs.
Q: Are there other explanations as to why a dog could have weight issues besides diet?
Dr. Murray: Certain health conditions can cause weight gain in dogs. These include a low thyroid level and other hormonal imbalances such as Cushing’s disease, which is an excess of adrenal hormones such as cortisol. Lack of exercise will also contribute to excess weight gain.
Q: Do you recommend buying diet food? How do I find the right one for my dog?
Dr. Murray: Some foods that are higher in certain types of fiber can help a dog to feel more full while ingesting fewer calories. This may be helpful in controlling your dog’s weight. It’s important to discuss the best diet for your dog with your veterinarian, since your dog may have certain individual needs or health conditions.