Overweight dogs at risk of disease, shorter lifespan

Can you pinch an inch? Not on your own body, but on your dog’s? If you can, he could probably stand to lose some weight. It’s something to think about as we enter a new year with good resolutions to improve ourselves – and our pets.

When we hear the word “malnutrition,” we think of starvation, but you might be surprised to learn that obesity is the most common form of malnutrition in dogs. It’s estimated to affect nearly 53 percent of the canine population, according to a May 2014 survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

Why are so many dogs fat? Often, it’s because owners don’t recognize the problem. And veterinarians may hesitate to speak up because it’s not uncommon for people who are overweight to have pets with the same problem. A 2013 study found that people who were 60 or older and overweight themselves tended to have overweight pets.

Carrying too many pounds is a serious problem in pet pups. Obesity, defined as being 20 percent or more over their ideal body weight, puts dogs at higher risk of joint problems, poor mobility, reduced kidney function, poor response to anesthesia and skin and urinary tract infections.

That’s not all. A long-term study found that osteoarthritis and chronic diseases in general developed approximately two years later in dogs who remained at or below their normal body weight than in dogs allowed to become overweight. The trim dogs lived an average of two years longer than the fat dogs.

There are more benefits, according to Martha Cline, DVM, a veterinary nutritionist who spoke on obesity last month at a San Diego veterinary conference. Dogs who achieved even modest weight loss suffered significantly less lameness. Quality of life gains included increased vitality and reduced emotional disturbance and pain.

To tell if your dog needs to lose weight, give him a visual exam and the hands-on test. A dog’s body should be shaped like an hourglass, not a sausage. As you look down at him, can you see an indentation behind his ribs before the body flares out again? That’s his waist.

Then put your hands on his back, thumbs along the spine and fingers splayed out on his sides. As you gently press inward, you should be able to feel his ribs beneath a layer of skin and muscle. If the ribs are buried beneath rolls of fat, it’s time to talk to your veterinarian about a safe diet and exercise plan.

A veterinary exam, including lab work, ensures that your dog doesn’t have any underlying health problems.

One easy change you can make is to measure your dog’s food and feed meals twice a day instead of leaving food out all the time. Even better, put a day’s supply of dry food inside a puzzle toy so your dog spends the day actively “hunting” for his meals. Instead of high-calorie treats, offer small bites of chopped carrots, green beans or apples.

To add more activity, begin with brief walks. As his stamina improves, gradually increase the distance. Always stop before your dog shows signs of exhaustion, such as panting or reluctance to go further.

Hungry cat must stay off table

Q: Our 10-year-old cat has recently begun demanding table food. When we sit down to eat at the dinner table, he jumps on top of it. I immediately pick him up and put him on the floor. This is repeated several times. Today, I was eating soup and ignored him, so he pawed my ear. What do you suggest for behavior modification? I’m thinking of putting him in the bathroom while we eat.

via email

A: You are fighting a battle on two fronts: the feline love of being up high, and your cat’s desire to share your food, which is obviously more interesting than his own. You’re on the right track as far as being consistent about putting him back on the floor right away. Don’t do it in an angry manner; be matter-of-fact, but don’t let him get away with it. I have some other suggestions as well.

One is to feed him before you sit down to eat. If he has already eaten, he may be less interested in checking out your food.

You may also try teaching him to go to an alternative space, such as a nearby perch – where he can be up off the ground and still see you – or the sofa or his bed. Reinforce your cat being in this spot by rewarding him intermittently with a treat, attention or play.

Conversely, make the tabletop unpleasant by covering it with aluminum foil. Cats don’t like the feel of it beneath their paws.

There’s also nothing wrong with putting your cat in a different area, such as the bathroom, while you eat. It’s a valid way of managing the problem and can be a great strategy until your cat learns to stay off the table during meals.

Mikkel Becker

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton.