Overcoming Obesity in Older Dogs by Ann-Marie Fleming

26 February, 2012


It is not just the human world that is fighting against the growing problem of obesity - our dogs are facing the same battle. Even more distressing is the fact that the number of obese dogs is growing. In  a recent survey conducted by The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) they found that 53% of adult dogs are classified as overweight or obese by their veterinarians (up from 45% in 2009) - that's more than 41 million dogs in the U.S. alone!

APOP also reports that 22% of pet owners surveyed are unaware that their pet is overweight, characterizing their dog as normal weight when they were in fact overweight or obese. What scares me even more about these statistics is that the average age of the dogs surveyed was 6.4 years meaning that many of these dogs will carry their weight issues with them into their senior years, increasing the risks of medical complications.

How do I know if my dog is obese? With 22% of dog owners not realizing their dog is overweight or obese i'd say that identifying the problem is not as straightforward as most would think. The short answer is that you should be able to feel your dog's ribs with ease when placing your hands on their rib cage and there should be an observable waist. Visuals often help and Purina has posted a sizing chart which is very useful in identifying what category your dog falls within. Other indicators are decreased stamina, less interest in physical activities, more difficulty jumping or climbing and more laboured breathing.

What are the health implications of obesity for my older dog? The medical impacts of obesity are vast and when a dog is in their senior years the effect is compounded. Possible health risks include:

Damage to joints, bones and ligaments: Carrying around the extra weight can lead to joint complications and dogs can develop arthritis. If your dog already has arthritis or other joint problems then the pain and discomfort can become increasingly worse due to the extra weight load.

Heart disease and increased blood pressure: As the body is being asked to work harder, overweight and obese dogs are at risk of heart complications. According to Dr. Jeannie Thomason, Veterinary Naturopath, Animal Nutrition Consultant, and Founder of The Whole Dog, "Something new to dogs in the last 30 some odd years is hypertension. Just as in humans, excess weight tends to cause increased blood pressure (hypertension). The heart obviously has an increased work-load since it must pump additional blood to excess tissues. This can lead to congestive heart failure."

Respiratory Decline: Overweight dogs carry excess fat and this can often restrict the lungs ability to expand making breathing difficult. Carrying the extra weight is tough work and by stressing the body and its key organs most dogs lose a great deal of stamina and endurance.

Surgical risk: Senior dogs are already a high risk group when it comes to surgery, but when weight is an issue, the risks are even greater. Dr. Thomason describes, "Most anesthetics are taken up by fat, so an overweight animal will take longer to come out of anesthesia because the anesthetic must be removed from the fat by the body. In addition and important to know is that most anesthetics are broken down by the liver. A fatty liver will not be as efficient at breaking down anesthetics and other drugs, so again, recovery may be delayed or even death may occur. The increased fat in the tissues makes surgery itself more difficult. It is harder to find or get at what you are looking for in the body for all the fat. So not only is the surgery now more technically difficult but the procedure will take longer then usual, which again increases the anesthetic risk."

My dog is a senior - what can I do to help them lose weight? Despite the challenges that senior dogs face, there are ways to control their weight and keep them active. In fact, given the consequences of not addressing weight issues, as dog parents do we really even have a choice? When you consider that it is not our dogs that are feeding themselves, we need to realize that controlling our dog's weight is our responsibility as care givers and we need to step up and make their lives healthier and easier.

To get started Dr. Deb Eldredge, DVM and member of Pet Writers Central suggests consulting with your veterinarian to come up with a weight loss plan. "Decide how much weight your dog needs to lose and then look at how to achieve that goal. Switching to a lower calorie food may make sense or simply feeding a bit less of your dog’s current diet may work. Reduce the number of treats or switch to healthier, lower calorie treats. Many dogs love pieces of apple or carrot. When it comes to treats, remember that while dogs can count, they aren’t good at judging volume. So if your dog is used to getting two treats at bedtime, break that one treat into two pieces. He will be happy and not bug you for more."

When I asked some senior dog owners what they do to control their dog's weight there were many easy to use and effective suggestions. Kathy Drees from Germany has had great results with her dog Lily, a rescue from the streets of Bulgaria who was grossly overweight at the time and is now at a healthy weight. She explains, "When I got Lily I wanted to find the best and healthiest way for her to lose weight. Not only because I no longer wanted my dog to look like a barrel walking on four thin legs, but mainly because obesity in dogs can lead to an array of health problems such as degenerative joint diseases like arthritis and arthrosis, diabetes, diseases of the liver, kidney and heart, tumors and several more."

So what was her secret? "A very overweight dog definitely benefits from swimming (or, if the dog does not want to do that, just walk through water), because water gives an uplifting effect to dogs' bodies, taking the excess weight off the legs which alone is good, but moving (swimming/walking) in water resistance also is a good training for dogs' muscles and at the same time it is gentle to the joints that usually suffer a lot from excessive body weight. This exercise helps melt some fat, and strong muscles help the joint and bones of the legs carry its heavy body. As a diet for obese senior dogs I would suggest mainly fresh, raw foods in form of highly digestible protein and the right amount and type of fats," explains Kathy. Some other tips from conscientious dog parents include: using carrots, bananas even dehydrated apples and sweet potatoes as treats, cutting back or rationing treats for the day, lower fat foods, using part of their daily kibble allowance as their treats, supplements, walking less distances but more often, and walking in early morning and in the evening when it is cooler.

As you can see it always comes down to a balance between diet and exercise. Dog obesity is a huge problem but one that can be resolved. Older dogs have enough to deal with so why add health risks associated with being overweight? It's unnecessary and avoidable and I hope everyone reading this will take a look at their own dogs and make some healthy choices moving forward.

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