Managing An Expanding Waistline
Food – It’s my favourite thing!
Obesity in our pet dogs is one of the most important preventive health issues and it’s one where we can make a great difference to the long term health of our pets. Obesity is defined as the accumulation of excessive amounts of fatty tissue in the
It is important that you know what good condition looks like and feels like – make sure that you are familiar with the body conditioning score system
So what causes it?
Food and satiety
There are an enormous number of complex inter related causes leading to
obesity, but the crux of the issue is a greater intake of energy than is
expended over an extended period.
Of interest in our Labradors is the discovery in 2016 of the POMC
variant in the breed. Around a quarter of labs are found to be affected
by this genetic difference. Whilst this seems to confer an improved
behavioural response to training, the downside is a reduction in satiety
levels (the feeling of being full (satiated) for a period after eating).
These Labradors will consume more energy over the long term and will be far more likely to become obese.
The biology of satiety is key to understanding why some dogs
become overweight and help us to prevent and manage this problem.
Genetics can play a significant role in some individuals. Age, breed,
gender, neutering status, activity levels and food type are all factors.
Controlling energy intake is of absolute importance.
We don’t know the complete science behind how food types help
with controlling appetite as in the real world there are so many
In more controlled laboratory studies, there is reasonable evidence that diets with higher fibre levels and higher levels of protein lead to feeling full sooner and for longer, reducing voluntary food intake. Also the greater the variety of foods offered, the more likely that more energy will be consumed; this is
called “cafeteria feeding”. As we all know, the tastier the food (more
“palatable”) the more we are likely to eat.
Exercise certainly plays a role in weight control.
The average labrador needing about 1000 calories per day and increasing exercise will lead to an increase in the calories burned through the day,
typically 50-100 for an average dog for each hour walked.
Of equal or greater importance is the effect that this exercise has on body
composition. A fit and active dog will have a greater muscle mass, and
this will burn calories even when they are not exercising.
When the balance is wrong
We all have an idea what the risks of becoming overweight may be and in laboratory animals this can be studied in great detail.
In 2002 Purina published the results of a controlled lifetime (14 year long) study comparing 48 labradors raised specifically to test differences between overfed and normally fed dogs –not only was there a 20 month decrease in life expectancy amongst the overweight dogs, there was an increase I specific diseases – pancreatitis, airway disease, lower urinary disease, oral disease, cancers, hip dysplasia, arthritis, cruciate rupture and back problems.
Getting it right
In addressing obesity we need to address the causes of the obesity that
we are able to control, the energy intake and exercise levels.
It is not enough to say that you are feeding your dog the amount that it says on the dog food pack – they are just guidelines and will be different for every dog based on their metabolism, lifestyle and activity levels.
So the first step is to work out your dog’s nutritional requirements. If your dog is overweight on it’s current diet, ask your vet for advice and check that there are no underlying health issues that might be causing the problem. As with ourselves, crash dieting is not the solution, but a controlled weight loss programme.
Ideally you should determine the quality of the food and the energy density of this diet, the weight fed and from this calculate how many calories are being fed per day. Complex but not impossible and the food manufacturer will be able to help.
On a practical level, keep a food diary – weigh out each meal carefully and you might be surprised at what you are feeding or overfeeding. Weigh your dog initially weekly for a month and then monthly. The amount of food offered is then tailored to the weight loss (or gain).
If your dog is extraordinarily hungry, scavenging or failing to lose
weight when their food is cut down, you may need to switch to a feed specifically designed for weight loss – high in protein and fibre with increased levels of essential minerals and vitamins so that fewer calories does not lead to malnutrition.
Long term monitoring of diet an weight is essential to prevent the weight being regained as this is very common.
Exercise regimes have received less attention in experimental models
– maybe because there is little commercial gain in increasing exercise
for dogs compared to selling a better diet!
If your dog is Obese, physiotherapy or hydrotherapy may be a beneficial way of increasing exercise without straining joints. And once they have started to lose weight, you can increase their activity gently by increasing the number of short walks, then increasing the length of walks, or even introducing them to a new sport by joining a training club.
Many thanks to Roland Bulkyn Rackowe of Woodland Veterinary Clinic