This article was written by Chris Redenbach CDBC, CBCC-KA, a certified dog behavior consultant and owner of the Balanced Dog, a canine training service based in Atlanta, Georgia. To learn more about Coach Chris, please visit our “Contributing Authors” page.
Obesity and Heartbreak
My mother loved her dog intensely.
I gave Eco, a Bouvier des Flandres, to Mom as a gift to keep her company after my father’s sudden death left Mom in a very lonely place. Eco filled the void in my mother’s life. Mom was an active and vibrant 80 year old who had retired to the chalet my father had built for them. She and Eco used to take long, leisurely walks through the vast surrounding forest and Eco was never far from Mom’s side at home. Eco went everywhere with Mom in the car too. They were inseparable.
Eco was two years old when she went to live with Mom. At the time she was very healthy and physically sound. Her hips and elbows had been radiographed to prove that there was no sign of hip dysplasia or elbow dysplasis, two common problems of large breed dogs that can indicate future arthritic changes. Eco was free of these problems and proved to have excellent knee structure as well. I felt that Mom was getting a problem-free dog she could enjoy for years.
But as time passed Eco began to gain weight. Like so many pet owners, Mom was showing her love for Eco by offering her too many treats. The change was slow at first because my mother was still physically active and the long walks helped balance the effects of too many treats. But as the years went on my mother slowed down and spent more time reading, watching television, and sharing crackers and cheese with her best buddy. And the weight gain began to accelerate.
Eco was still relatively young when the car rides came to an end because it became too difficult for her to get up into the car without more assistance than my elderly mother could provide.
When Eco left my home, she was a fit 60 pounds. But when I saw her next (four years later), she weighed over 90 pounds and was morbidly obese.
I tried to help. I told Mom how to craft a diet that would allow Eco to thrive and I explained the dangers of obesity. What was remarkable was that my mother, a retired registered nurse, already knew how devastating obesity was, but she couldn’t resist those soulful eyes begging for a treat. When Eco wanted a snack to supplement her meals, Mom just never could say no.
And so things went for several more years. Then Mom learned that she would need serious surgery and that the recuperation would be slow because of the number of muscles that would be cut. Upon her return home, she would have to take it very easy for an extended period of time. There were strict doctor’s orders that she was not allowed to lift anything greater than 10 lbs for a very long time.
This presented a grim problem. Eco had become so obese that she couldn’t get up and down the four steps to the yard unaided and often had trouble even lifting her body from the floor to stand. Mom had been helping her by putting a towel sling under her belly and helping lift her enormous weight. But after the surgery Mom would be too weak to help.
There would be no way to attend to Eco’s most basic needs and Eco was no longer able to help herself.
A few days before Mom’s surgery, she tearfully took Eco on her last car ride. Unable to take care of her beloved pet and unable to find anyone else who could help because of the remote rural location of her home, Mom was forced to make the most difficult decision any pet owner can make.
An Untimely End
Eco’s unnecessary and heartbreaking death was the direct result of her obesity. At the time of her death she was only nine years old and her only health problems were chronic obesity and acute osteoarthritis in her knees and hips. The conditions worked together to prevent her from standing up, navigating stairs, and relieving herself on her own.
The two conditions which contributed to Eco’s demise were inextricably intertwined. Carrying around all of her mass (at the time of her death, Eco tipped the scales at over 150% of her target weight) had actually caused Eco’s arthritis–her joints were never intended to carry around an animal as heavy as she had become. And without strong joints, she couldn’t engage in the exercise that was necessary to help combat her obesity. It was a vicious cycle.
Eco’s siblings and close relatives lived an average of four years after Eco’s passing. Just like Eco, their hearts, lungs, livers, and kidneys were generally healthy.
The only difference was that they weren’t obese. Essentially, Eco had died a healthy cripple.
It’s Not Just American People That Are Getting Fatter, It’s Our Pets Too
I wish that Eco’s story were an isolated one. Unfortunately, Eco is just one of millions of other dearly loved but miserably crippled and sick dogs who are suffering from many of the same degenerative problems that plague our human population. Obesity not only causes extensive joint damage in both dogs and people but is a leading cause of other problems as well. According to a website published by Pfizer Animal Health the list is extensive:
•Heat or exercise intolerance
•Dermatological problems affecting skin, hair and coat
•Compromised immune function
•Increased surgical and anesthetic risks
•Cruciate/intervertebral disk rupture
Significantly Longer Life Linked to Lower Calorie Diet
Purina recently sponsored a well-controlled canine longevity study lasting 14 years. Three genetically similar groups of dogs of the same breeds were fed standard Purina food. The difference was that one group ate as much as they wanted. A second group ate the caloric value that scientists and veterinarians thought appropriate for their weight. And a third group was fed 25% less than the above amounts which had been assumed correct. The startling result was that the group fed 25% fewer calories lived an average of 1.8 years longer. That’s like telling a human they will live about 10 to 15 years longer on a calorie restricted diet.
What are the Contributing Causes of Pet Obesity?
Different phenomena contribute to the development of obesity in different cases, but the bottom line is that most animals are taking in more calories than they are spending. Pet obesity expert Dr. Ernie Ward suggests that dog and cat treats are chiefly to blame, pointing out that to a 40-pound dog, a premium pig ear is “equivalent to a six pack of 12-ounce sodas.”
This scenario is not necessarily the same for every dog because of certain pre-disposing conditions. But you can find a great list of contributing factors here.
How to Determine if Your Pet is Overweight or Obese
Take a look at this Body Condition Chart created by Purina in consultation with numerous veterinary sources and see how your dog measures up. If your dog is overweight or obese, it’s time for you to make some changes.
What to Do About Pet Obesity
The first step is to visit your veterinarian. Before you start altering your dog’s diet and activity levels you need to make sure the dog is up to it. A veterinarian will conduct a battery of tests and advise you whether your dog can handle diet and exercise changes. As a dog trainer, clients with obese pets often tell me that they plan to jog with their dog or take it to agility classes. I look at the poor dog and think about how much pain and physical harm it will endure if it is forced directly into a high impact exercise program. Also, although most obesity is simply the result of over-eating and inactivity, some obesity has medical causes that should be ruled out before you make broad lifestyle changes.
Your veterinarian can tell you how to start a strategic walking program that will gradually get your dog in shape. Once your dog has shed some pounds and built a bit of muscle and endurance, you can graduate to a more demanding program of jogging and sports if your dog is physically sound. When walking or running, be mindful of the surface conditions. While your $125.00 gel-padded sneakers may protect you from hard pavement and hot sidewalks, your dog isn’t afforded such luxuries. Try to stick to grass or dirt.
Become aware of the signs of overheating. Dogs cannot bring down body temperature by perspiring the way humans or horses can. Dogs pant. But that isn’t always sufficient, especially in breeds that have shorter muzzles, like Boxers and bulldogs. It is easy for a dog to overheat and do irreparable damage to kidneys and heart and many dogs die from overheating each year. Ask your veterinarian how to tell if your dog is getting too hot. Many dogs who try to please their owners will try to keep exercising long after they should stop.
Also be sure to pick an exercise program that’s fun for the dog and suitable to its level of current fitness. Don’t try to play Frisbee or do agility work with an obese dog. This is just begging for a serious injury such as torn cruciate ligaments.
You’ll also want to make every effort to cut back on treats. Analyze the treats you give your dog in connection with your training or to alleviate separation anxiety. Eliminate any treats that have lots of sugar, grains, or artificial ingredients,. Look for treats that are higher in high quality protein or make your own from boiled chicken breast and other lean meats. Also look critically at the size of the treats you give your dog. Use only tiny pieces (no bigger than your pinky finger nail) for each reward.
Keeping it Up
Keep monthly records of your dog’s weight at your veterinarian. Get a feel for your dog’s increasing energy and desire to exercise. This should increase as your dog’s fitness improves. As you progress, you can check with your vet to see if your dog is ready to start more strenuous exercise like jogging, running, or any of the many wonderful dog sports you and your dog can enjoy together.
As I think back on the story of Eco and my Mom, I realize that similar stories are a daily occurrence. Just yesterday I spoke to a person who has three obese dogs and a very long staircase from the deck to the fenced back yard. In a couple of years, these dogs will no longer be able to negotiate those stairs. Another common occurrence is the obese dog who is a poor surgical risk for removing malignancies.
Fat just stacks the deck against your pet. I hope that this article helps some caring dog owners to practice more self discipline and become more thoughtful so they can avoid the ironic tragedy of dogs dying of “too much love” in the form of too much food. Just as with people, once the weight is there, it is harder to lose than it would have been to avoid gaining it in the first place. But people often just don’t notice that their dog is gaining weight. Don’t let your dog get caught in this deadly trap. Think about weight control and healthy nutrition all the time. Read ingredients. Plan for exercise. Keep your dog going strong for years.