If you spend as much time as I do talking about pet obesity and fitness, you’re bound to run across someone who attempts to defend their overweight dog using some variation of the “so what?” defense:
“Yeah, I know he’s overweight, but so what? Look at him — he doesn’t seem to mind, he’s perfectly happy. Who cares?”
In what’s quickly becoming a signature quip for me, the literal answer to the rhetorical question “who cares,” is “well, no one … unless you care about how long your dog lives.”
I don’t like telling people what they should or shouldn’t do. If you don’t care about how long your dog lives or about whether he gets to do the activities that he loves while he’s alive, then I won’t tell you that you have a responsibility to keep your dog fit, just because he’s yours. In my opinion, that’s a dicey ethical position and I’ll leave it to someone else to champion that cause.
What I’m referring to here is something different. I’m proceeding from the assumption that you do care about how long your dog lives. I’m assuming that you love your dog like you love the other members of your family, that you have an emotional bond with the animal. I’m assuming that you “feel good” when your dog thrives and “feel bad” when it suffers or when it’s life is at risk of being needlessly cut short.
And if those assumptions do apply in your case, then I feel entirely justified in telling you that you should care about whether your dog is overweight.
Why? Because modern scientific methods – the best fact-finding tools ever devised by humankind — have shown us that being overweight tends to cause premature death in dogs. It’s that simple.
More specifically, a top quality, peer-reviewed, widely-cited study published in 2002 strongly suggests that lean dogs will live on average almost two years (or more than 15%) longer than even moderately overweight dogs. Here’s a link to the main paper (other studies based upon the same data have also been published).
Essentially, over a period of nearly two decades, a team of researchers from a variety of institutions and universities across the United States tracked 48 Labrador Retrievers from seven different litters over the course of the animals’ lives. Their methods were simple: they divided the dogs into pairs, and, beginning at eight weeks of age, they fed one pair-mate 25% less food that its sibling on a daily basis, carrying that pattern on throughout the remainder of the dogs’ lives.
As the dogs grew, aged, and eventually died, the team tracked a number of health-related variables, such as body weight, overall body composition, and bone mass, as well as blood-borne indicators, such as serum glucose, cholesterol, and triglycerides concentration.
The dogs from the control group became moderately, but not acutely, overweight (average body fat from 6 to 12 years of age, 29.9%) while the restrictive feeding group remained comparatively lean (average body fat from 6 to 12 years of age, 16.8%). These body fat measurements were consistent with body condition scores calculated by the researchers using a standardized visual observation and tactile analysis protocol (average score of 6.7 [“too heavy“] for the control group and 4.6 [“ideal“] for the restrictive feeding group).
The health-related data compiled over 15 years of testing leaves little room for doubt about the impact of body fat on morbidity. The mean lifespan of the leaner dogs was 1.8 years longer than the lifespan of the moderately overweight dogs (13.0 years compared with 11.2 years). That’s a 16% longer life for the leaner dogs.
(To put that number in perspective, consider that the expected lifespan of a man born today in the United States is 78.2 years. Extending his life by 16% would thus translate into 12.5 additional years of life. He’d live to be over 90!)
That’s 1.8 additional years of fun and excitement. 1.8 extra years of joy and happiness. 1.8 more years of unconditional love and support. 1.8 additional years of the surprises and challenges and weirdness and all the other messy stuff that comes along with making a dog a member of your family.
Who cares about whether their dog is overweight?
Well, when I think about that study, I know that I care.
– Coach Dan