America’s dogs are getting heavier, and we don’t even realize it. A 2016 pet obesity survey found that 54% of adult dogs in America are overweight or obese. Unfortunately, too many people incorrectly believe that their dog doesn’t have a weight problem at all. When so many dogs we see are overweight, we get a distorted impression of what healthy dogs look like. This is known as the “pet fat gap,” and it’s putting our dogs in danger. A dog’s excess weight can have serious health effects, from heart disease and diabetes to trouble breathing and moving around. It can even take years off a dog’s life!
Not sure if your dog is overweight? A vet is the best person to determine your dog’s ideal weight, but here are some quick rules of thumb you can use:
- You should be able to easily feel your dog’s distinct ribs. If you have to press hard to feel them, or if you can’t feel them at all under the fat layer, your dog is likely overweight or obese.
- When your dog is standing up, there should be a discernible “waist” between the rib cage and hips. Overweight dogs tend to look square when viewed from above, with no waist. If you see bulging in this area, your dog may be considered obese. Healthy dogs do not have anything resembling human “love handles”!
- When you look at your dog from the side, there should be a clear tuck in the abdominal area. The severity of the tuck depends on the dog’s breed. Boxers and greyhounds, for example, will have more pronounced tucks than sheepdogs will.
Tips to help your dog achieve and maintain a healthy weight
- Take your dog’s weight (and health!) seriously. Jokes about waddling couch-potato dogs aren’t funny and only perpetuate the problem. Some people with large- or giant-breed dogs even let their dogs gain weight on purpose, so they can brag about their dogs’ impressive size.
- Feed your dog at regular mealtimes, and measure dog food with a measuring cup. (A lot of people scoop dog food with random things like coffee mugs, which makes it difficult for vets to understand how much the dog is eating.) If your dog doesn’t eat his breakfast one morning, that’s completely fine! Don’t force him to eat when he’s not hungry, but don’t leave the food out. Having food constantly available can encourage dogs to eat too much.
- Consider everything your dog eats, not just the actual dog food. Commercial dog treats are often packed with calories, so they can really add up. Carrots or other crunchy veggies make great dog treats. You can also try stuffing a Kong with meat baby food, which has far fewer calories than peanut butter.
- Even if your dog is obviously overweight, take him to a vet before starting any kind of diet plan. Your dog’s weight gain could be caused by a medical condition, such as hypothyroidism, that needs treatment.
- If your vet recommends reducing your dog’s daily portion of dog food or cutting back on treats, make sure all family members are on board. It only takes one over-indulgent family member to sabotage the plan!
- Find ways to reward your dog that do not involve food, such as a game of fetch or a trip to the park. If your dog has gotten used to a sedentary lifestyle, ramp up the exercise gradually to prevent injury.
- Monitor your dog’s weight at home so you’re not surprised at your dog’s annual vet visit. If your dog is small enough to pick up, you can use a regular bathroom scale – just weigh both of you together and subtract your own weight. Be sure to consider your dog’s overall size when you look at the numbers, since an increase of a pound or two is much more significant for a 20 lb. dog than a 200 lb. human.
The most crucial fact about pet obesity is that it’s a human problem, not a dog problem. Dogs don’t have thumbs, and they can’t open bags of treats or drive themselves to the dog park. They rely on us to make good decisions on their behalf. Giving them proper food and exercise is really the least we can do for these wonderful creatures, who just want to spend as many years as possible in their favorite place in the world: right by our side.