Tragically, Jim and I finished up the stuffing (aka “nature’s perfect food”) last night. Honestly, if I had stuffing in the house all the time I would . . . Well, let’s just say I would need a new wardrobe. I’m one of those people who has to watch what they eat to maintain a healthy weight, but I’m also aware that it’s not that easy for some people, no matter how hard they try. We know now that it’s not just “calories in, calories out”. It’s when you eat, what kind of bacteria are in your gut, how well you sleep, if you are stressed, and how your metabolism responds to different types of foods. And on and on and on.
And now we know that it’s not that simple for dogs either. For years we’ve heard that surely we should all be able to regulate our dog’s weight, given that we are the only ones with access to the dog food. But thanks to research, described by Dr. Linda Case in her perfectly titled article Do These Genes Make Me Look Fat?, we’ve learned that some Labradors have a modified gene sequence with a deletion called POMC. This causes dogs not just to overeat, but to be excessively motivated to eat. This gene modification was only found in some Labradors and in a few Flat Coated Retrievers (out of 41 breeds tested), and its existence correlated with dogs who were overweight. (I should add that the correlation isn’t perfect: “The POMC deletion was found in 10 out of 15 overweight dogs and in only 2 out of 18 lean dogs.”)
Given the ease of over indulgence of both people and pets over the holidays, this seems like a good entry into strategies to keep our dogs healthy between now and the New Year. As well as relief to the owners of food-crazed Labradors, who must be sick of people saying “You just have to stop spoiling them!” So, for the holiday to come:
HEALTHY SNACKS Having a dog who considers anything smaller than a brick to be edible is a mixed blessing. For us, it means that things like twist ties are banned from the house, because Tootsie vacuums up any object that falls onto the floor, and saying “Leave It” to a deaf dog isn’t very effective. On the plus side, she considers just about anything a valuable treat. It would be easier if her digestive system wasn’t quite so sensitive, but it still helps that we can reinforce and treat her with some healthy alternatives. I like the healthy treat suggestions on the Farmer’s Dog site, which include carrots, celery, apples, cooked pumpkin and squash. There are a lot of great commercial dog treats out there too, but be cautious about overwhelming your dog’s digestive system with something new. Moderation in all things.
Surely these kinds of snacks would be especially useful for people who have Labs that carry the POMC gene deletion, and are always dealing with a dog who is crazed for food. But the fact is that most of us have dogs who love food almost like life itself. And what better reinforcement for a new behavior or better manners with company than food? Yes, play and praise are great, but small pieces of healthy food are ideal when reinforcing a new behavior. This is a great time, before the rest of the holidays, to focus on that one behavior that you can modify to make having visitors, parties or travel more fun with your dog.
FOODS TO AVOID Most of us are well aware of the dangers of feeding chocolate, onions, macadamia nuts and anything with xylitol in it. The xylitol one though is tricky, because it is found in so many products besides gum, including peanut butter, breath mints and toothpaste. Basically, if something says “artificially sweetened” don’t let it anywhere near your dog. This is always trickier over the holidays because there is so much food out that we normally don’t eat, we get out of our usual routines and visitors don’t know to not leave their sugar-free gum out on the counter.
Because stuff happens, have the ASPCA animal poison control phone number written down on your refrigerator: 888 426-4435. You may have to pay a consultation fee, but believe me, it’s well worth it. I had to use their services a few New Year’s back when I got distracted saying goodbye to visitors and Maggie ate the better part of a cake with double dark chocolate icing. And my hydrogen peroxide had no effect because I didn’t know that it looses potency even if unopened in your bathroom cabinet. Maggie and I spent all of New Year’s Day at the emergency clinic, which had not exactly been my plan. Needless to say, I buy a new bottle now every six months or so. You can also try baking soda if you have no hydrogen peroxide I’m told, but don’t induce vomiting in anything that might be caustic–best if you have the slightest doubt to call the poison control center.
EXERCISE EXERCISE EXERCISE. Those of us who watch our weight know that what and when we eat has more effect on our weight than exercise. However, that doesn’t mean exercise doesn’t help our pets maintain a healthy weight, and it’s good for us and them for so many other reasons. One nutritionist estimated that weight loss is 75% affected by diet and 25% by exercise. As a behaviorist I’d argue that giving your dog both mental and physical exercise is critical to behavioral health. As I’ve written before, I think the ideal exercise for dogs are long walks in natural areas. Off leash is best IF safe, but walking your dog through the woods on a long line is a wonderful thing to do for them. Granted, we can’t always pull that off, and it can get harder during the holidays, but if you can schedule it into your day when things get a little crazy it’ll be great for your dog.
Things can get a bit rough for dogs (and cats) over Christmas and New Years in so many ways, as I write in Five Reasons Why Dogs Become Holiday Grinches. Now is a good time to think through not just your gift list and your holiday travel plans, menus, etc, but also how you are going to keep your dogs healthy and happy. Believe me, they’ll thank you if they could.
I’d love to hear your strategies for a healthy and happy holiday season for your pets. Or your cautionary tales of woe? Equally valuable, right?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: After 4 snow storms in late October and early November, our temperatures warmed, rain fell, and we were back to the “mudmare” that has been southern Wisconsin for the last year. Thankfully, we got a sifting of snow yesterday and it’ll stay frozen for most of the day. That’ll be especially nice in the confined areas, like through narrow gates, where walking on the “ground” is more like walking on top of a cake with chocolate icing. You squish down 3-4 inches with each step. We’ve put shavings down on some areas, but there’s nothing better than a freeze to harden it up.
And yet, there’s still some color out there, at least there was a few days ago:
Sometimes just from a plastic cone:
From last night: The butter yellow light from the barn always makes me feel warm and cozy, no matter the weather. We’ll leave the light on for you.
Have a great week all. Please send stuffing.