If only I couldn’t open the cabinet doors myself. It would make it easier for me to maintain my ideal weight, but alas, nobody controls my weight but me. But not so for dogs. We control when and what they eat. And so they should all be at the perfect weight, right?
But of course, we know that they are not. A shocking percentage of dogs and cats are problematically overweight, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. They report that in 2016, 59% of cats and 54 % of dogs in the U.S. were classified as overweight or obese. And the numbers are climbing: in 2009 9% of the dogs were obese, while the percentage rose to 20% in 2016.
I was reminded of this in Dr. Chris Zink’s great blog titled How to Make your Dog Live Longer. (Subtitle: It’s Easy.) And simple. She reports that a study in 2019 found that dogs categorized by their veterinarians as overweight lived up to over two years less than ‘normal weight’ dogs. Based on the lifespans of over 50,000 dogs of twelve breeds presented to veterinary clinics, the authors of the study, (Salt, Morris, Wilson & Lund, 2019, J Vet Intern Med), found that being overweight decreased the life span of a dog from five months (male GSDs) to two and a half years (male Yorkies). Wow. That’s a lot.
Here’s a table from that research:
Veterinarians struggle to address this issue with their clients, so much so that it’s addressed in an article in Veterinary Practice News. Among other things, it suggests talking about a “healthy weight” versus labeling a dog as obese, addressing the costs of health-related diseases as the dog ages and teaching clients to do body condition scoring on their dog.
Here’s one example: (FYI, I’d say Maggie, a working sheepdog, is somewhere between #2 and #3, which is exactly where I think she’ll stay healthiest structurally.)
Here’s my question: What should the rest of us do about it? Not just for our dogs, but for the dogs we run into who are clearly overweight. Surely the general dog owning public is aware that being overweight is a health concern for their dog. But how do we, either trainers, behaviorists or friends, address this issue related to the dogs of others? It’s even more awkward for us than for veterinarians, and they clearly struggle as it is.
Certainly it is something that all dog trainers can address in dog training classes. I’m curious, if you are a trainer, do you talk about it? We always mentioned it in our classes: Be sure not to over feed your dog, portion out your dog’s daily servings and take training treats from that, and/or use low calorie healthy treats like cut up veggies etc, but I’m not sure that we talked about it often enough. We also mentioned that the suggested serving sizes on many bags of dog food are astoundingly generous. (If not ridiculous, just saying.) And of course, there’s always lots of exercise, but we know that diet has more of an effect on weight than exercise. I suspect that directly addressing life span would be extremely helpful, as in, “How would you like your dog to live another year and a half? And save money doing it?”
It seems to me that the trickiest circumstance is when one of our friend’s dog is obese, for no reason beyond over feeding. I’ve been in the position, and it’s rough. What does one say anyway? I’ve made little jokes (Hey Bud, looks like you’re on the “sea food diet” hey? You see food and you eat it?) But these attempts feel lame, and the fact is that some one’s fat dog is, well, some one else’s dog.
I’d love to hear any and all of your thoughts on this issue, from the perspective of an owner of an overweight dog (note my post in December 2019 that describes labradors with a modified gene sequence that makes them predisposed to gain weight), a trainer, vet or vet tech, or a concerned friend. We need a village here, cuz far too many dogs are dying far too early.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Snow. Rain. Sun. Clouds. All pretty much as usual. All of us could skip the rain for sure, given its propensity to turn into ice. My absolutely least favorite part of winter is dealing with ice, not just for me, but far more for the dogs. Willie’s slip on ice is what led to his years of shoulder problems, and eventually to major surgery. But the longer day length is noticeable, and no matter the weather it always cheers us northerners up.
Here’s Maggie on one of those gorgeous, blue-sky days that we often get after a snow:
I’m loving her tail here:
This next one makes me smile, even though the focus is on the snow rather than Maggie.
Here’s to things that make us smile, where ever we find them.
Anne Badgley says
An increasing number of medical studies indicate that obesity in humans and other animals (mice, chickens, etc.) is mediated by factors (stress, viral exposure, antibiotics, microbiome, etc.) other than calories and exercise.
Be that as it may, I have known some dogs whose obesity was clearly due to overfeeding. One of my Aussies was 10 pounds overweight when I adopted him because he had been confined to a backyard for two years and free-fed from a bucket of dog food. Although exercise and controlled food access eliminated the extra pounds, he always had a paunch of excess skin and was an obsessive eater. He died at twelve with a large tumor on his pancreas that was bleeding internally.
Of the 14+ dogs I’ve had over the years, the two longest lived dogs were the thinnest and the most athletic. One, a PW Corgi, lived to 17 years. She was kept fit for her first 5 years for the conformation show ring (obesity does not show well), and was ball obsessed so it was easy to keep her exercised. My last Aussie lived to 15 years. She was a light eater and hyperactive. Her body condition was always between 2 and 3 on the chart. A woman with an overweight GSD once confronted me with her concern that she was too thin after feeling her ribs when petting her. I tried to explain that, as an agility athlete, she had to be lean to be healthy. Her expression was not convinced. Although anecdotal, I still believe their longer lives were enabled by their low body weights.
That last photo of Maggie is wonderful and made me laugh!
As for the obesity in dogs, I am fairly sure that many dog owners feed their dogs (far too many) treats because they have a guilty conscience: for being away to work for long hours, for not taking that long walk because it was raining or feeling sorry for the elderly dog who cannot go for extensive walks anymore. Which only adds up to the problem.
And feeding a dog seems to make humans happy. I love it when our dogs ask nicely if they perhaps and only if it doesn’t cause any inconvenience could have some of that tasty pizza crust, please? It makes me happy to share food with my dogs. And I surely don’t tell them I will remove part of their dinner for having that crust.
Most people with overweight dogs do not realize how much food is going into the dog throughout the day. The more people in a household, the more complicated to follow.
A nice family with a cute but definitely overweight Lab once came to my physiotherapy practice (for dogs) because the dog had problems with his hips and his spine. When I told them it was imperative for their dog to lose weight, I was told that they knew but didn’t know how. The vet already had prescribed a diet and it was only two rather small portions a day.
So I started an investigation and the story unfolded: the wife fed the dog in the morning and evening. And put some extra kibble into the bowl because “it was only diet food” and she felt sorry for the hungry dog.
Every time someone went to the fridge, the dog followed and got “only a small piece of cheese or sausage”.
When the family wasn’t home, the Lab stayed with grandma who was convinced nobody would know if she shared some cookies with that poor dog.
I told them that their dog probably had as much food per day as two dogs would need and made the following proposal:
Every family member puts the exact amount of treats/food/cookies etc. they had given to the dog into a separate bowl. Do this for a week and check the contents of the bowl every night. Everybody has to be honest, no cheating.
Only then you will really know how much food goes into your dog every day.
Next time we met, the family told me how shocked they had been about the enormous amount of food in the bowl each day.
It is one thing to tell about single treats here and there – and something completely different to actually SEE the amount of food intake of your dog collected in one place.
Apart from the diet I believe it is vital (especially with an elderly or handicapped dog) to keep them in motion. Whether it’s for the weight or the joints: only (moderate) exercise keeps you healthy. If the dog is in pain (from e.g. hip dysplasia) and therefor not keen on walks, see your vet for a painkiller prescription.
As for me, I absolutely KNOW I could only be rolled out of the house if it wasn’t for the dogs and their need to be walked extensively on a two-times-daily basis…
This is a hard topic but a great one. We keep our dogs slim and it’s not easy because they have fantastic appetites! As a “lay person” (not a vet or trainer, etc.), I feel like the most I can do is lead by example, and also be quite clear when people say things like, “Oh, your dog is SO SKINNY!” “No, this is a healthy weight, confirmed by our vet, and we keep her this weight because we love her and we want her to live a longer, healthier life!” If I make sure my response addresses only my dog and my choices, I can trust the listener to connect the dots about their dog and their choices.
I do love some of the features of the internet and our electronic age (this blog, for instance) but I wonder if the problem is getting worse as we get more immersed in our electronics. I think it’s very hard sometimes for people to step away from the computers and give the dogs the real attention that they need, and overfeeding becomes a “food is love” way of compensating for that – or trying to. Just a random thought.
Last and TOTALLY unrelated: Based on your recommendation I’m reading Deep Creek and loving it. “Ohhhhhh . . . she’s gonna see the do-o-o-o-o–g p-o-o-o-orch” (from “Ranch Almanac: Donkey Chasing”) makes me laugh aloud whenever I remember it. Thank you!
This is a huge pet peeve of mine!!! It drives me crazy to see over weight dogs!!! Whenever I take my dog to the vet he always remarks about how healthy my dogs weight is and how good he looks – I don’t think he gets to say it very often!! We got into a conversation about it one day and he said it is super hard to talk to dog owners about it because they get very defensive – they really do not want to hear that their dog is fat!
I will have people tell me they think my dog is too skinny when the pet him and they feel his ribs – I tell them that’s how it’s suppose to feel!! Then I’ll say think of a greyhound – no one ever seems to question a greyhound – but it’s because they are used to seeing the ribs on a greyhound or whippet etc… I’ll say “well my dog is no different than that greyhound – he just has fluffy fur on top”. But typically they are not convinced!!
Part of the problem is with perception – they truly do not see their dog as being fat. There was a study done where they showed people pictures of dogs and asked which ones did they feel were over weight and most people did not identify the overweight dogs as being overweight!!! That’s a perception problem!! If they can’t/don’t see it they’re never going to be able to fix it.
And then for the people who do see their dogs as overweight but don’t do anything about it – oh my golly – that really makes me crazy!!!
Thankfully if you’re involved in any type of dog sports typically those owners have a clue and most of the dogs are in great shape.
But a stroll through a random neighborhood – oh my – the poor dogs I see!!!!
Feeding dogs is highly reinforcing to the owners, and it is immediately so. As is so often in life, the reinforcers for longterm goals, in this case athleticism and longevity, don’t make the person immediately happy. Putting a dog on a diet can make the owner depressed. Can we substituted low-cal food to make everyone happy? 🙂 Also, I know knowledgeable animal people who have blinders on when it comes to their dogs (and horses). In their eyes, their obese animals look great. So, the solution is not an easy one of education!
Paula Sunday says
Important topic! Veterinarians must address this to the extent that they should mark on a measuring cup how much food the dog should get to be healthy, if I do it, “but the veterinarian didn’t say anything about that” so the owners assume the dog’s weight is ok. Plus most food bags instruct owners to feed more than the dog should get to eat! So the owners get the amount from the seller not their veterinarian. If vets would start this conversation the first time they see the new dog/puppy, set the tone, teach how to look for the best weight option. That would help, so much!Food and feeding are very important topics right now, as an owner with a dog with food related DCM, I feel betrayed by the food industry.
I’m not a trainer, I just work in a daycare/boarding facility – but the amount of people who see an “ideal weight” dog and ask why it’s being starved/if it’s sick is unsettling.
I’ve never personally told anyone that their dog is overweight, but my supervisor has when it’s started affecting behaviour (your dog now plays a lot less, doesn’t want to walk as far as she used to, and has a much shorter temper with other dogs).
That seemed to make it easier to understand for some owners, instead of “just” telling them their dog will have poor quality of life. It’s completely changed one obese retriever back to an excited healthy girl.
So I guess it’s a hard thing to tackle with dog owners, but when done gently, can really help their dogs.
STACEY A GEHRMAN says
I’m now retired but taught public companion dog classes for 50+ years. These were mostly young dogs tbat were not overweight (yet). I always discussed feeding and when there was an overweight dog in class talked with the owner privately as well. Many owners don’t understand how to tell whether a dog is overweight so it is important to go over that. As pointed out above there are many factors involved in weight gain, and loss for that matter, but owners must be able to identify the problem. On another subject, I also taught owners how to brush their dogs and the importance of nail care.
Love the idea of putting the same amount of treats that the dog gets into bowls. Brilliant!
So happy the book is making you happy!
This is a fantastic point. I think we can all relate. I love giving my dogs treats, who doesn’t? Perhaps one of the keys is low-calorie treats like green beans, carrots, etc. I’m lucky because I can monitor the dog’s weight on a daily basis without really having to think about it anymore, and Maggie gets tons of exercise as a working sheepdog. But yes yes, we have to acknowledge how reinforcing it is to give our dogs treats. (I like giving myself treats too. Just saying.)
Great point about bringing up behavior changes, quality of life, versus just “overweight”. Thanks for that!
Can you offer some tips on how to help a dog lose weight? Our shepherd mix has been about 5-10 lbs overweight ever since we moved from North Carolina (where he would get long off-leash walks in the woods) to NYC (where he is walked multiple times a day, including 1 1-hour long walk but has little off-leash time). He is a naturally lazy dog, doesn’t fetch and has never liked to run for long periods of time. And although he loves to eat, we have significantly cut down his portion size to a little less than 1 cup of high quality kibble in the morning and evening plus limited treats only during walks to manage his dog reactivity. Do we cut down his food even more? Is it the kibble and would we be better off on a raw diet? Vets in the area have not been that helpful and just recommend “diet food” but I wonder if there is a better solution.
Alice R. says
My current dog does not have the food desires that my other dogs (and I!) have had; he’s just not all that interested in food that is not exceptionally tasty. I’ve had a hard time dealing with that at times, but it means weight is not an issue now. My lab was overweight at an exam once, and I really appreciate the vet helping me with that. It was not a huge amount, and had happened so gradually that I didn’t notice. Armed with the information he gave me, I was able to manage her better after that. In many cases though I think dogs are overweight for the same reason some people are: not because the owners don’t recognize the obesity, but because their emotions prevent them from getting control over the contributing behavior. I agree with you about the cabinets, Trish. Food is a problem for me, and I often wish mine was handled for me. My dogs are not overweight, but at my age, I am.
Trisha, I want to thank you for the heads-up about pet obesity. It made me take a good long look at my own dog, Rocky. His waist is still nipped in but it’s gotten more difficult to feel his ribs. I weighed him this morning and was shocked at a two pound weight gain. (I thought he felt heavier when lifting him.) He’s been getting about the same amount of food and treats but less exercise. It’s winter and the roads are slushy and dirty. He’s a long – haired all white dog. His fur acts like a mop. Toweling him off in the garage after a walk doesn’t get him very clean. They make doggie clothes that cover the back of the dog but I need something to protect his belly and chest with room for elimination. I don’t know if he’d tolerate booties. Any suggestions to keep him cleaner and dryer would be appreciated. Maybe I’m missing the obvious. I know this is not an excuse. We will do better.
Last comment: I was visiting a friend who had a little dumpling of a cat. I jokingly remarked, “ she doesn’t look like she misses too many meals.” We laughed, but to have a couple years taken off your beloved pet’s time on earth because of weight gain isn’t funny. Thanks again.
A small boy once looked in amazement at my whippet’s curvy tuck-up and asked ‘but where does he keep all his insides?’
KC Wilson says
I believe from what I’ve read that over 60% of American dogs are overweight. One thing I learned from being involved in dog sports is what a healthy weight looks like. (You can see a waist and you can feel ribs with a slight amount of pressure). Whenever I’ve discussed with people about keeping their dogs at a healthy weight they sort of look at me like I’m speaking gibberish. They don’t believe their dog is fat. I explain, as someone once did to me, that a milk bone size treat is the same as eating a Snickers bar for us. If we ate 5 Snickers bars a day we’d also be overweight.
Deborah Mason says
From the other side of the discussion. Knowing how easy it can be to let a dog get fat, we have tried with all of them to walk a fine line between pampering & keeping them trim. Our philosophy had been it’s easier to keep it off than take it off. (I know because I’ve been in that struggle myself my whole life.) We keep to the lower end of the range on the food bags, feel for ribs when we pet them & try to look at them honestly from time to time. We still wind up having to modify things for a while now & then, but I think we have manage to keep them reasonably healthy & trim enough. We do bear in mind that all food counts, even the treats, & modify meal petting if needed.
Charlotte Kasner says
I’ve just applied for a PhD researching this very subject so doing lots of reading. Estimates are lower in the UK at approximately 40% for dogs and cats, which is still awful.
I have been working with a client’s dog for a year now. He has been slightly overweight and had intermittent lameness (badly bred Labradoodle). I explained that they would need to decrease his daily intake because I am training using food and that his “breakfast” was equal to 2 days food for my own dog. I also explained that the guidance on the food packet was just that and that Humphrey clearly needed less.
I did a BCS and explained how and why I had scored it.
It fell on deaf ears.
Finally, our vet scored him at the same level, gave them the same speech and they then decided that it must be true and reduced his food. It took them 10 months after I first pointed it out.
That said, other clients have been more responsive. I talk about it in my induction classes and remind everyone during training lessons.
I think that guilt at leaving dogs alone is part of the reason for over-feeding, feeding human food and only being able to relate to dogs through their stomachs.
I’m sure that if more people trained their dogs using non-aversive methods, they would discover other ways of communication and expressing their feelings for their dogs and be less reliant on food.
I would be interested to hear if other clicker trainers find that controlling the way that food is used as a reinforcer actually means that their clients tend not to have overweight dogs.
Sadly, as with humans, fat becomes the new normal and it becomes harder for all of us to recognise a good body weight.
When I first adopted my BCs, I took them weekly to the vets office to weigh them for the first 4 months I owned them to figure out how much to feed them to maintain their weight at a healthy. level. Turned out they both needed the same amount even though Missy weighs is 2 inches shorter & weighs 10 lbs less. Missy is naturally much more active, trotting everywhere & Buddy is more of a plodder. The side benefit is that my dogs LOVE going to the vet & make a beeline for the scale to get their small treat.
Jane Craig says
Our veterinarian had to tell us our last dog, Jasper, a Golden mix whom we adopted as a puppy, was overweight. We were shocked, because, well, we watch our own weight pretty well, and just did not realize our quite-active dog (who was very long-haired, so it was harder to tell–but not impossible!) was fat.
Fortunately she calculated for us exactly how much kibble he should be having for his meals, and we followed her instructions pretty much to the letter, and deducted for treats. Jasper slimmed down over a few months and that was that–we knew what his “ideal” weight should be, and we kept him in that range for the rest of his life (he died of a brain tumor at not quite 13).
Our current dog, Crispin, a 7-year-old English Golden, has two factors that mitigate against obesity–one, he is not neutered (as a rescue, we were required to neuter Jasper); and two, Crispin has inflammatory bowel disease, now well under control without immunosuppressive drugs; with IBD the dog must be on a very restricted diet due to protein sensitivity. He eats a prescription hydrolyzed kibble based on soy, and we add pumpkin, squash, apple, green beans and sweet potato to it, for fiber and flavor.
His treats are dehydrated sweet potato, carrots or rabbit jerky (the last is generally reserved as reward for letting me brush his teeth, which, unfortunately for both of us, I must do daily). Rabbit is the one meat protein he can tolerate; unfortunately, though, he can’t tolerate it in prepared dog foods, only without other additives.
But the dog does eat plenty, and gets lots of regular exercise; it does seem easier to control the weight of a dog who is not neutered, based on just our experience with two similar dogs, one neutered and the other not.
But then, I can’t give Crispin anything off of my plate as it’s usually something he can’t eat, whereas with Jasper, yes, I admit it was a pleasure to “sneak” him a bite or two of what I was eating.
Thank goodness Crispin does love carrots and dehydrated sweet potatoes…
I had a beagle who was overweight. It turns out it was his thyroid but even we put him on thyroid meds, he still gained weight. Now that I know better, it can be a combination of damage from vaccines, the wrong kind of food and supplements and a whole other slew of things. Just like people (some balloon with weight just thinking about food, others exercise and eat right and still gain weight), sometimes our dogs do too.
I agree with jokes and feel they are lame, especially if the person is trying like I was with my beagle. I had an emergency vet tell me that I was killing my dog with overweightness (even tho I explained everything we had been doing) and he ended up dying from something else that very night. But I was devasted because that vet (insensitive if you ask me when you are in the emergency vet) and her words have haunted me for years (it was in 2007).
Some really excellent points and reminders in this discussion. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never included this topic in my classes but intend to start. I’ll briefly explain how to test for the ideal weight and cite the likelihood of extending their dog’s life-span by rigorously maintaining it…
Thanks for the blog and the books that help make me better!
Margo Harris says
The photos of snow and Maggie are fantastic! Wow, I love those!
Such an interesting topic. Oh dear, back when I had 5 dogs and 5 horses, I could point at each of them and say “Too fat! Too thin! Too fat! Too thin!!” (etc.) Arrrrrr! I could never get them all just right. I did have one dog who was always the perfect weight, so that gave me some consolation! One of my dogs, a nervous one who was always on the go, stayed too thin all his life no matter what he ate, even when I put him on canned puppy food once he was old.
I worried about him, but he lived to be 16+ years (a med. sized dog) and his mum who was also slim lived to be 17+ years old. I think maybe they stuck around just for that puppy food…
Oh god I’m sorry. What insensitive timing, to say the least, not to mention the lack of attention to what you were saying. Here’s hoping you can exorcise that ghost now. It deserves to be dead and buried.
Yay for you!
So true that there are many factors to badly condition, I didn’t mean to oversimplify the issue in the post. It is fascinating, isn’t it, how much we are learning about factors related to weight, from thyroid to gut health to toxic chemicals . . .I’m personally suspicious about the effect of endocrine disrupters in our food and water for example. A dogs diet is never a simple topic, is it?
MaryLynne Barber says
I have a 4 month old GSD mixed with something (?). Where can I find reliable information online about how much to feed her now & as she grows? She weighs about 26 lbs. right now.
I always love the folks that defend their obese dogs with, he’s not fat, he’s just muscular!
My Brandy was a spayed Doberman and she lived to be almost 13 years old. We always tried to keep her on the lighter side, especially after having a TPLO (knee surgery). I don’t feel that she was ever lacking in treats, but we made sure we didn’t overfeed at the same time.
That’s a fantastic question. I’m hoping a vet nutritionist will jump in here, but I’d suggest feeding 2/3 of what your commercial food (if relevant) recommends, and monitoring her weight on a daily basis. Most importantly, become familiar with evaluating her weight . . . you should be able to feel her ribs. Check out how to evaluate your dog’s weight (Scale of 1 to 5, 3 being idea), and search online for ideal weights for GSD’s, then modify based on her age. Honestly, I think the dogs tell us how much to feed, I modify on almost a daily basis.
Try having a healthy greyhound. Everyone tells me my dog is skinny and I think every single other dog is fat. 🙂
There are a lot of good suggestions here, which I’m grateful for. But I’d like to address the question of whether and if so what a person should say to someone whose dog is obese. My answer is that the positive reinforcement methods we’ve learned to use with our dogs also apply to people. If you can come up with non-shaming, non-judging ways to reward behaviors you want to see, great. Praise someone for the good things they do for and with their dog. Carry around a bag of baby carrots and ask the owners if you can offer one to their dog (obese or not). But if the dog likes the carrot, resist the temptation to deliver a little sermon about how they “should” be feeding this kind of treat to their dog. Do not scold, chastise, shame, offer unsolicited “advice” (which most people respond to as criticism or condescension). Don’t let yourself think that you can indirectly allude to what you think people are doing wrong, without them catching on. No matter how subtle you think you’re being, people know exactly what you’re up to. And it hurts them. It discourages them. It makes them feel as though nothing they do for their dogs is ever enough. It makes them wonder whether they’re good enough people to deserve a dog. It’s the moral equivalent of an electric shock, and the results in humans are similar to the results in dogs.
My vets have told me often that I have the only dogs in the practice that are not overweight. (I hope this is not true.) It’s always been more than a bit ironic, because I’ve been overweight or obese myself most of my life. Cobie, Elly, and Lia were all low 3s; I’ve always struggled to keep weight on Nina–until a few months ago she was a 2, but would just walk away from more than a cup of kibble. Now, with her anxiety issues better controlled, she will eat more and has gained about 5 pounds, which she badly needed. Flat-Coats are not whippets.
Kate could be harder to manage if I weren’t careful–she’ll eat as much as she can get. I work her every day, and use a simple system to keep from overfeeding her that I think could be adapted for anyone who trains with food or just likes to give their dog snacks. Every time I train I start out with one meal (for her it’s just over 3/4 cup) in a canning jar, and keep transferring kibble into my bait pouch as we work. Yes, she works for kibble–she’d probably work for dirt. At the end of the session any uneaten food goes back in the jar, and she gets it for her next meal. I refill the jar and start over. Apart from that she gets only a small biscuit for crating (Nina gets 2), and something squeezed into a Kong if I’m gone.
I discussed training treats in all my puppy kindergarten classes. My suggestion was to buy a small bag of one of the outrageously expensive puppy foods that we would feed if we won the lottery and use that as training treats-subtracting the amount from their regular meals. I also reminded owners to check the bags for the recommended serving amounts since the more expensive food sometimes had smaller portion sizes.
This is such a touchy subject (pun intended). Our first dogs were self-feeders meaning they always had a bowl of food out, and they’d nibble as they wished. They were Goldens with appropriate weights for their size, etc. They were also much more free-ranging dogs and maybe there is a correlation there? They ate when they were hungry and ran it off in between. But they also ate small amounts at a time. They didn’t gobble the entire bowl in a nano-second. I’m sure that helped. Their food was not the high-quality food we feed now. Interesting to think about.
Our two current dogs are good weights — the lab mix is on the thin side and the terrier mix is solid but still has a waist. She probably could lose a pound or two. They both have serious joint issues so keeping them trim-ish has been really important. One thing that really helped keep their weights in a good range is switching to a dehydrated “raw” food. It’s mixed up the night before, and we feed less than the recommended portion twice per day and still have room for training treats. We supplement it with a little canned food for Phoebe, who in her advanced age deserves to eat more of what she likes (she’d just eat junk food, if she could), and we add plain yogurt and the occasional meat scrap. But if we do that, we feed less of the primary food.
I have mentioned a few times to people I know with overweight dogs that they might talk with their vet. I say it quickly and don’t follow up for fear of insulting them or seeming too judgy. Why do we connect our dogs’ weight with a value judgement? Is it part of our society’s notion that thin people are more attractive, honest, and worthy (or something like that)? Curious.
Somewhere I ran across what’s been a really useful comparison for how to feel if your dog is at a healthy weight. Make a fist. run your fingers across the knuckles nearest your hand. If your dog’s ribs feel like that your dog is underweight. Hold your hand flat, run your fingers across the knuckles nearest your hand. If your dog’s ribs feel like that your dog is at a healthy weight. Turn your hand over, run your fingers across the pads where your fingers attach. If your dog’s ribs feel like that your dog is overweight. It’s, obviously, not an exact comparison but it does make an excellent way for people to be able to monitor their dog’s weight in an easy and fun way. I’ve also found sharing that tip is an easy way to start a reasonable conversation about a dog’s weight. I can mention that I use it all the time and whenever I notice the trend is toward feeling like the pads rather than the knuckles I adjust what my dog eats giving more vegetables and less dog food. The dog still gets to feel full as I’m just adjusting calorie content not quantity.
I suppose it makes it easier that I feed my dogs a lightly cooked commercial raw food that I garnish with a product called Green JuJu which is basically pureed greens and herbs. When the dog is putting on weight meals are more Green JuJu and fewer nuggets. Since each nugget of the raw food weighs roughly an ounce portion control is pretty simple. I’ve also found it helpful when we’re really busy with less time for the dog to put the daily allotment of treats and chews in a jar so everyone in the family isn’t handing out chews and treats willy nilly.
I’m still working out how much D’Artagnan needs to eat. He’s lost two pounds since coming to live with us and is getting far more exercise. He’s starting to show the effects of being in better condition. Our walk through the woods today left me breathless and him wanting more. 102 lbs seems to be a really good weight for him so we’re aiming to stay at that. At the moment he gets to eat all he wants since he’s not terribly food motivated. Comparing his ribs to my knuckles is part of the daily routine so if he does start to plump up I should notice before it becomes a problem.
I work really hard to ensure my hound dog stays in shape and not overweight. My friends think I’m crazy how much I walk with my dog, and don’t just put her out in the back yard. My vet has never commented on my dog’s weight, even to tell me that’s she’s a healthy weight. So I was always concerned if she was the right weight, cause as a first time dog owner I just didn’t know, and weight/feeding were never discussed in our training classes. Then one day my friend who is a vet met my dog on a walk, and remarked “She’s so fit! If only my dogs looked like that!” I was so relieved and now feel confident that I’m keeping her at a good level. So I think talking about it more is definitely helpful, whether it is a vet or a trainer or a knowledgeable dog person friend. Because some people genuinely may have no idea whether their dog is a healthy weight or not.
FWIW, if my friend had said thin or trim or skinny, words that often indicate “ideal” weight for humans, I don’t think I would have responded quite as positively. Fit just seemed to communicate overall healthiness (weight, muscles, etc.) without sounding judgmental like other words can.
I remember a trainer at my local club trying to talk to an owner of a clearly obese lab about her dog’s weight. She called me over with my short haired border collie who was, while not skinny, certainly of a good weight but not overweight. The owner of the lab promptly told me (and the trainer) that my dog was much too thin! As a dog trainer myself, I focus on teaching people how the body score system, and how to score their dog, and hope they do it honestly, and talk to them about low calorie treats rather than saying “your dog is overweight”. Just like with people themselves, I find better results if they are motivated from within than guilted into it.
When I had two retrievers, I walked 5 miles per day while the dogs ran through the fields. They maintained their ideal weight consuming about 60% (including treats) of what was recommended on the kibble bag. My current dog doesn’t have the opportunity to run free as are in a more urban environment. She was gaining at 50% of what is recommended on the bag. My neighbor has two fat dogs, and he is a strong believer in feeding 100% of what is recommended on the kibble bag. (Pet food manufacturers, listen up!) My current dog is fluffy, so the visual check of ribs and waist tuck is not reliable. She looks fat when she needs a trim, and people are not shy at telling me that she’s too fat!
Such an interesting topic and I love the brains trust stories. I have no idea how to broach weight with the average dog owner; it can be such a sensitive topic as nobody likes to think they’re inadvertently harming their beloved pet. I have the opposite problem with Kona (toy poodle) where he just really is not interested in food – we once got into a three day stand-off over kibble and I eventually gave in. Honestly I think the little monster would rather starve to death than eat something he didn’t like!
It has made for some amusing training incidents – since I follow the rewards based methods that you advocate. In nosework for example he will find the treat – look at me and practically shrug his shoulders in a clear “what now” and “where’s the reward”? Since he is a ball mad little nut I do use a ball as reward – but only towards the end of a session because once the ball is in sight there is no getting him to focus on anything else! Any tips form the group on how to manage that?
Really makes me feel ill to see obese dogs, especially giant breeds. So much emphasis on how “big” their dog is has made them totally forget what the breed was meant to weigh and look like… Great Pyrenees are one of the worst! Folks raving about their 180lb GP and it clearly can’t move and looks like a head attached to a furry walrus! I went through hell when my Kangal was diagnosed with CHD at 11 months and we were told to keep his weight as low as was healthy to lessen the load on his joints until the growth plates closed and the pain level would lessen… Got more comments about starvation, doggy concentration camp survivor and abuse than i can possibly recount. However, the lower weight clearly made a difference and we’ve continued to feed for condition rather than a set amount or feeding recommendation. That means my 100+lb, very active working girls get 2 cups of high-quality food daily, or possibly 3 daily in winter when they carry a bit more weight to protect them from cold. I read about folks having pets with very little exercise and eating 6-10 cups a day and I want to weep… My dogs would eat themselves to obesity if allowed… I understand loving to give treats and feed food motivated dog but we should love them enough to do what will be best for their health, just like folks do for the little humans in their life… They give us so much. We should at least give them back the care that will steward their life and health.
Wonderful dog-in-snow action photos, Trisha!
Couple of things that have worked for us to help keep our dogs’ weight under control:
Green beans: My first dog was a ludicrously committed food hound. A beagle-retriever mix of some sort; her food drive put most other dogs to shame. The only way we could keep her weight under control was by replacing a portion of her meals with canned green beans, which we bought by the gallon. Otherwise she would spend every waking hour scavenging. She lived to 16 years old at a healthy weight, remarkably active until near the end.
Carrots: Our current dogs love getting carrots for treats. They get regular dog treats when off leash because safety > calories, but at home carrots serve as highly welcome rewards.
This is our third pack of dogs. Having experienced the complete life cycle twice it is clear that keeping our dogs’ weight under control doesn’t just improve longevity; it makes a huge and noticeable difference in their quality of life, especially as the dogs get old.
There are few things in life more rewarding than a mature, healthy, well-behaved dog. Our of sheer laziness, and keeping in mind how much work went into getting to that point, I don’t want to start over again any sooner than absolutely necessary lol.
And if nothing else, it is quite rewarding to bring a dog in for a checkup and hear the vet say, “Wow, your dog looks great!”
If only my doctor would say the same about me . . .
Hilary Ellis says
I have found weighing servings to be helpful. It keeps everyone feeding the dog on the same page.
Katie A. says
Pet weight can be as fraught as human weight. My best friends, who are up to date on the science, say “I know xxx will have shorter life because they are overweight. But they love food, and isn’t a shorter, happy life worth it?” I have no answer to that, but I would like to if anyone has any advice!
Arnette Small says
This is a common topic among groomers . We see the debilitating effects of obesity all the time in our clients ,joints , skin ,diabetes,heart I could go on . I’ve never in 50 plus years of approaching this in many different ways had one client do anything about it . They listen and some try but can’t stick to it . IMO it is abuse . It’s not about the dog it’s about how it makes them feel when they give the dog food or treats . If I had a nickel for everyone who said “ but he doesn’t eat anything “ I would be rich . I’ve told some of them if that’s true we can solve the world hunger problem by getting fat on air. It’s not about loving the dog , if you truly loved them you wouldn’t do this to them . Sorry for the rant but it’s so hard to see so many sweet lovely dogs in poor health and pain .
My senior Border Collie had three ortho surgeries last year (complications with the first led to the other two) and was on major to moderate exercise restrictions for that period of time because of it. Besides the fact that we both survived that year, I was most proud of the fact that she only gained 1-2# during that time because I switched her to a lower calorie kibble monitored her weight and fed accordingly. It really was pretty simple.
She’s back to running, playing and climbing on stuff pretty darn well for a senior dog. It’s pretty sweet to see! She’s also back to her normal food and maintaining her weight really well now that she’s more active again.
Cristina Meyer says
Thank you for addressing this problem!!!!
If I have 10 year old mixed breed and overweight is a problem since he was five. Then – not being overweight – he tore his cruciate. I switched to diet food and gave him so small amounts that it really hurt me. Less than my girlies with 8kg. But he kept his weight, now he is on normal kibble and I weigh his food. There are special devices, like big spoons, to weigh the food you give. This helps enormously.
The other dogs, my two 8kg girls and the 5 year old SWD mix, don’t have weight problems.
The fosters are mostly skin and ribs, the problem here is to get them to gain weight without digestive problems.
He formed huge lipoma – I wonder where these come from. His weight is perfect, a bit under 11 kg, he is fit, up and running and I monitor his weight constantly. But there are still these lipoma (one at the end of the ribcage, about fist sized). But he has more, smaller ones over the hips, at the chest. Size from peanut to small apple.
I wonder if there is a genetic link between overweight and lipoma? Even if the dog is not too fat.
i absolutely love @heidrun’s idea of having a separate bowl to see exactly how much food the dog is getting throughout the day!! genius!! :o)
many years ago, i had a dear friend tell me point blank, ” you know i love you and paco, and i tell you this because i want paco to live a long, long time. but…[dramatic pause] paco got FAT!” ouch! i have to admit her comment stung a little at the time, but when i thought about it, i could see my friend truly had paco’s health on her mind and indeed, wanted me to wake up and see that it was not good for him. i am/was so grateful for her honesty! now, i do try to tell friends when their dogs are overweight, but frame it as you do in the context of longevity and joint health.
paco gets a mix of raw and home cooked food. he did not do well on kibble- he was always bloated and gassy on it. i switched him to a raw diet, and experimented with portion size (as paula said, most recommendations for portion size on the bags of dog food are wayyy too generous) and the weight came off…additionally, his energy increased and he moved so much easier and more beautifully, without having to carry the excess poundage. i now weigh out his food on a kitchen scale, and that takes the guess work out of feedings. and make micro adjustments depending on our daily activity level. in our case, i did find i needed to experiment with portion size to find that sweet spot for my dog. and i know i will have to reconsider and change a bit more as he enters his senior years.
@nadia i used to live in nyc–and you probably already know this, but central park in manhattan, and prospect park in brooklyn have off leash dog hours in the early mornings in specific areas. in brooklyn, it was like a “doggy rave” on the long meadow. i am not sure if it’s feasible with your dog to have him off leash with many, many other dogs that are off leash, as you mention he has some reactivity? and if you don’t have a car, you can also take well behaved dogs on metro-north during off peak hours. there is great hiking in the hudson valley and in connecticut, and i have also seen dogs on the subway in backpacks and in bags-even big dogs in blue ikea bags with holes cut out for their legs so they can walk and still ‘abide by the rules,’ lol! i used to do a 3-4 mile hike in prospect park with paco off leash every weekday, and then we’d try to get upstate to hike on the weekends in the hudson valley. hope this helps!
Rose Lesniak says
I believe that feeding a dog only kibble…no matter what kind…contributes to an unhealthy dog who is eating inferior protein sources ,laden with unhealthy chemicals, preservatives and excess sugars.
I was shocked to learn my dog was on the way to obesity when we were at the vet in December – somehow he’d gone from a healthy 55 lbs to 62! Funny thing, is that I was pretty judgmental about his first family – I adopted him from a shelter, and when his first family dropped him off he was 65 lbs. He had lost the excess (and was actually a little underweight) by the time I adopted him but at the time I couldn’t imagine how they had let this dog get so overweight! So much for judgement.
But I had been trying to incorporate more “real” food and decrease his intake of factory-produced dry food and as it got colder we weren’t moving around outside as much. The vet joked about him putting on holiday weight, but I had to push a conversation about diet and found she wasn’t terribly inclined to participate (maybe time to see a different vet…). I find myself struggling to find good resources and was disappointed the vet didn’t seem to want to talk about this topic.
All to say that even though I try to by conscientious about my dog’s health/wellbeing in all the categories (food, exercise, mind games, socialization, etc), I still ended up with an overweight dog – ah! The good news is he’s lost a couple lbs and I know more about what to do to get back to & maintain that ideal weight.
MaryLynne Barber says
Trisha – thank you for your helpful comments re feeding my GSD/mix puppy. I love your blog and the pictures, as well as your books.
Formerly a VT, pet sitter, instructor & dog walker, currently a groomer and pet stuff retailer(year 25) Pet parents are confused about What to feed & how much… Dogs of all shapes, sizes and breeds maintain a healthy weight and maintain optimal Wellness, for life, when fed species appropriate foods, and get exercise. The unwillingness, of many pet parents, to adjust the diet and add exercise, to restore health to their pets,is heartbreaking… It’s rarely financial… More, not wanting the inconvenience,hassle. We counsel folks everyday about diet, health… Simply improving the diet can be life changing for a pet. Who loves us more?! Do we not owe them health and longevity?!
Jenny Haskins says
Sometimes vets are not the best people to ask.
I was nagging my daughter because one of her little dogs was very podgy, while the younger one was trim taut and terrific.
But when my daughter spoke to her vet, he said the porky one was a ‘good weight’ and the other was underweight 🙁
(However, they both lived to a ripe and senile, old age.)
Weight is absolutely an important consideration for health, and I do understand the concern and the desire to help. But also — please be a little careful about lecturing, particularly when you have limited information about the pet’s and owner’s personal situation. Pets can have health problems that contribute to weight gain, owners can have health problems that contribute to weight gain, pets/owners can be in the middle of a weight loss process and not need the umpteenth well-intended sermon, or owners can be making sensible decisions about priorities given their particular needs and capacities at the moment. It’s not always as simple as “irresponsible owner” or “ignorant owner.”
So if weight is directly relevant to the reason you’re interacting, that’s one thing. But often it seems that people are quick to assume the owner doesn’t know what a calorie is, and that sort of unsolicited advice can be truly exhausting, particularly when there are underlying health issues that the owner may not be comfortable discussing with a relative stranger. And it can be frustrating to spend time on that sort of lecture, as well, if you’re there as a client in order to discuss something else entirely and/or are consulting someone whose professional expertise is not centered on weight/nutrition/related areas. And I definitely do understand the concern! But please be a little cautious, as well.
When my family got our first dog, we fed her too little. The recommended ration was way too small for her. She had a really high base metabolism, got several long walks daily, and would walk from window to window inside. She got to be so hungry that she ate candles. We thought it was a behavior issue and were not just surprised but truly aghast when our vet told us that she was underweight. The shelter never told us how her rips should feel (or that testing that was even a thing). We tried to make her body proportionate to her head, but due to her (mixed) breed, her ideal proportions were than for many other dogs. (Our best guess as to her breed remains border collie, some kind of spitz breed, and maybe something like a greyhound.) Obviously we fed her more once we knew she needed that.
My second dog got fat because I kept feeding him the amount the agency I got him from told me. However, they had gotten him from another agency and had somehow mixed up the numbers: The amount was supposed to be per day and not per meal like they had told me. Luckily it got caught before the weight gain was outrageous. A switch to a different kind of food also caused some weight gain before I figured out the correct amount.
My present/third dog has never been truly over- or underweight. Sometimes she was slightly off, but because I know what she should feel like and check fairly often, I’ve always caught it before caused any really problems. People often make comments about how thin she is, ones that imply that it somehow makes her a cuter and better dog. That makes me really uncomfortable. An ideal weight can improve her quality (and quantity) of life and is thus important, but it does not make her a more worthwhile person. The people often make disparaging comments about their overweight dogs at the same time, which is just wrong.
Melanie Hawkes says
My dog was overweight for a few years, because he was reactive to traffic it was difficult to walk him and I had to countercondition him to noises at home all day. Then he developed allergies and joint pain. Last January I switched to raw food and he lost 1kg a month for the first six months! He looks great now and is more active and willing to play. I asked my vet last year what more could be done for his pain, and he told me I had done it! A healthy weight is more than any medical intervention could do for joint pain! I was chuffed!
My mind was set up with the idea that fat dogs were cute and attractive . But to the info you gave, you enlighten me with the reality that slimmer dogs had longer lives so gonna watch my dogs diet from now on.Thanks for the info!
It’s true, slimmer dogs tend to live longer compared to fat dogs. Fat dogs have various types of diseases that are caused by the fat. Similarly, the little dogs tend to live longer than the big dogs. For example, a teacup Pomeranian lives a very long life, even longer than the standard pomeranians. So, I must say, size matters in the lifespan of dogs.