Killing Them With Kindness

I love dogs. I have to: my profession isn’t known for being a particularly lucrative or stress-free one. Trainers who don’t adore both dogs and their humans burn out quickly.

That said, I don’t find images of roly-poly puppies appealing in the least. Round pug and bulldog bellies don’t make me smile, and pictures of winning show Labradors not only don’t impress me, they make it difficult for me to keep from grimacing in concern.

Photo by Chuan

Last Friday, I posted some pictures of one of my dogs, Layla, lure coursing. I mentioned that there was something that concerned me about these pictures. Here’s the dirty secret: my dog was not in very good shape to be engaging in such strenuous physical activity.

Anyone who looked at Layla’s pictures would be hard-pressed to see this issue, as it was relatively minor. Layla had gained 3 pounds over the winter, going from 30 to 33 pounds. This sounds like a small change, but its effects were noticeable. This slight weight increase in my small dog would be similar to a 150 pound person gaining 15 extra pounds. With just this slight amount of weight gain, Layla was at a higher risk for joint or muscle injuries. She was much more sore after coursing, requiring a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication. Her performance suffered slightly, with her speed decreasing. The strain on her heart and lungs was greater.

Here’s a picture of Layla lure coursing when she weighed 30 pounds, compared to 33 pounds (click to view larger images). Can you see the difference?

Layla coursing at 30 pounds. (Photo by Lois Stanfield)

Layla at 33 pounds. (Photo by Lois Stanfield)

I often get asked which brand or type of dog food is the best one. This question misses the bigger issue. Here’s the thing: what you feed your dog doesn’t matter nearly as much as how much you feed.

Excess weight kills dogs. Purina recently ran a ground-breaking 14-year-long study on the effects of weight on dogs, and the results were sobering. Dogs who were kept lean lived, on average, 2 years longer than their slightly-chunky littermates. These lean dogs also showed fewer signs of aging and suffered less from hip issues, arthritis, and heart problems.

We’re killing some dogs with kindness, and it’s incredibly sad. I feel the same horror at seeing a morbidly obese dog as I do at seeing a starving animal with his hip bones and spine jutting out. It’s all about balance.

How can you tell whether your dog’s at an appropriate weight? A lean dog will have ribs that are easily felt as your run your hand down his side. If you have to press or dig to find ribs under a layer of fat, your dog is likely overweight. If your dog has a short coat, you may be able to see the last rib or two. Your dog should also have a definite tuck-up when viewed from the side, where the belly “tucks up” between the rib cage and the hind legs. If your dog’s belly is level with or sagging below the level of his rib cage, he may need to lose a few pounds.

So, how can you keep your dog at a healthy weight? Barring certain medical causes for obesity, the formula is simple: feed less and exercise more. Forget about feeding your dog the amount that the dog food bag recommends. I’ve never had a dog eat the amount of food that the pet food company lists. Instead, feed the amount that works to keep your dog at a healthy weight. If he seems to be losing too much, increase his food a little. If he’s getting a bit chunky, cut back. Make sure to make any changes slowly, never changing the amount you feed by more than 10%. Don’t forget that you can always ask your vet if you have questions.

A lean dog is a healthy dog, and healthy dogs live longer. I love dogs, and I want my dogs to live long, healthy lives. I want the same for my clients’ dogs, and know that they do too. Feeding your dog the correct amount to keep him lean is one easy way to improve his quality of life, and to extend that life.

Does your dog need to lose a few pounds? What do you do to keep your pets at a healthy weight? Do they eat the “recommended” amount of food from the pet food company, or did you need to tweak that amount? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

7 responses to “Killing Them With Kindness

  1. I am perhaps a bit more… obsessive… than other people. I used an article from the Whole Dog Journal to calculate my dog’s daily caloric needs. Then I figured out how many calories are in the different things I feed her, whether that was her daily food portion, the treats I use in training, or the chewies she gets as a treat. I used to actually count everything that went in her mouth (it was around the same time I was doing Weight Watchers for myself!) but now I just mentally eyeball things.

  2. We were feeding our cat the amount that it recommended on the bag (not knowing any better!) and she quickly ballooned to an obese weight. Thankfully, our veterinarian put us on the right track. We decreased her food and she’s now a healthy weight. We even bought a scale so we could weigh her to make sure (and to adjust her food appropriately). Her risk of diabetes is much lower now and although she thinks she is being starved (don’t they all?), I am happy knowing she is much healthier.

  3. Great post. I’ve always said, “If your dog looks too skinny, he’s probably just right!” Lean is mean.

  4. Christi Skamfer

    “winning show Labradors not only don’t impress me, they make it difficult for me to keep from grimacing in concern.”

    Thank you! This may have been the point where I started applauding, but this whole blog was spot-on.

  5. Thank you for this terrific blog post…definitely worth reading. You’ve spelled it out very succinctly. Keeping dogs at a healthy weight does so much to increase their health, decrease the likelihood of injury, and possibly extend lives.

    I would also like to add that people who raise puppies need to understand that their dog’s caloric needs will slow significantly anywhere from 9 months to 1.5 years. Puppies are eating to support growth and extreme levels of activity (play,) and many people who have their dogs from puppyhood don’t realize that they need to continuously re-evaluate what their puppy is eating: which usually means increasing as puppy grows, and then decreasing at some point when they are close to their adult size. This is often when the weight problem begins for dogs, and because people are acustomed to seeing the dogs size change, they often don’t notice that the dog is growing OUT instead of UP.

    I feed my dogs according to their activity level on a certain day or within a certain time frame. Feeding a dog the same amount every day has never made sense to me. People seldom eat the same amount each and every day. If my dogs have a day where they are mostly laying around (rainy days come to mind) I decrease their daily food ration by 1/6 to 1/4 per meal. If they have a day where they expend a ton of energy (long hikes come to mind) I might add in an extra bit of food.

  6. I just started feeding my dog whole raw food and discovered something: she doesn’t need to eat as much as she did the ground raw. Like Layla, she’s gained 3-4lbs (41lbs now, she should be 37lbs even) and while everyone else thinks she looks good, I can’t help thinking, omd you’re fat, haha.

    I totally second Kim’s opinion, too: there’s absolutely no reason to feed the same amount every single day. Economically *and* health-wise, you’re better off not feeding the same every day.

  7. So true! Particularly for large breed dogs like my own (lean at 78lbs).
    Keeping him lean is important since his hips aren’t perfect.

    As someone who uses food puzzles A LOT with him, I make sure to subtract whatever he got in his toys from his daily amount.

    There was a period when I had to teach him some physiotherapy exercises with food- and for a while I found myself putting his meals in bait bags and having him work for each and every kibble he ate. That way I was able to work him with a lot of food but still keep him trim.

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