Summer 2012 Magazine

Casa Canine

Don't Pack Your Dog in Your Emotional Baggage:
The Problem of Canine Obesity

By Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

It's in the news, on talk shows, in newspapers and magazines. I am sure you've heard. Americans have been supersizing their meals and their weight. The statistics are shocking. Over 60% of Americans are either overweight or obese. What you may not have heard is that people aren't the only ones affected by overweight and obesity. Our dogs are, too! Recent data show that more than 50% of American dogs are overweight or obese. Unlike the human population, dogs are not ordering supersized takeout food, overeating at meals, making unhealthy choices at the supermarket or gorging on too many snacks and empty calories. They suffer at the hands of the very people who should ensure that they are given healthy meals, adequate nutrition and plenty of daily exercise.

Why are dogs overweight? Fifi doesn't saunter up to the frig and rustle up a bacon-cheeseburger with fries by herself. Our dogs are totally dependent on us for what they eat. The truth is our overweight canine companions are our fault. We share our bad food habits with our dogs. We humans eat not just for sustenance. We have all kinds of emotional issues with food. Most of us have grown up in a culture where food is equated with love. Think about Mom's home-baked chocolate chip cookies after school or hot, bubbly mac & cheese for dinner. Yummy and soothing, those comfort foods made us forget our troubles for a little while. Remembrance of those foods, even years later, brings back feelings of warmth and affection. And nobody counted calories! For Americans, chubby-cheeked babies and pudgy pups were not only acceptable, they were deigned the height of cuteness. Food is used across the emotional gamut. We feed ourselves or others when we're sad, depressed, lonely, bored, unloved, stressed out and when we feel guilty. Unfortunately, the issues we have about food are transferred to our dogs. When we are too busy to play with Fifi, a dog biscuit or piece of pizza crust is not the answer. Food is not a substitute for our time and affection which is what our dogs really want and need from us.

In the last decade, veterinarians have become more aware of the problem of overweight and obese dogs thanks in large part to Dr. Ernie Ward. Dr. Ward is not only a veterinarian, he is also a certified personal trainer, a USA Triathlon certified coach and an Ironman athlete. To him, the parallels between human and dog obesity problems were striking. In 2005, Dr. Ward founded the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). "Obesity is the #1 problem in pets because it leads to so many serious secondary health problems," cautions Ward. He has used a multi-pronged approach to tackle this heavy issue. The first step was to gauge the extent of the problem. Through APOP, Ward began compiling annual statistics on the prevalence of overweight pets as seen by veterinarians. The second step was to create increased awareness of the problem and the devastating consequences of excess weight in our animal companions. Ward focused on educating both veterinarians and the general public. The next step was to present solutions. These include both strategies for canine weight loss as well as programs for maintaining healthy lifestyles for both dogs and their people. Ward has popularized parallel weight loss programs people and their dogs where both lose weight and exercise together.

How serious are the problems caused by excessive weight? Among the weight-related problems in dogs are osteoarthritis, cranial cruciate ligament problems, diabetes, heart and lung diseases, kidney disease, joint problems, cancer and more. Excess weight also causes difficulties with anesthesia should your dog require surgery. Ward emphasizes, ".many of these problems can be avoided or reversed by keeping your dog at a healthy weight." The payback is that your dog will live a better quality life with less pain and illness. You will spend less time and money for canine medical care. And your beloved companion will live longer - about two years longer according to the 14-year long Purina Lifespan Study.

How do I know if my dog is overweight? "If you are asking yourself that question, she probably is," says Dr. Ward. To get a general idea, you can do a little testing. Run your hand along your dog's rib cage. You should be able to count each rib (dogs have 13 pairs of ribs). There should be no more than " of jelly-like fat covering the ribs. An inch or more indicates a problem. Next look at your dog. Is her abdomen sagging? If your dog's tummy is nearing the floor instead of being nicely tucked up between the rib cage and hips, this is another indication of excess weight. Your veterinarian call help determine your dog's weight status if you are unsure.

Doggy dieting? If your dog is overweight, don't try to reduce her weight by simply cutting her daily food consumption. A healthy diet needs to be nutritionally sound as well as satisfying to your dog. Seek help from your veterinarian to design a weight loss program tailored for your dog. This involves both diet and exercise. The right foods with the right balance of nutrients will help your dog lose weight and feel satisfied. Equally important is regular exercise. A nice long walk stimulates your dog's body and mind, and helps keep weight in check. It is a social activity with health benefits for both you and your canine companion.

Once your dog reaches a good weight, a lifelong program of nutrition and exercise will help your dog stay at a healthy weight. This may involve changing your own bad habits. If you can't resist feeding your dog scraps under the table, keep her out of the room while you dine. Young children are another source of dinner table problems. Dogs just love to plop themselves under the highchair to vacuum up the food baby drops! While it may be easier than cleaning up the mess yourself, it can put unhealthy pounds onto your dog. (Caution: in addition to excess calories, some foods dropped to the floor by children can be toxic for your dog, e.g., grapes & raisins.) Feed your dog only from her bowl, including the occasional treat. She will learn not to expect handouts. If your dog always seems hungry, feeding several small meals a day may help to keep her sated.

You can do it! If you love your dog, leave your emotional food baggage at the door. When Fifi looks at you with sad eyes because you haven't been able to spend much time with her lately, think about what she's really asking for. It's you, not more food that she craves. Stop the overfeeding. Skip the excessive treats and the scraps from the dinner table. Pick up that leash and take Fifi for a jog. It will do you both good and I guarantee your dog will love you for it.

Special thanks to Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) founder Dr. Ernie Ward whose book Chow Hound is available on If you would like to participate in APOP's 2012 veterinary or pet owner Pet Obesity Awareness surveys, please visit APOP's website: Click on National Pet Obesity Day survey.

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is a writer and columnist for PETroglyphs and an author of children's books about dogs. She lives with her husband and her two canine companions, Gus and Etta.

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