Dog on the Couch

2016-04-07 06:00

Dear Susan,

I HAVE been told by the vet that my dog is too fat. The vet suggested one of those expensive diets. The amount I am supposed to give her is so little, she is starving. She much prefers the table scraps and food we’ve always given her. I would rather her be a bit overweight and enjoy her life. I am wondering whether this isn’t just a sales tactic to sell the vet brand foods. What would you suggest I do?


Dear A.R.,

Loving owners want their pets to be part of the family. This often includes sleeping on beds and sharing meals. Even coffee, tea and alcohol are quite often shared.

A psychologist friend of mine uses the phrase “sharing is caring” when teaching children empathy. This applies to other humans, but sharing human food with our pets is not kind and can end disastrously.

There is not only the question of quantity to consider, but the suitability or otherwise. Most of us will readily recognise the signs of an over-fed dog, but few know that dogs and cats are not able to metabolise certain foods that we eat.

Unlike humans, dogs and cats are carnivores. That aside, a great deal of what we humans have become accustomed to is junk that we will favour our dogs by excluding from their diets. In so doing, you will not exclude your dog’s affection, which is what many people wrongly imagine they are doing when they share chocolate, cake, chips and so on with their dogs, effectively training the dog to expect to be handed the unhealthy and harmful food each time it is indulged in.

Perhaps the maternal instinct plays a part as well, substituting a cuddly, over-padded pet for a plump rounded baby - which of course would itself be better off excluded from the junk food.

It is documented that the life expectancy of overweight dogs and cats is 25% (three to four years) less than their slim counterparts (Kealy et al 2002). Research shows that “slim” dogs and cats are less likely to suffer health and related risks such as bone and joint stress, greater general anaesthetic risk, heatstroke, diabetes mellitus Type II, obesity induced insulin resistance, cystitis (cats), urinary incontinence (dogs), liver disorders (cats), non-allergic skin conditions, impaired ability to groom, reduced resistance to infection and disease, constipation, delayed wound healing after surgery, difficulty giving birth, pancreatitis, mammary cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure which can cause strokes and respiratory problems.

If you are able to feel the ribs without them being visible is a sign that your dog is at a healthy weight. The dog should have a distinct “waist” where the body narrows, just behind the rib cage and in front of the hindquarters, when viewed from above. When viewed from the side, a dog’s abdomen should appear to be slightly tucked up behind the rib cage. If a dog has fat deposits over its back and at the base of its tail, or if it lacks a waist or an abdominal tuck, there is probably a weight problem.

A weight gain of as little as one kilogram in a small dog is the equivalent of eight kilograms in a 55kg human. If you need to put your pet on a diet, it is important to be patient with reductions in weight. Ideally, weight loss should only be one to two percent per week which will amount to 100g per week in a 10kg dog.

Weight gain often occurs when there is an imbalance in the amount of calories ingested and expended. Therefore, an exercise programme to increase the amount of calories burnt is useful not only physically but mentally. This however needs to be done in consultation with your vet. The diet also needs to be adjusted to a calorie-controlled one which has low fat to reduce calories, low GI carbohydrates for sustained energy release, moderately-fermentable fibres such as beet-pulp for intestinal conditioning and L-carnitine to burn excess fat and preserve lean muscle.

Additional bills can occur from medical emergencies and treatments linked to overfeeding. In fact, feeding and treating pets with inappropriate food has been found to cost UK pet-owners around £215 million a year. An increase in obesity-related claims over the past few years is so serious that some pet insurers are considering cutting pay-outs for obese pets. Certain pet insurers already include clauses stating that pets not in a “normal healthy state” at the initial time of cover cannot later claim for related injury or illness.

Don’t spoil your dog by feeding scraps from the table. You will train him to expect these bad supplements to his proper eating regimen, and when things go wrong you will have to stop to bad habits, which is not easy on you or your dog. Feeding table food to a pet that is already receiving a nutritionally balanced pet food changes the carefully formulated balance of the pet’s proper diet. Indiscriminate feeding of treats and other ‘titbits’ is a major cause of excess weight gain.

It may help to give a comparison - a slice of bacon, which may be considered a “little treat”, eaten by a five kilogram dog would be equivalent to an average sized man eating five slices of bacon.

If you need to change bad habits, give your pets toys to play with or feed them their proper food at the same time the family eats. If you have an anorexic in the family make sure the dogs are not secret recipients of unwanted food. If you want to inculcate good habits from the start, follow the sensible course described, and don’t on any account let family members or visitors pass on snacks to your pets. Make sure your dog gets a minimum of 30 minutes a day health-appropriate exercise. If your dog’s exercise or activity is reduced, then food intake should be adjusted accordingly.

Susan Henderson© (accredited animal behaviourist).

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