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Getting Fit This Spring

By Annette Richmond, DVM


Weight gain occurs more easily for both people and dogs in the winter months as our natural metabolic rate slows down. Pair that up with cooler weather in some regions and fewer daylight hours here in California, and this creates a combination that tends to reduce activity and encourage weight gain. Since our own activity level often directly affects that of our dogs, we have to be extra diligent and creative to ensure we are giving our dogs the opportunity to exercise. We all know how hard it is to wake up on a cold and dark morning to go for a walk, but your furry companion will enjoy it and be healthier because of your dedication. Every spring we are offered a new beginning to get ourselves and our dogs back in shape.

How can we tell if our animals are overweight? There are some simple guidelines to follow. First of all, one should be able to feel the ribs when applying moderate pressure across the rib cage. This indicates that the layer of fat between the ribs and the skin is not too thick. Pinching the entire thickness of skin that lies across the rib cage is a clear indication of how much subcutaneous fat is present. Dogs should have a waist line that is visible when looking directly down at their backs from above. The waist is an indentation, directly behind the rib cage, revealing a wider rib cage and a slimmer torso.

Not only is the weight gain itself a problem that has to be addressed, overweight animals are also predisposed to other disorders. The most common includes problems with the musculoskeletal system, such as disc disease, ligament ruptures in the knee, and hip dysplasia. Both the cardiac and respiratory systems are affected and can put animals at higher risk during exercise or under anesthesia. Also, metabolic problems like pancreatitis can occur. The journey of weight loss can be challenging, even frustrating, but it is so important for our beloved animals.

It’s best to choose dog foods high in protein and low in carbohydrates for weight loss. Carbohydrates often come from grains in the food that are unnecessary and tend to promote weight gain and other disorders just as they do in people. Both gastrointestinal and skin disorders are often linked to grains in the food. Many pet foods contain preservatives, so reading the ingredients is crucial. Choosing foods that contain wholesome and recognizable ingredients is the healthiest option, as in raw foods, carefully formulated home-cooked foods, or high-quality dry and canned foods.

The quantity of food is just as important as the quality, and so it is imperative that the daily caloric intake or volume is known. Then the quantity can be reduced by 10–20 percent in the beginning while monitoring the amount of weight loss weekly. Also, dog treats should be real food—not junk food—and should be counted as part of the day’s total calories. High-protein meat treats or fruits land vegetables like raw apples and carrots are ideal. It is also imperative for all people in the household to abide by the feeding rules, which ensures that regulated amounts of food and treats are being given.

One weight loss trick is the following: once the desired amount of food has been subtracted from the total, add back double that amount in canned pumpkin or sweet potatoes. This gives dogs the feeling of being full while adding very few calories.

Everyday exercise is crucial for overall health and improved longevity. However, if a pet is severely overweight or hasn’t exercised regularly, then an exercise program should be increased slowly to decrease the likelihood of injury. Low-impact exercises are best, especially for dogs with any musculoskeletal disorders. This includes walking on soft terrain like dirt or sand, or swimming in the ocean or a lake. Exercising on a land treadmill or underwater treadmill, or indoor swimming can be advantageous for weight loss if owners have a hard time exercising their dogs outside.

One of our patients, Lucy, a Borzoi/Aussie, lost weight on a special program: her caretaker exercises her more, has reduced her food, brings her regularly for underwater treadmill exercise, and adds celery to her bowl of food—Lucy loves it!

Though it takes extra effort, maintaining our pets at their ideal body weight will allow them to live longer and healthier lives.


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