This past summer was absolutely wonderful for spending time outside with your dog. Plenty of daylight to take walks morning and evening, and great weather for hiking on weekends, visiting the local dog park, and swimming in the lakes. If your dog gained a few extra pounds over the winter, hopefully the increased activity throughout the summer meant slimming down. But, like people, as your dog ages, it becomes harder to lose that weight. Being overweight is hard on an aging dog’s joints, as well as on the heart. Becoming more sedentary because of weight gain means less mental stimulation to help ward off signs of cognitive decline (senility). It would be great if we lived somewhere conducive to daily outdoor activity, but that isn’t always possible during the Wisconsin winters.
Weight gain doesn’t have to be inevitable. The first thing to do is evaluate your dog’s food. It is not yet a requirement for companies to list calories on dog food bags, but a good pet food company will have that information readily available on their website. The average overweight labrador retriever should be eating about 1,000 calories per day; a pudgy pug needs about 350 calories per day. Some dog foods contain 400 or more calories per cup. How many cups are you feeding your dog each day? Add in a couple large Milk-Bone treats at 120 calories each, not to mention that pizza crust or piece of chicken that fell on the floor, and you can see why pet obesity is the number one disease in our dogs today.
Choose a food that has 300 calories or less per cup and use a measuring cup to scoop each day. Look up the calorie counts—a food labeled “light” just means it has fewer calories than the regular food of that brand, not that it is particularly low in calories. Don’t just reduce the amount of regular food, as your dog may be losing out on nutrients if he isn’t eating the recommended amount on the bag. If your dog (or cat) is really overweight (more than 5–10 pounds depending on the size of your pet), talk with your veterinarian about a prescription weight loss diet to help him lose the weight safely.
If you are serving a low-calorie food and your pet still isn’t losing weight, evaluate the number and kind of treats you are giving. Contrary to popular belief, your adult dog does NOT need to get a treat every time she goes potty. Once a pet knows a command, intermittently rewarding the good behavior will keep the pet doing the behavior, thinking, “Maybe this time I’ll get the treat!” Pig ears contain around 185 calories each, and medium rawhides have up to 600 calories each.
Vegetables are great treats. Baby carrots are crunchy and sweet, and regular carrots make a good bone or chew substitute. Canned green beans (ideally low-sodium or rinsed) mix well with dry kibble or can be fed as a treat from the table instead of whatever is on your plate. Almost any vegetable your pet likes can be used as a treat. Frozen mixed vegetables are a lot of fun to slide across the floor! Avoid onions and garlic as they can cause the red blood cells in your dog to burst. Starchy vegetables, like potatoes, corn, and peas, are much higher in calories, so use in moderation.
Cheerios and 94 percent fat-free microwave popcorn are low in calories and can be thrown across the room to get your dog a little exercise too. Fruit, like apples or bananas, have more calories than vegetables, but are healthier than cheese, peanut butter, or most dog biscuits. Just be sure to give all treats in moderation; consider them a candy bar for your dog.
If your significant other is the culprit for overfeeding or overtreating your pet, try portion control. Measure out the dry kibble in small bags to make it easy to put in the bowl each day. Don’t buy large dog treats, and stick with the low-calorie (one and a half to three calories each) training treats or none at all. Have a can of green beans or cup of popcorn on the table at dinnertime so there is something to give the begging dog. Leave out research articles showing lean dogs live longer, have less arthritis, and are less likely to develop chronic health issues.
Exercise is also very important for weight loss. If the weather is too awful to go outside, spend some time tossing a soft toy in the house or rolling a whiffle ball down the hall. You can play hide and seek by having one person call the dog from a room on the other side of the house. Once your dog has gone to the other person, call her back. Chasing toys up and down stairs is great exercise. You can have your dog do squats by making him sit, stand, then sit again. Obedience, agility, or fly-ball classes are all taught inside and will stimulate both your dog’s muscles and brain.
If you have a treadmill at home, you can train your dog to walk on it. Start at a very slow speed, offering small treats to encourage your dog to stay on and walk. Gradually increase the speed of the treadmill and the amount of time. Ideally your dog would walk for 30 minutes twice a day, just like when the weather is nice.
If your dog already is showing signs of arthritis, stiffness, or tiring more quickly on walks, you will need to alleviate that pain before increasing exercise. Talk to your veterinarian about supplements, diets, pain medication, and/or other treatments that can make your dog more comfortable and more willing to move. As your dog loses weight, he will feel better, become more active, and often require fewer medications for the arthritis.
Hopefully the combination of fewer calories and increased activity will keep your dog from putting on those winter pounds. When spring rolls around again, your dog will be full of energy to go for long walks outside, and you won’t have to listen to your veterinarian talk about weight loss.
Lori Scarlett, DVM , is the owner and veterinarian at Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic. For more information, visit fourlakesvet.com .