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Obesity in Dogs

Animals Affected

Dogs

Overview

Obesity is a syndrome in which the amount of excess body fat an individual carries is great enough to cause harm to health and well-being.  Obesity is a debilitating syndrome that is linked to a number of serious health consequences for dogs.

A number of factors play a role in the development of obesity in dogs.  However, the root cause of obesity is the consumption of more calories than the body needs.

For many dogs, obesity and its adverse consequences can be eliminated if the people who care for the dog commit to a weight loss program.

Symptoms

  • Obese dogs carry excess body fat.  Due to the distribution of fat on the dogs' bodies and the presence of a thick hair coat on many individuals, canine obesity is not always obvious to people who have not been trained to recognize it.  To qualify as obese, a dog must carry a quantity of excess body fat that compromises its health and well-being.
  • Obese dogs may be noticeably sedentary.   They may be reluctant to exercise, and become easily tired or winded during play.
  • Obese dogs may be noted to have difficulty climbing, walking, running, and jumping.
  • Some obese dogs have noticeably strong appetites.  These dogs may beg for food or constantly act hungry.  However, this trait is not universal among overweight dogs.

Risk Factors and Prevention

Diet and lifestyle play a role in canine obesity.

  • Dogs who do not exercise or go for walks are more likely to be obese.
  • Dogs that eat high-calorie or highly palatable (very tasty) food are at risk of gaining weight.  The same is true for dogs that receive treats and table scraps, or that consistently (and successfully) beg for food.

Several risk factors for obesity are related to a dog's genes and underlying health and metabolism.

  • Older dogs are more likely to be overweight than young (1 - 3 years) dogs.
  • A genetic or hereditary predisposition to obesity is likely.  Some animals have naturally low metabolisms or strong appetites.  Some breeds (such as Beagles, Labrador Retrievers, and Cocker Spaniels) appear to be predisposed to obesity.
  • Dogs with metabolic syndromes such as hypothyroidism or Cushing's disease are predisposed to obesity.
  • Medications such as prednisone and phenobarbital can cause weight gain.
  • Dogs that have been spayed or neutered appear to suffer increased rates of obesity.   However, most experts agree that the health benefits of spaying and neutering outweigh this risk.

Finally, factors related to the humans and animals that live with dogs can predispose them to obesity.

  • Dogs may be overfed in large households where multiple people can offer food.
  • Dogs that are fed by children or very elderly people may receive too much food.
  • Dogs that are free-fed from large food bowls are extremely likely to over eat.
  • Dogs that routinely eat another animal's food may gain weight.
  • Weight gain is common in dogs that live in households where scavenging is possible.  For example, dogs that live with toddlers quickly learn to spend meal times near the high chair.
  • Elderly or disabled dog owners may be physically unable to offer walks and exercise.

Complications

  • Obesity can lead to a lack of tolerance for exercise, reduced quality of life, and an inability to enjoy activities with the owner.
  • Obesity can exacerbate and contribute to arthritis and mobility problems. In older, large dogs, severe mobility problems due to obesity sometimes lead to euthanasia.
  • Obesity can contribute to skin disease and infections.
  • Urinary tract infections may be linked to obesity.
  • Collapsing trachea and other respiratory problems are exacerbated by obesity.
  • Obesity increases the risk of complications during anesthesia and surgery.
  • Obese dogs are predisposed to pancreatitis and diabetes mellitus.
  • Obesity can exacerbate heart disease and kidney disease in dogs.  Note that obesity, by itself, usually does not cause heart disease in dogs.
  • Obesity has been linked in some studies to cancer, incontinence, heat intolerance, decreased immune function, difficulty giving birth, and difficulty breathing.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis of obesity is based on physical assessment by a veterinarian.  Metrics similar to body mass index (which is widely used in humans) exist for dogs but are not commonly used.

Treatment

Treatment of obesity is based upon reducing caloric intake and increasing caloric expenditures.

  • Increased activity is tremendously beneficial for weight loss.   Increased walking, play, and exercise are enjoyable for most dogs and lead to increased calorie consumption.  Owners of obese dogs should talk to their veterinarian before increasing activity to ensure that the level of activity chosen does not stress the dog's body.   In some instances people who are physically unable to exercise their dogs can hire dog walkers or can rely upon friends or relatives for this purpose.
  • Food intake should be controlled by the owner.  Overweight dogs should not be free-fed.  Measured meals should be offered instead.  One adult should be responsible for all feeding.
  • Owners should consider adjusting the type of food that is fed.  Veterinarians can recommend low-calorie foods that are designed to facilitate weight loss.  Table scraps should be eliminated, and treats should be infrequent and low-calorie.
  • Dogs in weight control programs should be prevented from consuming food that is not intended for them.  Other animals should be fed in an isolated location.   If applicable, dogs should not be allowed in the dining room while toddlers are eating.
  • Medical conditions that contribute to obesity should be treated if they exist.
  • Owners can consider placing meals inside of a toy that slowly releases food as the dog plays with it.  This prolongs meal times and causes some dogs to be satisfied with less food.
  • The FDA has approved a medication (Slentrol®, also known as dirlotapide) that may aid in canine weight loss.

Follow-up

Weight management programs should take place under veterinary supervision.  Periodic health checks and progress assessments will be necessary.

Most weight loss programs are effective only if the changes made are permanent.  In other words, successful programs do not involve dieting.  Rather, they require permanent lifestyle changes.

With commitment on the part of all people who live with the dog, most canine weight loss programs are successful.  However, weight loss is easier for some dogs than for others. Failure of a dog to lose weight should not be interpreted as the fault of the owner.  Despite the sometimes frustrating nature of eliminating obesity in dogs, the benefits of weight loss are great enough that owners should remain dedicated to the cause.

Copyright © Eric Barchas, DVM All rights reserved.
The contents of this page are provided for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstances should this page be substituted for professional consultation with a veterinarian.