A healthy diet - especially when combined with regular exercise - can work wonders toward maintaining your dog's health from youth through old age. In some cases, changes to your pet's diet will also help alleviate the symptoms of diseases and health conditions. In fact, many common health problems, including heart disease and arthritis are exacerbated by obesity and an unbalanced diet. If this sounds familiar from visits to your own doctor, it should! Like you, a dog requires a nutritionally balanced diet and exercise to thrive.
Learn more about how the right dog weight and diet will prevent, or help to treat, health concerns in your dog.
Think a tubby puppy is cute? Not so: As with people, excess weight puts a strain on your dog’s body. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, nearly half of American pet cats and dogs are overweight or obese. This extra weight can lead to serious health problems, worsen pre-existing conditions, and make day-to-day life challenging and uncomfortable for your dog.
When dogs are overweight, it's generally the result of too many calories being ingested and too little exercise. (In some cases, big weight gains can be the result of an underlying health problem such as Cushing’s disease or hypothyroidism – with those conditions, diet and exercise may not move the scale.)
The best way to prevent your dog from gaining too much weight is to feed them a distinct daily portion over two or more meals per day. Do not leave food out at all times - as with people, having food constantly available may encourage your dog to overeat from boredom.
If your dog is overweight, as well as setting up a fixed mealtime, a good weight loss strategy will involve limiting treats. Use praise and affection to motivate your dog - treats should comprise only a small percentage of your dog’s total caloric intake. Take a look at your dog food: Protein should be the main ingredient, in the form of meat or meat by-products. When food isn't nutritionally sound, your dog may overeat just to get a satisfying meal. If you're changing food to help them lose weight, make the shift gradually; a smooth transition will help reduce upset tummies.
Being overweight or obese often accentuates the symptoms of diseases, or can lead to dogs developing chronic conditions such as:
- Hip Dysplasia: While some causes of hip dysplasia are genetic, environmental aspects also play a role. Rapid weight gain or obesity can make the condition worse since excessive weight translates into more pain when walking. For breeds that are particularly susceptible to hip dysplasia, feeding puppies a reduced amount of food and maintaining an appropriate body condition can help prevent the condition. Heavier dogs have a harder time comfortably supporting themselves, potentially making a joint problem worse. While overeating can propel dogs toward hip dysplasia, a nutritionally sound diet can help them live comfortably. Many food manufacturers have foods that are tailored to dogs with joint related problems.
- Heart Disease: The heart has to work harder in overweight dogs. Weight gain in not a factor in all heart diseases, but when your dog is overweight hypertension can be an issue, which makes the heart work harder to do its job. Diet generally has a role in treatment. Vets recommend a low sodium, high nutrient diet. Food with appropriate protein, omega three fatty acids and restricted in sodium are available from your veterinarian depending on the stage of the disease. Watch out for treats, too, which tend to be high in sodium. Dogs should always have access to plenty of fresh water, particularly if they’re taking medication.
- Diabetes: Although overweight dogs do not show a definitive connection between obesity and type II diabetes like humans and cats, overweight dogs can develop insulin resistance similar to metabolic syndrome in people. Weight loss and exercise can help return or normalize your dog's metabolism. Dietary treatment of type I diabetes in dogs (the type of diabetes that most dogs get) often includes the use of dietary fiber which helps increase the time over which carbohydrates are absorbed. Therefore, the glucose spikes in the blood are not as drastic. As with all weight loss plans, aim to monitor your dog’s portion sizes and limit food intake.
- Arthritis: Extra weight on a dog places pressure on their joints and cartilage, which can cause arthritis to start early and reduce mobility. Keep dogs at a healthy weight to prevent arthritis from occurring, or to prevent the pain associated with the arthritis. When pets have arthritis, exercise can be painful, so put arthritic dogs on a healthy diet enriched with long chain omega three fatty acids for their anti-inflammatory properties and follow general weight loss guidelines.
- Kidney Disease: The jury is still out as to whether obesity exacerbates kidney disease. A kidney diet is generally recommended as part of the treatment plan for this chronic disease. There is debate concerning the merits of low protein diets for chronic kidney conditions, but rest assured that a lower sodium and phosphorus diet will be beneficial. Your vet can help you choose the best diet for your dog as there are many choices for dogs depending on whether they are in early or late chronic kidney failure.
- Skin Conditions & Food Allergies: Dogs with food allergies or food intolerance can respond with gastrointestinal issues (such as vomiting and diarrhea) or may develop skin conditions like hot spots, excessive grooming, and pruritus (or, extreme itching). If your dog is experiencing an allergic response to food, you can try to identify and limit the ingredient that causes the reaction or you can provide your dog with an allergy-friendly brand of food. These foods are generally called “novel protein” or “limited ingredient” diets that are sold by veterinarians, as well as some commercially available non prescription diets. Dogs can also develop dry, itchy skin and dandruff when their diet does not have enough nutrients and lacks fatty acids. In that case, try giving fish oil supplements or shifting your dog to a diet with a high fat content. Obesity in general does not have a direct effect on skin issues, but proper grooming behaviors require great flexibility which is hindered when a dog is severely obese.
Healthy Diets for Healthy Dogs
A nutritionally sound diet goes a long way toward maintaining your dog’s health and helping your pet avoid chronic conditions, many that are related to obesity. With many diseases, diet changes can play a big role in helping your dog live in greater comfort. Ask your vet to help you review which foods make the most sense for your dog based on age, health, and amount of exercise.
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This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.