I always have trouble writing headlines on my posts, but this one was worse than usual. That's because I'm normally allergic to headlines about the secrets of human weight loss that I see on the covers of magazines while standing in line at the market.
The thing is, weight loss for dogs really does appear to be a secret, because somewhere around half of all pet dogs are fat. Why is that?
Conventional wisdom tells us it's because we feed them too much and exercise them too little, and certainly that's a factor. I sometimes think it's as much symptom as cause, though, of a bigger problem.
Modern life doesn't just turn us and our dogs into couch potatoes and snackers. It feeds us chemically enhanced foods designed to make us eat larger portions, more frequently; it does this with both "natural flavorings" concocted in a food lab in New Jersey somewhere, and also with that old stand-by, sugar.
It surrounds us pretty much 24/7 with light and noise, making true deep, restful sleep almost impossible.
Our schedules rarely permit us to go on long walks with the dogs, and our lifestyles are usually sedentary and hectic. We're stressed out, our dogs are bored -- its own kind of stress -- and our hormonal systems (by which I mean the whole, complex endocrine system) are out of whack as a result of all those things.
Our dogs' hormonal systems are even more out of whack than most of ours, because we've sterilized them. And however little we want to admit it, altered pets are more likely to gain weight while eating fewer calories than intact pets.
And, as Dr. Patti Khuly pointed out the other day in her post on the topic, pet food labels make very little sense to humans used to the kind of labels we see on our food. You can't even tell how many calories are in a serving of commercial dog food from the label. It's absurd.
Fine, you say. You've totally depressed me. Now what?
Let me tell you how to make your dog lose weight.
First, if you're someone who wants to dump some kibble in a bowl twice a day and not think about it, then nothing I say here is going to help. Simply switching to a "lite" food isn't going to change anything, no matter what the pretty TV ads say. The claims those foods make are based on tests using strict portion control, and with little relevance to how most people live with their dogs.
So let's talk "portion control."
A healthy wild animal won't over-eat or become obese under normal circumstances. Their bodies evolved with a precise mechanism for storing fat, building muscle, and using stored fat when times are hard. That system might still be working perfectly well in most dogs; almost all my dogs have self-regulated without the slightest help from me. That's true of more than half the dogs in America, too.
But for the rest, not so much. Some breeds of dog have a high propensity both to over-eat and to pack on the pounds -- yes, I'm talking about you, Labrador retrievers. This is genetic. It really is. Which doesn't mean your Lab has a free pass to all the food he can eat (which will be infinity times two) and as much weight as he can gain (ditto). It means if you have a Lab, odds are very good you're going to need a strategy to maintain or regain his ideal body weight.
In fact, anyone with a fat dog is going to need a strategy. And look! I haz one!
First, for the love of dogs, go to the vet. Have her weigh your dog, have her establish your dog's goal weight, have her clear your dog for increased exercise and most critically and urgently and importantly and any other words like that you can think of, have her test your dog for hypothyroidism and Cushing's.
I have had three dogs with a weight problem in a very long life with many dogs. Two of them were diagnosed with Cushing's, a disorder of the adrenal glands, and the third was never diagnosed but almost certainly had it anyway.
Both of my diagnosed dogs immediately lost all their excess weight within a few months of being treated for their Cushing's.
Remember: normal, healthy animals in the wild won't get eat too much and won't get fat. Our dogs are not living in the wild, and we've altered them genetically, so you can't always count on that (see Labrador retriever), but if your dog has gained weight, there's possibly a reason for it that has nothing to do with calories and exercise. Please rule out those reasons before putting your dog on a diet and exercise program.
If your dog doesn't have an underlying health problem, the rest is uncomplicated but difficult.
Determine your dog's caloric needs. Dr. Patti covers that in her post, and your vet should be able to do those calculations, too.
This isn't quite as straightforward as Dr. Patti makes it seem. Or it is, but only if your dog is merely slightly overweight. If your dog is extremely overweight, my experience is that it's counterproductive to reduce calories too much at the start. I've seen dogs gain weight on reduced calorie diets when the switch was too drastic. (Probably a lot of women reading this are nodding their heads right now, too.)
If your dog is very fat, just calculate his current caloric intake. Measure how much you're feeding him -- and please be honest -- and figure out how many calories he's eating per day. You can get this data for commercial foods on the manufacturer's website or by calling them; you can calculate it for homemade diets the same way you'd calculate your own caloric intake.
Reduce his caloric intake by no more than 5 percent the first week.
Weigh your dog every week. If you have a small dog this isn't all that hard. Just weigh yourself, then pick him up and weigh the two of you together, then deduct your weight.
Those of us with bigger dogs need to find a veterinary scale. Many pet supply stores have them, and of course, nearly all vet's offices do. Whether you have to travel to your vet's office or the local feed supply store once a week, it's an essential part of your dog's weight loss. Find a way.
If your dog was very heavy and is losing slowly -- no more than 1-2 percent of his body weight per week -- great. Don't do anything different. When he stops losing, drop calories another 5 percent that week. Rinse. Repeat.
If your dog wasn't very heavy and you put him on the calorie level obtained from the formula Dr. Patti gave, as long as he's losing slowly, just stay the course. If he's losing more than 1-2 percent of his body weight per week, up his calories by 5 percent.
If he's not losing, drop him by 5 percent, but don't go below his base caloric requirement. If you're being honest and accurate, and your dog is not losing on his base caloric rate, it's almost certain he has an underlying health condition. Go back to your vet, and if necessary, ask to be referred to an internal medicine specialist or a vet school for a more complete work-up.
That last paragraph is the real reason I wrote this. Because I've seen way, way too many dogs whose owners gave up trying to help them lose weight because it didn't seem to work.
Yes, some of those owners are not really trying. I'm not talking about them. If you aren't being honest, aren't weighing and measuring, then you've got a psychological problem, not a factual one, and I don't know what to say about that.
But if you go a week or two sincerely measuring your dog's food, limiting his calories but not slashing them drastically, and he gains or maintains his weight? Something's wrong. And whether it's the epidemic of endocrine disorders caused by food additives, excessive ambient light and noise, disrupted sleep cycles and stress, or a disorder like hypothyroidism or Cushing's, it's going to need more than just a little calorie reduction to fix.
Foods for active weight loss. Some commercial foods and homemade recipes are calculated for what is called "active weight loss." I don't mean "lite" foods; they're just marketing gimmicks. "Active weight loss" on the label or in the recipe description means the food provides more nutrients at lower calorie levels. "Lite" just means each serving has fewer calories -- which might come at the cost of required nutrients.
Can you just feed less of a normally-formulated diet? Probably. Most people should start there, in fact, because many dogs are simply being over-fed or allowed to over-eat. Portion control of a normal recipe is usually enough. But if not, get a food or homemade recipe calculated for "active weight loss," and give that a try.
Exercise. You'll notice I've said fairly little about exercise. I believe in it. I think it's good for dogs and people, and I agree with the old saying, "If your dog is fat, you're not getting enough exercise." I'd love to see every dog in America getting ten times more exercise than he is right now, and think they and we would be much healthier, stronger, and leaner if that happened.
But your dog can lose weight without getting exercise, and sometimes cranking up the activity level makes him hungrier. By all means, if your vet says it's okay, give him ten or fifteen minutes of extra heart-pumping play every day. But calculate his caloric needs, and what levels he gains and loses at, before changing his exercise regimen. Then you can adjust them upward to make sure his weight loss stays slow and steady.
In other words, don't change multiple variables at one time.
All that said, if your dog's weight loss is all or partly caused by disrupted light explosure, boredom, and stress, there's nothing like walking and running in the natural sunlight to get the metabolism functioning properly. You're going to have to really think about your dog and his lifestyle, and use your intuition and your vet's advice to decide how much exercise to give him during this process.
But if your dog has physical limitations and can't exercise, don't give up. I've seen dogs crated after ACL surgery lose weight. It really is possible.
Dance with the one that brung ya. When you find what works, stick with it. Losing weight isn't something you do and then are done with; it's a permanent change. Think of obesity as a condition that can be put into remission with a therapeutic diet, but never cured. Your dog's caloric requirements may change as he ages, but the underlying principles of calculating caloric needs and not exceeding them will never change.
And neither will all the other things that impact what those caloric needs are, and how our dogs' bodies handle the food they eat. The endocrine disruption caused by surgical altering, too much artificial light, disrupted sleep patterns, and stress are very real, and every year we know more about how they affect different species and their metabolic health.
Prevention. Fresh air, sunshine, play, companionship, the right amount of wholesome foods -- and for once, yes, I'll just say it: a lifetime of processed foods is no healthier for our dogs than it is for us. Make your dog's food at least some of the time, if at all possible -- all those things will ensure your lean dog stays that way. And they're all many slightly overweight dogs need to get back to a healthy weight.
I have a few more tips and stories about canine weight loss, along with an interview about canine fitness with Dr. Marty Becker that I did a year or so ago, here.