By Dr. Cliff Faver
In my 32 years of practice, there was one trending concern among my clients that was frequently communicated. This concern, expressed in many ways, almost always translated to this bold statement: “My dog is getting fat and I can’t understand why, because he is a picky eater.” Now, to most people, this problem of obesity correlates directly to overfeeding; however, there are several other causes that factor in.
Can we, as humans, all rely on the same diet to maintain our healthiest body weight, regardless of lifestyle, activity level, age, etc.? The answer is no. So why would we think otherwise with our dogs?
Many clients would state that they feed their dogs two cups of food a day, not understanding the reason for weight gain. Rather than make a blanket statement that two cups is right for your dog, I would prompt a conversation asking about the lifestyle, age and activity level of the dog. Also, what type of food are you providing for your dog? There are various factors that come into play when determining the cause of the weight gain in our canine companions.
To feed a dog correctly, one should calculate the kilocalories that your individual dog should eat (including snacks) and then adjust it accordingly for activity. My benchmark statement is, “you should take what the directions state on the bag and drop it by 10%, then adjust in accordance to how the dog does”. Many of the recommendations on the bag are excessive. Dog food manufacturers have done an acceptable approximation of food needed for the weight of the dog; however, they are also in the business to sell dog food, therefore, in my opinion, many of them continue on the lofty end of the scale on their suggestions.
Many dog owners choose to free-feed their dogs and they will successfully thrive on the method; however, most of us are not that lucky. Some dogs naturally regulate their body weight and food intake, but many do not know when to stop eating. A substantial issue is human interference. A statement that I received from a client of a grossly obese dog was that his dog was such a picky eater that he had to add canned food to his diet to encourage him to eat (hmm?). Top dressing (adding canned food or goodies) is a common tool many owners do to “love” their dog into obesity.
Another common error is providing several different dog foods so the dog doesn’t get “bored”. Boredom is more of a human concern (and sometimes a cat one) more so than a dog issue. If consistency is maintained, then we will see a reduced issue with obesity, because dogs would eat out of need, not out of want. The further you vary their diet, the more they will crave variation—ultimately leading to progressive weight gain. Variation can also be detrimental if you have a dog with food allergies, because the more proteins the dog is exposed to, the greater the chance of an allergy development.
Several clients believe that, in order to benefit from the lack of nutrition in certain foods, it is necessary to supplement with alternate foods. This common error by assumption can be avoided by feeding your dog a high quality food from the start. In the modern era, most of our diets are nutritionally sound—at least on paper. The substantial issue is the bioavailability. In the past, many of the diets were animal tested (as listed on the AAFCO statement); however, because of the increased costs of animal testing, a majority have fallen back into the formulated category (as listed on AAFCO statement). This means that the diet meets the qualifications (nutritionally) based on a computer model, but crucially no guarantee that it does in reality (bioavailable). Alternating diet to solve this issue is most definitely not the answer because there is no way of truly balancing the diet in correlation to the deficiency—unless you can pinpoint the exact insufficiency.
Another area many consumers are not aware of is how things are listed on the AAFCO (American Feed Control Officials) statement, which has led to confusion. The AAFCO statement is on every bag of food and is important to be aware of and educated on. The three main categories from the AAFCO statement (in addition to animal tested and formulated) are the life stages in which the food is designed for. The two categories of the past were adults (not senior), puppies and pregnant bitches. Recently, another stage has been added which is for ALL LIFE STAGES. In order to get this classification with AAFCO, these diets must meet the most stringent criteria, which is the nutritional benefits needed for puppies and pregnant bitches (why not just say that?). So unbeknownst to many consumers, they are feeding their older dog food that is geared towards puppies, thus adding to the obesity issues.
The most consistent issue I found in my years of practice was not the food, but the habitual supplementation of treats within the diet. For years, one influential manufacturer convinced us that by providing their treats to our dogs, we could keep their teeth squeaky clean. Great marketing, but no scientific evidence to back up the claim. Unfortunately, the consumers fell into this propaganda trap and the treats were labeled as beneficial. This of course led to the assumption that, if one treat was beneficial, then additional treats would be even more effective. This translated to every member of the family giving Fido an unnecessary number of treats and now, unknowingly, the dog was provided with significantly more than its recommended daily calorie requirement.
Helping our canine companions maintain a healthy weight is very important for their longevity. Many small dogs die from the secondary effects of obesity, which almost always manifest into heart and lung issues. Numerous, if not a majority of, large dogs are euthanized due to arthritis causing back and hip issues, which are exacerbated by obesity. We need to love our dogs to the absolute fullest, but with praise and quality time, not with food. ✂️
Dr. Cliff Faver graduated with a BS in Biology/BA in Chemistry before getting a Veterinary degree in 1987. He is the past owner of Animal Health Services in Cave Creek, Arizona and now the US distributor for Iv San Bernard products, teaches the ISB Pet Aesthetician Certification program, and speaks internationally on hair and skin. His passion is to merge groomers and veterinarians to aid in helping and healing pets. He is also a member of AVMA, AAHA, AZVMA, Board member with Burbank Kennel Club, and has served on Novartis Lead Committee, Hill’s International Global Veterinary Board, and a Veterinary Management Group.