Myrtle lost eight pounds.
I was impressed. A middle-aged Australian Shepherd, she’d never had puppies and couldn’t excuse her midlife spread by pointing at some handsome offspring to blame for the extra weight.
She had been spayed young (with the added benefit of almost guaranteeing no breast cancer in her life time) and as such, did not undergo the burden of hormonal changes late in life, so again, no excuses for the added pounds.
Like so many before her, Myrtle would garner no awards for discovering the mystery behind unwanted weight gain: too many calories in, not enough calories out (see definition “exercise.”) In short, Myrtle over-ate and slept in.
When you understand that she weighed 73 pounds stuffed into a 50 pound body frame you may begin to understand the concern. A young dog that is overweight can usually bear the extra pounds with grace. They are active, if perhaps less agile than a truly fit play friend.
But looking ahead, after many years of joints and body parts groaning under those extra pounds, you will find the portly pet to be suffering from arthritis at a much younger age than a healthy-weight dog. The overweight dog faces their senior years plagued with creaky knees and groaning hips. Yes, there are plenty of medications available to decrease the inflammation of arthritis, to mask the pain and alleviate suffering. But I have no pill that will help a suffering overweight pet as much as taking that extra weight off. Though weight loss cannot reverse the damage already done to the joints, it will significantly reduce the everyday burden and muscle strain required to move the body.
Veterinarians are seeing obesity in pets with increasing frequency. We are seeing diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes) more frequently. Exercise intolerance, heat stroke and heart disease are not far behind.
We feed our dogs too much, too often. I would like to think they don’t down a bag of chips every day with their corn dog. I would like to think that the man who assured me that his dog ate only doughnuts (I’m not kidding, he said earnestly) was joking. I understand the desire to share food with those we love. At our veterinary clinic we stock a low calorie treat in the exam rooms, each treat about three calories. No, you wouldn’t choose it over bacon – but most dogs like them. Since my patients don’t feel rewarded with a Disney sticker, we save those for the kids and offer the pets a treat, hoping to create a pleasant experience for our furry friends.
When meeting a pet who desperately needs to lose weight, I try to review the actual diet as fed at home. There have been some surprises over the years. Dental chews help keep teeth healthy, important for so many dogs that do not get their teeth brushed. Many of those chews have almost 50 calories per chew – which for tiny dogs leading “lapdog” lives, can account for one-fifth of their total daily required caloric intake.
Dog food companies rarely publish the calorie account of their foods. If found, it will be reported as a “Kcal” or kilocalorie, which is the same as “calorie” to the rest of us. Obtaining the calorie count of your pets’ food may be harder than going undercover for the CIA, and you will feel as paranoid as a double agent. We have specialty foods that are guaranteed to help your pet lose weight. They work – if you feed them as directed.
Nowadays I always include a familiar treat or two in the daily food plan. Many times one treat can be broken onto three or four pieces and stretched out over the day. We count the gummy bears and the cocktail peanuts. We strive for balance. Because at the end of the day, the real reward is when Myrtle has lost eight pounds and her owner says, “It’s as if she’s two years younger. I’m getting my dog back.”
Christine McFadden holds a license to practice veterinary medicine and surgery. She has cared for the family pets of Merced at Valley Animal Hospital for more than 30 years. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.