How many times has your veterinarian commented on your dog’s weight? How many times have you been told, “Here’s a bag of prescription diet food—if you feed your dog this and only this, he will lose weight.” But what if he doesn’t? And why should you care?
Clinical research has shown that losing just 10 percent of body weight will slow or prevent many life-threatening disease processes, including debilitating osteoarthritis and diabetes, and perhaps even some types of cancers. By taking a few simple measures, you may be able to add more quality time to your dog’s life, time the two of you can enjoy together.
Fortunately, there are ways to take pounds off your pup that don’t involve prescription food (“senior” or “weight loss” commercial diets are usually low in protein and fats and do not offer the body as much nutrition to build strong muscle mass). Once it’s been determined that the extra weight isn’t the result of something like hypothyroidism or Cushing’s Syndrome, make it your goal to reduce your dog’s total volume of food by 5 to 10 percent every two weeks until steady weight loss is observed. Aim for a loss of 1 percent of body weight per week, or one to two pounds per month, depending on the size of your dog, until he reaches the target. Slow and steady weight loss prevents the body from going into “starvation mode,” which slows the metabolism.
Feed higher protein/lower carbohydrate foods (a 3:1 ratio); proteins and fats are converted to usable energy faster than starches and carbs. Think of this as the “puppy Paleo diet”! And even if you’re feeding a high-protein, grain-free variety, cut down on kibble. In general, all kibble has 60 percent more starch, which is needed to maintain the kibble’s shape when it’s baked or extruded. Too much dry food equals too much starch, which breaks down to sugars and is stored as body fat. It’s easy to overfeed dry foods, especially if you follow the directions on the packaging.
Add water or broth to kibble make it nicely soupy. The extra liquid will help your dog digest his food more easily and reduce his body’s need to pull water from his system to his stomach, which can contribute to dehydration.
Try gradually reducing your dog’s kibble ration by half, replacing it with more moisture-based foods such as lean meats, fish or eggs, and low-starch green and orange vegetables and fruits. I’ve found that companion animals do best with at least 50 percent of their diet fed as fresh foods—cooked, raw, dehydrated or freeze-dried—mixed with a significantly reduced volume of high-grade kibble. This keeps them satisfied and helps with the faster metabolic change that promotes weight loss.
Another option is to feed him a low-carbohydrate canned food; these have less starch and more water, and therefore, fewer extra calories to stick around. Or, transition him to a complete and balanced commercial raw diet, which has very little starch.
Decreased fat content also helps with weight loss, but do not eliminate fats entirely, as they satisfy hunger; look for 4 to 7 percent fat content in canned foods. Also, avoid feeding excess insoluble fiber; among other things, it may interfere with nutrient absorption. Roughly 5 to 6 percent fiber is ideal. If stools become soft, add 1/4 teaspoon psyllium to each meal.
Make mealtime more fun with interactive feeding toys. These not only stimulate a dog’s mind, they make him work for his supper (or breakfast, or snack). Dogs eat more slowly and expend more calories. Google “how to stuff a dog feeding toy” for helpful tips. The Kong is the granddaddy of dog-feeding toys, and there are other excellent options on the market as well, among them, Nina Ottosson’s ingenious products.
Exercise is the other part of the weight-loss equation, but don’t expect an aging, sedentary or extremely overweight dog to join you on a cross-country run. Look for ways that work with his physical condition, gradually increasing the pace and duration as he becomes more fit. For example, start with two or three short daily walks instead of one long one, and warm him up and cool him down with gentle, passive, range-of-motion exercises. If your dog’s arthritic, ask your vet for help in coming up with appropriate activity goals. Go low-impact if your dog has a condition that makes exercise uncomfortable.
Hydrotherapy—swimming in a warm pool or walking on an underwater treadmill—provided weightless exercise, removing pressure on painful joints or injuries while providing the benefits of resistance, warmth and circulation, pain relief, and endorphin release, aka nature’s Prozac. Read more about water-based exercise online at thebark.com/content/hydrotherapy-dog-walk-water.
As your dog becomes stronger, try walking in water at the beach, up streams and against gentle currents. (The caveat here is to be aware of water temperature; very cold water can lead to achy joints.) Or, walk on sand, grassy slopes, and up and down gentle inclines. Finally, when he’s ready for it, take him on longer hikes or try a doggie treadmill.
Keep your dog on his feet and improve his balance with some fun exercises. To work his gluteals and hamstrings, have him take several steps backward. Stepping sideways tunes up his adductor and abductor muscles. Navigating cavaletti (small hurdles set at uneven heights); threading through poles or cones; or walking on cushions, an air-mattress or a thick foam pad will help him with balance and proprioception (knowing where his feet are). Sit-to-stand and lie-to-stand exercises strengthen hip and knee muscles.
Weight-shifting is another way to help your dog’s balance. Hold one of his legs off the ground for three to six seconds at a time, or have him stand with his front feet on a stair step to eat. To loosen his neck, shoulder muscles and upper spine, lure him into stretching his head back toward his body with a carrot or small lean meat treat.
So, here’s the proverbial bottom line: One—paraphrasing Michael Pollan—feed your dog real food, feed him less of it, and include a variety of protein sources and dog-safe fruits and vegetables. Two, strengthen and improve his muscle tone, balance and stamina with condition-appropriate activities. He’ll have a sleeker physique and you’ll thank yourself for making the effort.