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The Truth About Dog Obesity

What difference does a few extra pounds make? Turns out, a lot. Here's why it's crucial to keep your dog at a healthy weight.

by Lisa Wogan
June 1, 2012
An obese dachshund dog plays with a rubber ball on a sandy beach
Elizaveta / Adobe Stock

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

People often smile when they see a chubby dog ambling through a park. There’s something endearing, and even comical, about rotund pets. But look more closely and you’ll notice a stiffened gait, labored breathing, and a lack of energy — nothing to smile about.

Sadly, this is not a rare sight: An estimated 17 million dogs in the United States are overweight or obese — and the numbers keep growing.

“The reasons for the pet obesity epidemic are the same as the human obesity explosion: We’re eating too much and exercising too little,” says Dr. Ernest Ward Jr., a North Carolina veterinarian and president of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). “In addition, what we’re feeding dogs has changed.”

Here's everything you need to know about obesity in dogs — including how to keep your pup healthy.

Why Is Your Dog Obese?

Giving your dog a diet high in carbohydrates, sugar, and fat makes them fat, says Dr. Ward. They stay leaner and healthier with a higher protein diet.

On top of poor nutrition, you may be giving your dog too much food. Many people rely on a combination of guesswork and feeding instructions to determine how to feed their dogs rather than working out a diet tailored to their specific pup.

You may not know how many calories they need (far fewer than you think) or how many calories are in the food (often more than you think). Calorie counts aren’t on most food labels, and when calorie counts are included, some can be confusing and inconsistent.

And then there are the add-ons — biscuits, cookies, jerky, table scraps — which certainly add up. APOP estimates that 90 percent of people give their dogs treats, many of which are high in calories, carbohydrates, and sugar. (They’re called treats for a reason!)

“If I could only point to one factor causing the modern-day pet obesity epidemic, it would have to be treats,” Dr. Ward says. “It’s that seemingly innocent extra 50 calories a day in the form of a chew or cookie that adds up to a pound or two each year. By the time a dog or cat reaches mid-life, they're overweight and health risks begin to skyrocket.”

The Harms of Obesity in Dogs

Weight control is not about winning beauty contests (at least not for most of dogs). It’s about the quality and duration of their lives.

“While those extra five pounds around your waist might not mean much to you and your health, that extra five pounds around your average dog and cat can pose a lot of health risks,” says Dr. Maria Manrique, a Chicago veterinarian and spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

The AVMA links pet obesity directly with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension, as well as an increased risk for cancer and orthopedic problems, including painful and debilitating knee injuries and arthritis. In addition, overweight dogs are more prone to heat exhaustion and exercise intolerance.

How to Keep Your Dog Healthy

The key to good health for your dog? Getting a jump on the problem. Maintaining a healthy weight for your dog is lot easier and less expensive than treating the conditions that result from being overweight. Feeding your dog a healthy diet and giving them consistent exercise will not only save you money — it will also spare your dog discomfort and suffering, as well as extend their life.

Indeed, a 14-year benchmark study of Labrador Retrievers showed that dogs kept at a healthy weight from puppyhood lived 15 percent longer than their overweight peers. That’s two additional happy, healthy years with your favorite family member. What's better motivation to keep your dog healthy than that?


Lisa Wogan

Lisa Wogan lives in Seattle and is the author of several books including Dog Park Wisdom.