The Obese Dog

Obesity is a bit of a paradox in that owners rarely present their dogs for treatment of obesity, yet at least 25 % of dogs that are seen by veterinarians are fatter then the optimum.

It is well documented that the state of obesity is often associated with pathological changes that may eventually be life threatening. The condition of obesity is usually identified as having been reached when the accumulation of fatty tissue reaches a stage where there are pathological changes as a direct result. These changes are mainly associated with the additional load on various body systems. This is clearly notable with the musculoskeletal system. As with humans, osteoarthritis is a common sequel of obesity. Similarly the demands on the cardiovascular system are likely to be excessive when an animal is too fat. Added to this, there are increased anaesthetic and surgical risks with obese animals. The physical complications of doing surgery through excessive fatty tissue are immediately evident. Obesity also insulates animals from heat loss. Although this can be advantageous in some circumstances, it results in discomfort and distress in high ambient temperatures. The first very hot day of the year can be a real trial for overweight dogs.

The very close association between obesity and diabetes mellitus in man has been known for many years, and a similar link has been established in the dog. Liver disease may also be an important consequence on obesity with fatty infiltration of the liver being the most important cause in the dog. There are no figures available for the effects obesity has on the life span in companion animals, but it is reasonable to assume that excessive amounts of body fat will reduce the life span of all mammals.

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Obesity is usually recognised from a distance, but as many causes could cause it (oedema, cancer and pregnancy), a proper examination is needed to establish a diagnosis. By its very nature, obesity is an insidious condition. It may take many months to develop but there are certain characteristics which can be identified. It has been found that generally most ill effects from obesity were associated with the gross category only, 3% of all dogs seen. Being a little overweight due to fat was not particularly harmful but it has to be remembered that the condition is likely to be progressive.

For obesity to develop a positive energy balance is always the reason for the obese condition developing. What that means is that more goes into the dog than comes out! In order to reverse this condition, a negative energy balance needs to be created where the energy intake is less than the energy it is using. When this situation prevails, the animal draws on its own fat reserves as a source of energy. This principle is the basis for all slimming regimes. However, too drastic an energy restriction leads to losses of lean body mass and can be harmful. Because of this, starvation regimes are not advised.

A careful, methodical approach is crucial in the successful treatment of obesity in companion animals. It doesn’t just involve advising on a diet or just reducing the dogs’ intake, it involves planning. Three components need to be addressed in the case of a dog are :

a) diet

b) psychological support

c) exercise

The first and most important plan is to decide on a target mass to which the dog has to achieve. This is decided on at the initial visit to diet.

The diet involves reducing the energy/calorie levels of the food which is usually carbohydrates and starches. To keep the dogs appetite satisfied, the food needs to be bulked up with high fibre ingredients. Once the diet has been planned, regular visits and psychological support to the owner is essential. It is important that owners follow the rules strictly in order to achieve the required target weigh in the shortest amount of time.

Exercise is very important to help burn up some of the energy that is stored as fat. This may need to begin with slow walking, developing to a brisk walk and finally a run.

Most reputable veterinary clinics have a nurse dedicated to a ‘weigh watchers’ clinic. Her responsibility would be to evaluate the obese patient, decide on a target weigh, plan a diet and exercise regime and book regular visits.

The clinics are usually free and should be investigated at your vets if you suspect your dog to be carrying a little extra weight.

Guy Liebenberg BSc BVSc MRCVS Cert Vet Acu

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