Humans aren’t the only species to be troubled by obesity – it’s an expanding problem in their pets too.

Recent studies in Australia show that up to 40 per cent of dogs are either overweight or obese, according to Hill’s Pet Nutrition. And it’s no laughing matter – obesity can prompt the onset of disorders which can seriously affect the quality of a dog’s life and its life expectancy.

“The most common problem I see in ageing obese dogs is arthritis,” says Dr Grant Poolman, a veterinarian at Bowral Veterinary Hospital. “Their poor joints are wearing out carrying around too much weight.” As in humans, obesity in dogs can also cause or aggravate heart or lung conditions; contribute to the development of Type 2 diabetes; and increase the risk of pancreatitis, liver disease, respiratory problems and some forms of cancer.

Research by Purina shows that being overweight can also shorten a dog’s life by more than one and a half years. “Interestingly, it also showed that overweight dogs go ‘grey’ earlier than lean dogs,” observes Dr Chris Brown, Purina’s brand ambassador for Purina ONE and TV’s Bondi Vet.

Dr Michelle Coles, Veterinary Technical Manager for Royal Canin Australia, also points to the risk of urinary problems in overweight dogs: “Obese dogs can become lazier and hold onto their urine for longer,” she says.

And who is responsible for a fat dog? Its owner, of course. “Since we’re in control of both how much we feed and how much we exercise our pets, it’s hard to blame Rover for being a ‘few over’,” says Brown.

For a dog to lose weight, the owner needs to be committed to the cause, says a spokesperson for Hill’s Pet Nutrition: “First, the owner needs to identify the pet has a weight problem; second, the owner needs to be willing and committed to participating in a weight management program.”

According to Royal Canin’s Dr Michelle Coles, your vet should be able to help you create a tailored weight loss program, but she stresses that the responsibility lies with you: “You must abide by the recommendations of your vet,” she says.

Checking for obesity

Within any breed of dog there is a range of body sizes, so it’s not possible to quote a correct body weight based upon breed. The best guide to body condition is to feel the dog around the ‘waist’ – it should taper in behind the ribs.

In this area they should slope down from the spine to the sides: “They should not be flat on top like a coffee table,” says Poolman. “But a dog is underweight if all of its ribs are visible and the tops of the vertebrae can be seen.”

Primary causes

It is always a good idea to start the assessment of an obese dog with a blood sample, as sometimes obesity has hormonal causes, says Poolman. This is particularly important if you are already following all feeding guides and giving regular exercise (at least 20 minutes twice a day) but still struggling to keep your dog at a healthy weight.

Most often, canine obesity is simply down to too many calories combined with too little exercise, says Brown. Poolman agrees, believing that dog owners often seem to convince themselves that they only give their dog the correct sized meals according to the dog food label: “They often overlook the snacks, in betweens and extras given by friends or neighbours,” he says. Owners often forget too that the dog that does not exercise needs less than the prescribed diet.

There are two distinct periods in a dog’s life when obesity may emerge.

The first is when the dog is young. It is a direct result of the owner overfeeding the new dog and is readily controlled with owner education. The second period is middle age, particularly if the dog is desexed. “Desexing does not directly lead to obesity but it does lead to reduced activity and the dog becoming more of a ‘homebody’, leading to less food needed but more available,” Poolman says.

All dogs become less active as they age, which needs to be countered by controlled food intake.

Weight loss tips

The first and most important step in battling the bulge is to gain total control over your dog’s food intake. “Remember that dogs, and particularly obese ones, are not very fussy about their diet and do not need the range of courses and flavours that people enjoy,” says Poolman. This means that, while dogs may not all love dry food, they will soon accept it as their total diet.

It has the advantage of being measurable so you can calculate and stick to a specific daily intake. “Quality dog foods include in their range ‘light’ diets which mean that your dog can have a normal sized meal but with lower calories,” he says.

It’s vital to tailor any weight reduction program to your particular dog, according to Brown: “After all, not every dog thinks a walk around the block rocks,” he says.

He recommends starting by setting a goal, such as a 15 per cent weight reduction over eight weeks for obese dogs. With this goal weight in mind, use the feeding guide on the back of the packet and feed for this target weight.

Alongside dietary control, exercising more is vital – and it should be a team effort which gets you both going. Pick an exercise that you can both do for at least 20 minutes, twice a day.

“It could be running, walking, swimming, whatever. It doesn’t really matter what it is, provided you both enjoy it, it gets your heart rate up, doesn’t damage their joints and you both keep coming back for more,” says Brown.

By Amy Holgate, Dogs NSW magazine