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Is Your Dog Fat?

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Ever had the feeling that whatever you say next is only going to make things worse? This was one of those times. “So you’re saying my precious little Luna is FAT? How dare you call her OBESE! Dr. Ward, I’m so surprised at you!”

For the record, I hadn’t uttered the word “fat,” “obese” or much of anything. I had wordlessly pointed to a body condition chart — well, all the way to the far edge of the chart, to indicate that Luna’s current body shape corresponded to “obesity.”

“Sure, maybe we’ve both put on a little extra weight during all this COVID mess, but we’re not fat!”

Again, I never said “fat,” and I refrain from using it unless referring to the macronutrient, adipose tissue or stacks of cash in a gangster movie.

Fat facts

The facts about pet obesity are alarming. My organization, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), has been tracking the weight and body condition of America’s pets for 16 years, and the numbers are too large. Our 2018 nationwide veterinary clinic survey (the 2020 survey has been delayed until 2022) found that about 60% of cats and 56% of dogs were classified as overweight or had obesity. That equals an estimated 56 million cats and 50 million dogs at risk for weight-related disorders such as diabetes, arthritis, kidney disease, high blood pressure and many forms of cancer.

Health is a good place to start: Excess adipose tissue (“fat”) creates serious risks for dogs. As a veterinarian who has dedicated the past 20 years to researching and treating pet obesity, I want you to understand it’s the excess fat tissue that’s the problem, not a number on a scale.

Even as little as an extra pound of abdominal fat on your dog produces a limitless supply of potentially harmful chemicals and hormones (“adipocytokines”). These pro-inflammatory secretions cause damage to the pancreas, kidneys, joints and practically every tissue and organ in the body. This is why “excess weight” (actually “excess fat” as we’ve learned) puts your pet in peril.

When I looked at Luna, the lovely Labradoodle who gained 4 pounds since her last visit, I don’t see “fat” or even “obesity.” I see chronic inflammation. Those potentially triggering weight terms often interfere with my duty to fight disease and improve quality of life for my pet patients, so I avoid them.

Keep track of weight

To keep Luna healthy, energetic and free from pain, I need to mitigate the invisible inflammation throughout her body. The easiest and safest way we know to do that is by eliminating excess fat, particularly in the abdomen.

As a matter of convention, when your vet says, “Boris needs to lose a few pounds,” she’s probably referring to losing a few pounds of extra adipose tissue. When I or any veterinary professional say “weight loss,” we should be more specific and say, “excess fat loss.” Maybe because that’s a mouthful or potentially confusing to dog owners, I hope you’ll forgive me if I say “lose weight” as a shortcut to “lose fat.”

Which leads us to identifying excess fat on your dog. The first step is, you guessed it, weigh your dog regularly. A dog’s body stores excess energy as fat tissue, so it’s a safe bet that an otherwise healthy dog who gained 4 pounds probably gained most of that as fat.

If you can safely pick up and weigh your dog, you can get a good idea of how your dog’s weight is trending monthly. Spotting weight trends early is essential in avoiding excessive weight gain. In addition, if you regularly weigh your dog, you’re more likely to spot inexplicable weight loss early, a common finding in dogs with cancer.

Next, you can consult the breed weight charts on the petobesity
prevention.org website or refer to American Kennel Club (AKC) and other breed standards. Mixed breeds can be tricky, so get your vet team involved to help.

Your vet will use a body condition score (BCS) and perhaps a muscle condition score (MCS) to better gauge if your pooch is at a healthy composition. This is basically a subjective assessment of body fat percentage and is a helpful tool for tracking progress over time.

At home, you can also perform a modified BCS by consulting the charts and performing a few simple tests. First, you should be able to easily feel — and count — your dog’s ribs when you lightly run your fingers across the side. If you can’t easily feel those smooth bones, that’s a sign your dog is probably carrying extra weight.

Next, when you look down on your pet from above, you should see an “hourglass figure” or an indentation near the midsection. If your pet looks like a blimp from above, he’s probably overweight or has obesity.

Finally, when you observe your dog from the side as he stands, you should see a slight tuck or upward slope of the tummy. If the abdomen hangs low and drags near the ground, that indicates the most dangerous and biologically active form of fat, abdominal fat, is present. Time to get professional help.

Creating a diet plan

For weight loss, therapeutic diets remain the safest and most proven method to reduce excess fat. The problem with “cutting calories” by simply feeding less, is you risk reducing essential nutrients, creating additional problems to an already inflamed physiology. A dog can safely lose 1 to 3% of his body weight per month. Your vet will coach your pet through a diet and exercise program that meets his body’s needs.

Take stock of the treats you’re giving. Many of these “calorie grenades” pack an awful lot of energy into an irresistible flavor bomb. Try switching to wholesome, low-calorie veggies like baby carrots, sliced cucumbers or zucchini, broccoli, celery or any crunchy greens that charm your canine.

Exercise is important, but the majority of fat loss begins — and ends — at the food bowl and treat jar. In general terms, canine weight loss is about 70% diet and 30% activity. Aim for at least 20 to 30 minutes of walking or structured play daily.

Finally, health is a journey. Losing excess fat tissue takes time. Stay on the weight loss path your vet maps out, and you’ll be rewarded with a healthier and happier doggo.

It was time to roll the dialogue dice with Luna’s mom.

“Instead of using words such as ‘fat’ or ‘obese,’ let’s switch it to ‘healthy’ or ‘anti-inflammatory.’ My goal is to help prevent diseases caused by the chronic inflammation Luna’s extra adipose tissue is creating. I’ll design a step weight loss plan for Luna with daily calories, physical activities and plenty of healthy treats. Does that sound good to you?”

“So you’re saying she’s NOT FAT?”

Now you know why I don’t gamble.

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