Is It My Fault if My Dog Is Overweight?

Golden retriever Cali eats an ice-cream cone.Yes.

That may be a little harsh. A recent Whole Dog Journal article on dog obesity is a little kinder to the dog owners, apportioning blame between the dog and the human. But … the humans control access to the dog’s food, so I lean toward blaming the humans. And, since multiple studies have reported that half or more of the pet dogs in the US are overweight, we need to address this problem.

Obesity can reduce your dog’s already-too-short lifespan by as much as three years.

The WDJ article describes a study of pet owners who are involved with feeding their pets. Nearly 80% of the respondents were women aged 50 or older. Hmm. Many said they determined the amount to feed their dogs “based on perceptions of their dogs’ body weight” and most of the rest by following the feeding guidelines on the dog food packaging or their vet’s recommendations.

Those are not reliable methods. Most dog foods recommend giving more food than a dog needs. It’s a vicious cycle, too. If your dog weighs 60 lbs. and you feed the amount recommended for a 60-lb. dog, you think you’re doing the right thing. But… maybe your dog should weigh 50 or 55 lbs. See the problem? And, many people’s perceptions of what their dogs should weigh are skewed.

For instance, Cali, who is a svelte and very fit 56 lbs, looks thin to many people who are accustomed to seeing fat golden retrievers. Because most golden retrievers in the US are fat. Very fat.

I’ve checked in with my vet on Cali’s diet and weight. She once gave me calorie-based guidelines for feeding Cali and, when I looked at the amount of food I’d need to give Cali to meet them, I was horrified. I would have had to almost double what I was feeding Cali. But at the same time she was recommending this enormous amount of food, the vet also agreed that Cali’s weight was fine.

Piling on …

Dogs aren’t much help in this. It’s hard enough to figure out what and how much regular old dog food to give your dog. But the dog then starts asking for other food … your food. And treats.

Dogs are excellent at manipulating humans, as you may have noticed. They are especially adept at convincing us to feed them. They use gaze, nudges, sometimes even whining or barking … The study took note of this: “The data suggest that dogs may have significant influence in overriding their owners’ self-discipline,” it says, with great understatement.

What’s a dog parent to do?

That is the key question.

Start with knowing what your dog’s healthy weight looks and feels like. This chart can help:

Chart shows range of dogs and cats from too thin to obese

When you pet your dog, you should be able to feel her ribs, but there should be a little fat on them. And her hip bones should not stick out. But if your dog feels like an upholstered sofa … well.

Then, watch her diet. And her treat intake. What you’re feeding matters as much as the quantity. I’m pretty fussy about dog treats (not to mention dog food). I don’t buy anything at the supermarket for Cali other than eggs, Greek yogurt, sardines, and occasional bags of wonderful local / homemade dog cookies … large cookies that I break into 4 or 5 small pieces.

A treat for Cali is about the size of a quarter. She rarely gets an entire large biscuit. And no, she does not feel deprived (yeah, right …). She loves getting a jackpot of 5 or 6 little, high quality treats, which happens when she does something really great (like put all of her toys back into their basket). She gets a handful of very small treats in her snuffle mat almost every day. She gets several more when I brush her or tackle her nails or ears. And of course on special occasions, she gets a doggy cone or even (birthdays only) a small dish of ice cream!

Does she want more treats? Of course she does! So do I!

Cali makes frequent, persuasive pitches for her “fair share” of whatever I happen to be eating, for example. She’s convinced me that I should share my eggs and yogurt, and she’s a helpful and efficient dish-washer. We frequently negotiate over small bites of pizza crust. But overall, her treat intake is moderate.

Take a hike

The other piece of the equation is, of course, exercise.

Cali and I walk two or three times a day. We play ball. She swims. We go for a long hike at least once a week. When she was an adolescent, she ran and played a lot more — and got more food and treats. A very active dog could have more food or treats, while a dog whose exercise consists of walking to the back yard a few times a day, taking care of business, and walking back to the house … may need to be a little more careful.

I’m sure none of this is a huge surprise. The hardest piece of watching your dog’s weight is being honest about what she weighs vs. what she should. That and facing down that stare every time you’re eating something yummy.

image of golden retriever with the message "every snack you make, every bite you take, I'll be watching you"


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