The Risks of Obesity in Dogs (& Cats)

A once-a-year treat for fit (not fat) dogs!

The Morris Foundation, which runs the lifetime golden retriever study that Cali participates in, has also released new and updated findings about the health impacts of obesity on dogs and cats. First is the shocking statistic that in the US, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, as many as two-thirds of dogs and cats are obese! Cats are slightly more likely than dogs to be obese.

This contributes to many, many severe health problems and can drastically reduce lifespan. Some are surprising:

  • Inflammation, which affects many diseases, but is often most noticeable in dogs as osteoarthritis. Arthritis can affect knees and the back in obese dogs, but the inflammation can occur anywhere, causing pain in other joints as well, even those that are not weight-bearing.
  • The risk of diabetes is significantly higher in obese cats; it’s less of a factor in dogs.
  • Some types of cancer are more prevalent in overweight and obese dogs and cats.
  • Overweight dogs have a harder time breathing, which can be life-threatening for brachycephalic breeds — those with short muzzles and flatter faces,such as pugs, Pekingese, and bull mastiffs.

How can you tell?

Pretty much every vet’s office has some version of the dog and cat obesity chart on the wall. Generally, you should be able to see your dog’s waist and feel their ribs.

What do you do?

Taking off excess weight takes time. A crash diet is not healthy for anyone! The safest approach is to work with a nutritionist or a vet with credentials in nutrition, but you can also learn a lot from the Whole Dog Journal or Dogs Naturally, my go-to sites for dog health and wellness information.

Start by logging everything the dog or cat eats. Often, we don’t realize how many calories they consume in treats. Or we consume in treats … Your vet can help you figure out how many calories your dog should consume, based on ideal weight, age, activity level, and overall health. The right amount for your dog might be quite a bit less than the feeding guidelines on the dog-food package indicate!

A severely overweight dog may need a specialized diet; for many dogs, though, cutting back a bit on food, and a lot on treats, can be enough. I’m generally not a fan of prescription diets or weight-loss foods. I think they are often of poor quality and overpriced. With expert guidance, you can generally find a high-quality food and feed amounts that provide balanced nutrition — while also gradually bringing your dog down to a healthy weight.

Before cutting too severely, though, you do need to be sure that your dog will still get the nutrients she needs. That’s why talking to a professional is important. And your vet can advise on whether and what types of exercise are safe, again, considering the amount of excess weight, any issues with joints or spine, and the dog’s age and condition. Best of all, the exercise program gives you new opportunities to walk and play with your dog!

It can take several months for a dog to lose excess weight. Be patient; you’re more likely to have lasting results if you take the time to do it right and make permanent, healthy changes in how your dog eats and exercises.

Learn more, especially about cats and obesity, from the Morris Foundation’s podcast!

 

Dog Mountain?!

How did I not know about this place?

Dog Mountain, in St. Johnsbury, VT is, according to the Washington Post, “a celebration of canines.”

I want to move in.

It’s got 150 acres, with leash-optional play areas including pools and hiking trails, a dog chapel filled with photos and memorials to dogs. It’s marking its 20th anniversary this year.

In non-COVID times, the Mountain hosts events and dog-friendly parties, and more.

A blue t-shirt with a graphic of a black Lab swimming after a red ball
Mine is yellow

I even have a t-shirt with a print by the guy who founded Dog Mountain.

We need a Dog Mountain out here in Montana. Near Missoula, perhaps.

While we’re dreaming about dog-friendly travel, there’s another place I’ve recently added to my list. I’ve always wanted to visit Best Friends in Kanab, Utah. I recently discovered the Best Friends Roadhouse — which creates a dilemma. Do I visit the Roadhouse with Cali, which would mean I couldn’t volunteer at Best Friends or foster a dog … or do I go to this cool and very dog-friendly hotel without my best friend?

I do not need to answer this question for a while, though, since road trips are on hold until … who knows when. It’s nice to dream, though!

Where’s your favorite dog-friendly place to travel?

Koala Discovers Her Inner Labrador

Koala is not a typical Labrador. Yes, she’s affectionate and cuddly and very, very food focused. But she’s also serious and rule-bound. She holds us to a schedule. She has no sense of humor.

She has her moments — she loves to play, but on her terms only. And she does love to stomp through puddles, but she’s not as eager to get into a body of water as most Labs. She’s usually indifferent to a ball tossed into the water. (Not Cali! Cali, a golden retriever, was born to swim after tennis balls. Over and over and over again.) Koala will fetch a ball on land, if you ask her to, but it’s clear she’s only humoring the silly human.

And Koala hates cold weather. She was born in Upstate New York and raised in Connecticut, so maybe by the time she moved to Florida, she was really just done with winter. At not-quite-2 years of age.

So, here she is in Montana, yet again. And yet again, it’s cold. It’s late October and … we had a blizzard. Somewhere between 6 and 8 inches of snow fell overnight.

When I opened the door to let Koala and Cali out in the morning, it was still snowing. She gave me her “are you nuts??” look, a look I know well. I convinced her to go out to pee.

Cali of course was delighted. But then Cali is usually delighted: She loves snow. She loves water. She loves rain. She loves sun. She loves grass. She loves summer. She loves winter.

Cali was a bit worried when she went to her toy box and all that was in there was a bunch of white powder, but she nosed around a bit and located a frozen tennis ball. She gave me her look … and I ventured out, in slippers and robe, to free the frozen treasure and toss it for her.

And Cali was off, racing around plowing through the snow with her nose to find her ball. Dropping it into the snow so she could find it again. Begging me to come out to play …

Koala looked on in disgust.

I beat a quick retreat indoors.

Then I looked out the window: Koala was racing around the back yard and — what was that? A wagging tail?! She made a couple of joyful, very Labrador-esque laps.

She must have sensed me watching.

She glanced over her shoulder, stopped running, and started sniffing the ground. She did her business and quickly came back inside.

Her burst of typical Labrador playfulness, her flash of joy as she played in the snow disappeared as quickly as it appeared. But Cali and I both saw it: Koala’s inner Labrador.

Puppy Potty Problems

Tiny Cali grew up to be a master people-trainer

A couple of people have asked me recently about issues housebreaking puppies.

Teaching puppies to potty outside is deceptively easy — and unbelievably challenging.

It’s easy because they want to be clean and have strong instincts to keep their home, especially their sleeping area, clean and because they develop associations and habits relatively quickly.

And challenging because it requires constant vigilance and consistent, immediate responses. We humans tend to be terrible at both of those things.

It’s easy …

Here’s the easy part. Figure out where you want your dog to “go” and think about a reasonable daily routine. Recognize that if you are dealing with a puppy, you will need to go out far more often than when you have a housebroken adult dog. Even adolescent puppies can hold on for more reasonable periods. But young puppies, up to 4 or 5 months, need to go often.

Puppies generally need the chance to pee when they wake up in the morning or after a nap, when they have been playing, and pretty soon after eating and drinking.

… And challenging

And here’s where we tend to mess up. Soon is immediate, especially for little puppies. When the puppy wakes up from deep sleep, soon = instantly. After a shorter nap or play session, you might have a couple of minutes. While we dink around getting our shoes and our jacket and hunting for the flashlight, we’re likely to find that we need to pivot to cleanup mode.

So tip #1: If you have a little puppy, get slip-on shoes and keep them with your flashlight, leash, jacket, whatever right by the door. When the puppy wakes or stops playing, grab her and run out.

The other way we mess up is thinking about the pup in too-human terms. When we wake up, for example, we need to go … but it’s not so immediate. So we don’t rush. Or we expect the dog to give some kind of very clear, obvious signal of her distress.

The puppy is probably trying very hard to communicate with you, but you’re missing it. It might be a particular look, or walking to the door (if you are very lucky!), or a tiny little whimper or whine. It can be very subtle. The problem is, if you miss it enough times, the dog might stop trying.

Tip #2: Pay very close attention to your puppy the first few days you are together and learn how she communicates with you. Respond immediately; by meeting her needs and learning to understand her, you will start building deep trust and understanding.

The other way we think as humans and not as dogs is, when we take our pups out, we launch straight into fun. We play with them or head out on a walk filled with amazing smells. The pup might pee before or during or might not. She might get distracted by the fun. Chances are, though, she’ll need to go again after. By which time we’ve come inside, removed our shoes and jacket … only to turn around and find that we now need to clean the floor.

Tip #3: Commence playing only after the pup has peed. Then play your hearts out. Then give the pup a few minutes to pee again before going in. I don’t know where they store it, but puppies never seem to truly empty the tank.

Tip #4: A great idea is coming up with a verbal cue — time to go, or get busy, or go potty. It doesn’t matter what cue you use, as long as you use the same one all the time. Say those words as soon as you go outside, and then wait. Don’t interact with the puppy at all. If you need, to, say the cue again.

When the pup goes, throw a party — praise, maybe a treat, whatever. Mark the occasion. Then play or walk (another reward). Use the cue again before going in.

In time (surprisingly little time, actually), the dog will associate the cue with doing her business and might often actually just go when you ask her to. How cool is that?

A warning

So, if I’m so smart about all of this pee business, how did Cali train me to play ball with her before she goes?

Good question. I blame long, gorgeous Montana summer evenings. We’d go for the last walk in the evening and, I think to delay going in, she’d take forever to pee. And I never caught on, since I was also enjoying being outside. Once she got her very own yard, she would suggest ball games to delay having to go in. And again, I never caught on. She’s a very good people trainer. So a final tip: Pay attention to what your dog is doing and don’t get sucked into the same trap!

The Fourth ‘P’

Golden retriever Cali with her tennis ball
Photo by Christina Phelps

Recently, The Thinking Dog published a description of the dogs’ keen strategy for gaining the upper paw, based on three P’s: Patience, Persistence, and Perception.

An astute friend has pointed out a fourth P, one that Cali and Koala also use extensively: Pouting.

When this friend’s dog’s quest for a treat fails, he turns away from his mom — first turning his head, then turning his entire body to show her his back — and radiates his displeasure.

Indeed, when Cali’s tri-pawed strategy of patiently awaiting an opportunity, persistently communicating her desire, and perceptively judging when I am about to cave — or not — fails to produce the preferred payoff, a pouting pup is my plight.

What is the right response?

OK, the right response is to ignore this manipulative behavior.

The realistic response is … it depends.

For instance, I have made the dreadful, and very stupid, error of giving in to the pout in the late evening, when I really want Cali to pee before bed. She has me convinced that she can only pee with a ball in her mouth, so I toss a ball when I let her out.

She’s persistently working on convincing me that, actually, she can only pee after a few ball tosses, you know, to get things moving. Then she needs time to find the right spot, test out the grass in different parts of the yard …

When I do not give in to the blackmail, I wind up with a pouting pup somewhere in the darkness. And then I have to go out and find her and escort her inside

I am already paying dearly for giving in too many times, and it’s not even November yet. It will be a long, cold winter.

On the other hand, Cali and Koala’s persistent attempts to get extra treats have been known to blow up in their faces a bit, as we humans leverage the shreds of our belief that we’re at least as smart as they are, and we devise new chores for them. Cali excels at picking up her toys, for example. (She excels even more at redistributing them within minutes of receiving her paycheck.)

It’s pretty clear who’s winning this battle, and it’s not the ones with the thumbs.

They Did It!

close up of dog nose
The “big gun” to combat COVID-19 spread

The Finnish dogs win!

In late September, Finland launched a pilot program using dogs to detect travelers carrying COVID-19 at the Helsinki airport!

Of course, we can’t go there right now, so we cannot see the dogs in action (yet).

Several organizations in the U.S. are also training COVID-sniffing dogs, but the Finns got there first.

The dogs will sniff samples voluntarily provided by arriving airline passengers, and the passengers and dogs will have no contact. This is a good model, since some people are afraid of — or allergic to — dogs.

The dogs are extremely accurate, and can even detect COVID-19 before the standard testing can: Anna Hielm-Björkman, one of the researchers, said that the dogs may be better at spotting coronavirus infections than PCR and antibody tests. They “can also find [people] that are not yet PCR positive but will become PCR positive within a week,” she said.

Dogs’ noses are truly amazing, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of what they can do!

 

Dogs & Consent

All in?

Have you ever picked up a small dog or a puppy? (Of course you have!)

Did you ask for their consent first?

The first time I really thought about dogs consenting was when I read Gregory Berns’ How Dogs Love Us. He was very careful to ensure that all the dogs participating in his MRI studies did so voluntarily. They were not restrained and were free to walk away at any time.

But that was for a specific research project. How do dogs consent (or not) in daily life?

It’s a problem for leashed dogs, and an even bigger problem for dogs who are small and often carried by their humans. They can’t escape.

A recent blog post by Patricia McConnell, “I’m Little And Adorable. Don’t Make Me Bite You.” describes the problem — and some potential solutions — very nicely.

To summarize, it is terrifying for many dogs, especially small ones, when humans loom over them, put their faces up close, or, especially, snatch them up with no warning and lift them into the air. A dog who is being held cannot escape unwanted petting or kissing. A dog who is leashed often can’t either.

As dog-respecting humans, we should:

  • Not pet dogs we don’t know
  • Never pick up dogs we don’t know
  • “Ask” if a dog wants to be petted by proffering a hand and letting the dog approach us
  • Only pet dogs who approach or otherwise solicit a pet
  • Not allow strangers to pet our dogs unless the dogs indicate willingness (Cali does this by dragging me over to a person, any person, and wagging her tail while furiously batting her long blond lashes at them)
  • Not allow children to handle dogs roughly, play with them unsupervised, pick them up, or otherwise treat them as they treat inanimate dolls
  • Not allow others to pick up our dogs
  • “Ask” our dogs before picking them up

We should also follow some of McConnell’s tips for teaching dogs a cue to warn them if we want to pick them up — and check with them for consent. Some people use a cue word, a gesture, or both. Some dogs learn to offer a cue that they are willing to be picked up. The dog’s body language might offer some information, too. If they duck, back off, or otherwise try to avoid us when we’re picking them up … we should pay attention. And yes, some dogs love being held, sitting on laps, and constant cuddling. But a dog who loves sitting you your lap while you read doesn’t necessarily want to be carried around. And the dogs will generally let us know when they want cuddling — and when they do not.

Why does this matter? It’s a matter of respect and kindness.

Also, the key reason many small dogs bite or nip is fear. If they are frightened and cannot escape, we leave them few options. The teeth are usually a last resort but, well, we’re ultimately responsible for backing them into that corner. Even the ones who don’t bit might become anxious, avoid contact with people, and generally suffer.

Little dogs and of course puppies can be irresistible. But before indulging our desire to cuddle them, let’s all ask for their consent first!

Good News for Rare Dog Breed

The New Guinea singing dog, also called a highland wild dog, was long thought to be extinct in its natural habitat. But a few years ago, some wild dogs were seen, then captured briefly so that DNA samples could be taken. The wild dogs turned out to be from the rare and ancient highland wild dog breed.

The dogs figure into some theories on dog domestication, as the dogs are closely related to both Australian dingoes and early domestic dogs from Asia. They could be an early ancestor of Japanese breeds like the Shiba Inu and the Akita, according to the New York Times. They share much common genetic heritage with the small captive populations of singing dogs, but those dogs are badly inbred and lack the genetic variation of the wild dogs.

No wild singing dogs had been seen in decades, and researchers feared that they had inbred with village dogs, leading the wild dog into extinction. But in 2012, an ecotourism guide snapped photos of a wild dog that led to research expeditions in 2016 and 2018. A total of 15 different dogs were observed, and DNA samples were collected from two living and one deceased dog. The analysis showed an overlap of about 72% of their genes with captive singing dogs descended from eight wild dogs captured in the 1970s, a CNN story reported.

With Patience, Persistence, and Perception, Dogs Have the Upper Paw

Some day, my berries will be ready …

By Deni Elliott and Pam Hogle

Regardless of how many years they have lived with dogs, almost all dog-owned humans wish that the dogs were better behaved. Some dogs continue to bark, despite repeated human attempts to stop the noise. Some dig or raid the garden or sleep on the sofa —despite physical barriers and human reprimands. Others act out when their people are most hoping that they won’t. The sad truth is that the problem is less about human incompetence than it is an indication of canine superiority. Dogs consistently outperform their human companions in three vital areas: Patience. Persistence. Perception.

Patience is the ability to wait for you want and hold on to a goal despite distraction. How many people would have the patience to wait at home for hours while their companions went off to work or play? Or even have the patience to wait for minutes outside of a store, tied to a pole, with no phone to keep them amused? Dogs, who love dependable routines, wait and wait and wait for their people to remember that it is time to play, to walk, or even to feed them dinner close to the usual hour.

Persistence is the ability to continue working toward a goal despite difficulty or opposition. Some dogs bark persistently. Some continually nudge their person’s hand to get petted. Persistently. And others beg at the dining table. Persistently. There is a reason that the term for working tenaciously is “dogged.” People give up and give in long before dogs will. People also reward the dog’s persistence, “just this once,” — maybe to stop the dog’s annoying behavior. At that point, the dog has succeeded at creating the desired human behavior. In most families, the dog will soon have the people well-trained in responding to canine direction.

Perception is the ability to use one’s sensory abilities to take in information in and make it meaningful. Dogs read people — our vocal tone and pitch in addition to our words; our facial expressions and body language. In comparison, most people can barely tell the difference between a dog barking in joy and one barking in warning or in anger. Dogs learn how they should react and what they can get away with by reading their people. Much dog anxiety can be attributed to what the dog reads from their primary person. “If my person is sending signals that he is nervous,” the dog reasons, “I guess I better be worried too.”

Patience, persistence, and perception come together in a trifecta of  superior intelligence that sometimes overwhelms the most dog-savvy of humans. In last week’s Thinking Dog Blog, Pam wrote about Cali eating tomatoes from the garden just before Pam would have picked the tomato for human consumption.

The sequence of events illustrates how these concepts come together in dognition: Cali waited patiently for weeks while the lettuce, raspberries, and tomatoes each reached what she considered their peak readiness. When faced with an obstacle, she was persistent enough to figure out new ways to reach the garden treats, getting around the bird netting that Pam had wrapped around the plants. When Cali decided that it was time to eat the tomato she had been eyeing, she reached through the netting to pluck the tomato and let it fall beneath the plant. Then Cali could reach the tomato by burrowing under the netting. Which she did. There she lay, chomping her freshly harvested tomato, while Pam mowed the grass just a few feet away. Cali perceived that Pam was focused on the lawn and not on the dog.

Dogs consistently outperform humans because their PQ (Patience, persistence, perception) is off the scale compared to their human companions. That seems to be a fair trade-off for people getting opposable thumbs to use in our far more primitive way of manipulating the environment we share.

Stop, Thief!

Golden retriever Cali eyes the tomato plants

So we all know how much Cali loves raspberries. She was lucky this summer; we had a lot of raspberries. But, all good things come to an end — including raspberry season.

With that in mind, Cali has decided to broaden her diet. She grew tired of waiting for our very small first crop of blackberries to ripen, so she ventured farther afield. Or agarden.

Right over to the tomato plants.

Our tomatoes got off to a very slow start. The first plants perished in a late frost. The next group shivered through a chilly June before starting to grow and blossom. By late July, several medium-sized and small tomatoes were starting to ripen. One, in particular, looked almost ready.

Then, suddenly, it was gone!

Deni asked if I had picked it. I said I thought she had. Hmmmm…

Suspicion landed on Koala, who had been spotted pilfering strawberries. She denied any knowledge of tomatoes or their disappearance. Besides, as she reasonably pointed out, Cali spent by far the most time in the yard, often alone.

Cali feigned innocence.

Nevertheless, I got out some bird netting, which also promised protection from hungry animals other than birds. I wrapped the tomato patch, clipping the netting to the tomato supports with clothespins. We scored a few ripe tomatoes, which were delicious.

Just yesterday, I had my eye on one that was ripening nicely. I decided to give it another day, and wandered off to mow the lawn. A few minutes later, as I was carefully pushing my mower up and down, a few yards from the tomato bed, Deni came outside and asked, “What’s Cali eating?”

The crafty thief had poked her nose under the netting and stolen the tomato! Right under my not-so-watchful eyes!

Severe consequences were in order.

Deni had it covered. First she offered Koala a few bites of the ravaged tomato. Then she gave the rest of the tomato to Cali. And then she took both girls inside and gave them their special Friday dinner, which includes sardines.

I am confident that the lesson got through loud and clear. If Cali steals another tomato, she understands the dire consequences: Getting to eat the tomato, with sardines for dessert.

Take that, you little thief!

P.S.: Cali has also managed to pilfer a few blackberries, but boy, are they sour!