Dogs are an integral part of the American family. Our dogs attend daycare, enjoy visits to the spa, and accompany their families on vacation—sometimes staying in pet-friendly hotels that serve gourmet dog food. Pooches can have dedicated electronic devices; a sizable number have accounts on social media. Fittingly, the health of American dogs mirrors that of humans when it comes to their waistlines. Much like the better-known epidemic, the number of overweight pets is rising. Just like their human counterparts, excess weight can have serious health implications for our canine companions.Also just like humans, there is plenty that you can do about it. (Keep reading!)Last year, the American Association for Animal Hospitals published guidelines for weight management of pets, a compilation of current evidence on feeding and exercise along with practical advice for veterinarians. Deborah Linder, DVM, chair of the guidelines panel and a veterinary nutritionist at Tufts University, estimates that more than 50% of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese. Linder explains that the condition—again, like that for humans—involves multiple factors, and the reasons differ for each animal. Genetics plays a significant role: some breeds are more prone to obesity or having bigger appetites. “Just like people, some dogs eat to live and others live to eat,” says Linder. But their owners are even bigger contributors. “Many pet owners have no idea how many calories a dog should get,” Linder says. “They don’t have a good understanding of how much food their dog really needs.”Similar to humans, obesity affects every organ system in dogs. With their shorter life spans, however, even a few extra pounds can have a negative impact on health. According to Linder, dogs that maintain an ideal body weight live an average of two years longer than dogs that are overweight. “People develop strong psychological bonds with their pets which is fantastic, but the way that food gets incorporated into that relationship is often unhealthy,” Linder summarizes. As a result, “…changing a pet’s diet means changing that bond and changing how the owner interacts with their animal.” In her veterinary practice, Linder acknowledges this vital connection but also works around it to formulate a realistic weight-loss plan that preserves and even strengthens the relationship: “If you normally bond with your pet by giving him a treat, we work to identify a substitute.” According to Linder, a dog’s weight issues are almost always related to human factors. Owners often say: “I can’t resist a cookie and I can’t resist giving him a cookie.” In fact, a pet’s primary source of food is rarely the culprit. Rather, treats are the problem—cookies, people food, bones, rawhide. A marrow containing bone can have more than 1,000 calories. While providing treats is a central component of many pet owners’ relationships with their dogs, Linder recommends that treats make up no more than 10% of daily calories.
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