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Flabador — has your pup become Porky Pig?

Obesity is a national health emergency in United States, not only in people but also in their pets. Around 25% of dogs that are examined at veterinary clinics are overweight. As with people, canine obesity can result in many serious health issues, including a shortened lifespan, poor immune function, reproductive and digestive problems, skin disease, and increased risk of developing certain types of cancer.

Excessive weight can cause serious stress on a dog's bones and joints. Dogs that are already prone to hip dysplasia will be much more severely affected when they pack on the pounds. Additionally, cruciate ligaments that stabilize the knee joint can weaken over time in heavy dogs. Even with surgical repair, these joints will never be normal and excessive weight will continue to make them worse.

A dog that is fat on the outside is also fat on the inside, and that extra fat puts pressure on the lungs, making breathing difficult and inhibiting exercise. Additionally, the heart muscles must work harder to pump blood to all the extra tissue, predisposing the heart to failure.

Fat dogs will have less stamina than thinner ones, and will therefore suffer a decrease in performance. They will also have less heat tolerance. Think of all those walruses and polar bears — there's a reason they like it up north. All that natural insulation works great in the Arctic, but a fat retriever will suffer on a hot summer day.

Obesity can also increase the risk of anesthetic and surgical complications. When drugs are selected by body weight, overweight dogs can be accidentally overdosed because most of the drugs head toward the more blood-rich tissues such as the brain, liver, kidneys, and muscles. When the drugs do enter the fat, they are cleared more slowly, resulting in prolonged anesthetic recovery. Surgical incisions will need to be larger since it is harder to see through several inches of fat, and infection rates may increase since the fat has a poorer blood supply.

Animals with excessive fat may produce more insulin in response to the natural sugars in their food. Eventually their bodies can no longer make enough insulin to control their high blood sugar, resulting in diabetes. Animals with diabetes are prone to infection and eye problems, and are at much greater risk for complications when undergoing surgery.

The making of Porky

Obesity is primarily caused by too many calories and not enough exercise. Factors that can increase the risk of obesity include breed, age, reproductive status, activity level of the owners, and medications such as glucocorticoids (steroids). Metabolic rate slows with age, after spaying/neutering, and with reduction in activity.

Occasionally obesity can be associated with glandular conditions, such as reduced thyroid hormone production (hypothyroidism) or overactive adrenal glands (Cushings disease or hyperadrenocorticism), but these account for obesity in less than 5% of dogs.

So how can you tell if your dog is fat?

Look first at the waistline. From the top, dogs should become narrower behind their rib cages and in front of their hips. From the side, the dog's line should "tuck up" behind the ribs, gently rising to meet the pelvis.

Dogs that look rectangular from the top or sides are carrying too much weight.

You should also be able to easily feel a dog's ribs when you run your hands over the side of his chest. Fat dogs will have a thick layer of fat over the ribs, preventing you from feeling the bones. Once little love handles develop at the base of the tail, of course, you have officially acquired a porker.

Cutting canine calories

Obesity can be a vicious cycle — being overweight reduces activity level, which reduces metabolic rate and the amount of calories burned, which in turn leads to more obesity. Obviously prevention will be easier than cure, but if your dog is already overweight, you need to break the cycle.

First calculate how many calories your dog needs each day.

An average dog needs roughly 30 kcal (calories) for each pound of body weight. An inactive dog may require only 20 kcal per pound per day, while a puppy, pregnant dog, or highly active canine athlete may require 40-50 kcal per pound per day. That means that a Labrador that should weigh 60 pounds will be eating about 1800 kcal per day. Now adjust that amount for weight loss, so that you are feeding about 75% of ideal caloric needs.

Let's say your Lab weighs 80 pounds and you think her ideal weight should be 60. Although her maintenance needs for that weight would be 1800 kcal per day, you should feed her 1350 kcal per day to encourage weight loss.

Picking the proper food

Choose a good weight reduction diet that has proven to be nutritionally balanced for dogs. Reducing diets for dogs should contain less than 3.4 kcal of metabolizable energy per gram of dry matter.

This means that the amount of calorie dense contents, such as fat, are reduced and replaced with lower calorie materials such as fiber. On a dry matter basis, weight reduction diets usually contain 5-12% fat, at least 5% dietary fiber and 25% crude protein, and an increased proportion of vitamins, minerals, and supplemental fatty acids compared to regular diets.

Contrary to popular opinion, recent research has shown that higher fiber diets may not make your pet feel more full and they can encourage the formation of obnoxious intestinal gasses ("flattulance"). Dogs can lose weight on high protein/low carbohydrate diets as well, as long as these diets are complete and balanced and the dogs are exercising regularly.

Now find out the caloric content of the dog food you are using. These are often posted on the website for the dog food but may not be listed on the bag or can.

Maintenance dog foods can range from 300-375 kcal/cup; light dog foods may have as much as 295 kcal/cup. Therefore, the amount you should feed varies with each dog food.

You can use the recommendations on the dog food container (i.e. number of cups per day based on weight), making sure that you have chosen an appropriate food type for your dog's life stage (in other words, don't feed puppy chow to an adult dog or maintenance dog food to a senior or inactive dog). Many dog food companies base these recommendations on requirements for dogs that exercise 3 hours per day. If your dog is not that active, you will need to feed less.

Make sure to use a measuring cup to accurately measure the food. You may want to divide the daily amount of food into 3-4 meals so that your dog won't be going hungry for long periods of time. And, you may want to feed your dog separately if other dogs are receiving high calorie meals, so there won't be any sneaking.

Next, stop giving treats. This will be the painful part, since we all love the responses our dogs give us when they get a free snack. Remember that every small biscuit adds another 20 kcal and every Quarter Pounder adds over 500 calories.

If you must give treats, choose something low cal and healthy — like carrots or green beans. Then clear the environment of any potential calorie laden snacks — dog or cat food, garbage or compost bins, even cat litter boxes (yuck!). And, get the whole family involved in the weight loss program — teach them to use praise and petting as rewards instead of food, and set up an exercise schedule. You may find that you will lose a few of those extra pounds you were carrying as well.

Weight loss should occur at about 1% of body weight per week. Because caloric needs may change during a diet, work with your veterinarian to develop a reasonable plan for weigh-ins and re-evaluations. Make a chart to record weekly progress and amount of exercise. Reward yourself and your dog for each small improvement — with love, but not food!