Mary Fluke, DVM
Associate Veterinarian, Mallard Creek Animal Hospital
A tale of two Labs…or why it’s a good idea to not let your dog get fat.
Life teaches us lessons sometimes, often unexpectedly. That happened to me a few days ago. It was a busy morning here at the practice and one of my cases was a young Black Lab, about a year old, presenting because of a skin fold infection. She was a really nice dog with a really nice owner and a problem that will likely get better with the treatment, but part of her issue was that she is about 10-15 lbs overweight which is why the skin fold had gotten so prominent. Her owner was in the habit of feeding all her dogs together out of one bowl and wasn’t really sure how much food she put out, reasoning that it was best to have food available all the time so that the dogs wouldn’t be hungry. We talked about how to change how she feeds her dogs so they won’t feel the need to compete with each other for food and how the amount on the back of the bag was almost always too much. We set a goal for about how much food to give the dogs to get them, and particularly this dog, back to normal body weights.
A few years ago, Purina completed a project called the Life Span Study. They started with fifty 8 week old Labrador Retriever puppies, in pairs, with one being allowed to eat as much as it wanted each day, and the other pup being fed 10% less. As they grew up, the pups that ate all they wanted grew faster and got bigger at a younger age and wound up being overweight when they reached adulthood. The pups that were fed the lesser amount grew a little slower—they got just as big in the end, but were not overweight as adults. Various tests were done on the dogs including evaluation for hip dysplasia. The dogs fed free choice as pups were more likely to show signs of hip dysplasia on radiographs than their limited fed friends, even though they all came from the same genetic background.
The dogs were maintained through their lives in the two groups. The overweight dogs weren’t allowed to eat all they wanted (that would actually have been cruel because some of them would have become even fatter) but they were maintained in a consistently overweight condition, about on a par with what a lot of people would consider to be pretty typical in a pet. The lean dogs were fed to keep them at a normal healthy weight, with good muscle definition and very little body fat. In every other way, the dogs were managed identically. They all got regular physical exams and blood tests and had annual xrays to check for hip problems, arthritis, and any other issues that might turn up.
Because these were Labrador Retrievers, the most common problem that they developed as they got older was osteoarthritis, not just hip problems but arthritis in other joints as well. As they started having issues, they were treated to maintain their comfort and good quality of life, but eventually they all reached the end of their natural life spans.
Imagine, 50 dogs living their whole lives, in the same environment with the same care except for one thing—half of them were fat and half of them were lean. They all got the same kinds of diseases, but the fat dogs got them younger and tended to have a harder time being managed. The lean dogs stayed healthier longer and didn’t require as much medical intervention—their problems were easier to control. Most of the fat dogs died by the time that they were 10 years old. Their lean buddies made it to 12 years as a rule. The last of the dogs died at 14 years old.
Pretty powerful lesson, right? Keep your dog lean and she will live to be about 2 years older than if you let her get fat. She will stay comfortable longer and her health problems will be easier to control. And it’s so easy since dogs don’t fix their own food. As a rule, owners have total control over how much food their pets eat since the dogs can’t order take out or go raid the cookie aisle at the grocery store. All we have to do as owners is put less food in the bowl. Easy. Cheap. And really powerful in terms of keeping our dogs healthy and with us longer.
That same day I saw another Black Lab. This one was old and disabled due to terrible arthritis. He was also about 10 lb overweight, just like the youngster that I saw earlier in the day. His owners brought him in to be put to sleep because he was having so much trouble getting up and walking. Part of me wished I could wave a wand and trim the 10 lbs. off—he might have had a few more months if he hadn’t had to lug around the extra weight, but the time for that intervention was long past.
I couldn’t help comparing these two dogs, one at the start of her life and one at the end of his. Nobody knows what the future holds but when there is something easy and simple to do which can prevent needless health problems and allow a longer life span, why not do it? I hope that I was able to give the owner of the young dog the knowledge and tools to correct this problem so her pet can be as healthy and happy as possible throughout her life. I’m sad for the dog that died and his owners who miss him, but I’m glad he’s not hurting any more.
Life teaches us lessons. All we have to do is pay attention.
How to keep your dog at a healthy body weight:
For puppies, feed a food designed for your type of dog, regular puppy food for smaller breeds, large breed puppy food for the bigger breeds. Follow the feeding instructions on the back of the bag for the age and breed, increasing gradually as the pup grows up. If a range is suggested, feed the amount at the lower end of the range.
Once the pup is nearly at adult size (6 months for small breeds, 8-10 months for medium and larger breeds, 12-14 for giant breeds), switch to adult dog food and tone down the amount, especially after the dog is spayed/neutered. As a rule, most grown up spayed/neutered dogs need about a cup of typical dry dog food per 20 lb of normal body weight for small breeds, per 25 lb for medium breeds, and per 30 lb for larger breeds. A 75 lb Lab who is moderately active will probably eat about 2 ½ to maybe 3 cups a day. This amount will vary based on the calorie value of the food, the amount of exercise the dog gets every day, and the dog’s innate metabolism. Unfortunately, the guidelines on the back of the bag almost always result in overfeeding of grown up dogs so keep monitoring body condition and weight.
If a dog is at a normal body condition, you should be able to pick up the skin over the last rib and not feel fat under the skin. Ribs should be easily felt but not stick out. You should be able to see your dog’s waist when viewed from above, and his belly should be tucked up when seen from the side. The body wall should indent a bit just behind the last rib.
If your dog is too thin, feed him more. If she is too heavy, feed her less. If you are not sure, ask your vet for an honest assessment of your dog’s weight, including a body condition score. Purina has published a system which goes from 1 to 9 where 5 is just about normal. Iams has a similar system which goes from 1 to 5 (3 is normal).
If you are already feeding a very low amount of food and your dog is persistently overweight, it’s worth checking to see if there might be a health issue at the root of the problem. Some dogs may require an ultra low calorie prescription diet to achieve weight loss, but this is only necessary if feeding an appropriate amount of regular food isn’t working. Your vet can help you figure out if a diet change is needed.