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Chubby Canines Need Help

Like an ex-Marine with years under his belt, Sarge, Shar-pei, has lost the lean, military look that made his name such an obvious choice. Over the years, a once-trim canine companion has thickened gradually through the midriff, neck, and jowls.

Had Sarge been human, he would have tried on his old size 38-regular uniform jacket, noticed the popping buttons and straining seams, and said, "Whoa. Better cut back on the brewskis."

Our dogs, unfortunately, lack this foolproof indicator of creeping weight gain. That, plus an animal's otherwise admirable lack of vanity, means that when it comes to judging (and ultimately dealing with) overweight, it's up the us, the owners.

But is Sarge truly overweight? While breed standards set ideal weights for specific breeds such as Shar-peis, those standards don't help in determining ideal weight for mixed breeds. Furthermore, your dogs may have been bred for a larger framer, so the weight standard may not apply.

Here, visual inspection can be used to judge whether the dog is over- or underweight. As a rule of thumb, says nutritionist Francis Kallfelz, DVM, PhD, of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, "You want to be able to easily feel, but not see the dog's ribs." Dr. Kallfez adds that, seen in profile, the dog's abdomen should look tucked in behind the rib cage. Looking down at a dog from overhead, we should see a waist like indentation.

What about long-haired dogs?

Although the visual test work for short-coated dogs, they're not quite as effective for a long-haired Setter, for example, since long hair tends to conceal bulk in the same way that a flowing skirt conceals the somewhat too ample hips of Sarge's owner.

Long-haired dogs may signal that they're overweight by waddling when they walk, breathing more noisily when they sleep, and exercising less willingly and less frequently than they did when trim and fit.

But is overweight a serious health concern?

Dr. Kallfez warns that being overweight can shorten an animal's life by increasing the probability for developing arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes.

Obesity can occur at any age but is more likely to creep up on an older dog whose metabolism has slowed to the point where the type and amount of food he's eaten all his life is now more than his body can burn efficiently.

He's overweight. What next?

Once you determine that there is a problem, your canine companion may require consultation with a veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical conditions. When you're convinced that the weight is not caused by some health problem, the next step is to tailor a weight-reduction program to the animals's specific needs.

Weighing the dogs at the beginning of the program and regularly throughout the regimen will let you monitor progress and make adjustments if weight loss seems to slow or too rapid. To weigh a smaller animal, even one as large as 52 pound Sarge, simply pick up the animal, step on your bathroom scale, and check the weight, deducting your own weight from the total. If you're the owner of a Dane-sized dogs, however, don't even think of the bathroom scale method. Instead, rely on the step-on scale at your veterinarians office.

How to lose weight.

Your best bet, says Dr. Kallfez, is to use one of the veterinary prescription diets designed for losing weight. Supermarket pet foods, even those labeled "light," may not work because they are guaranteed to be complete and balanced for adult maintenance (not weight loss). "Feed the dog enough of these and you won't induce weight loss," he warns.

Your best hope is that Sarge finds his new diet food less palatable than he did the food on which he gained weight; a less luscious formula may mean that he would want less or, at least, eat more slowly.

Check the food's label to determine how much to feed. The label will give the manufacturer's suggested (and Association of American Fee Control Officials' tested) amounts for each weight category. If this information is not available on the package, contact the food manufacturer, whose 800 number will be on the package, and ask them to send the information to you.

Another route to canine weight loss is to feed the same type of food he's accustomed to eating, but reduce the amount by one-fourth each week for two weeks. If that doesn't show results, reduce the amount an additional once-fourth for an additional two weeks. If that fails, see your veterinarian for alternatives.

Watch the treats.

Treats add calories to Sarge's diet, too. For example, Sarge's favorite snack, beef jerky sticks, is now available in a new "lean version"; but when his owner checked the label and found the difference in leanness to be almost imperceptible, the decision was made to use a half stick as a reward or treat and to reduce the total number of rewards per day. Even that is indulgent, says Dr. Kallfez, who believes that a wiser move would be to eliminate snacks.

Add exercise.

As it is important for humans, exercise is another important element in a canine weight-reduction program. By starting with a short walk and then increasing the length of the walk as the animal's fitness level rises, the owner gets an exercise bonus along with the opportunity to bond with the dog.

Dogs Need Weight Watchers, Too.

There is a rule of thumb for feeding dogs: "Animals will eat enough food to satisfy their energy needs, then they will stop eating." If you've written that rule down, throw it right into the recycling bin. It doesn't always work. "If all animals ate just enough to satisfy their energy requirements, we would have no obese dogs or cats," explains Dr. Kallfez. The causes of obesity in individual dogs can be as complex as the obesity problem in humans. Despite that, obesity revolves around a central issue: income versus expenditure.

Intake vs. Outgo

"It is a question of a balance between intake and outgo, Dr. Kallfez says. "More intake than outgo is great if you are talking about money in your checkbook, but it is not okay if you are talking about calories and your dog." Simply put, excess calories that are not burned off in your dog's everyday activities will be stored as fat. A deficit of calories, which occurs when your dog burns off more calories then he takes in, will result in weight loss.

So what do you do if your dog is overweigh? First, you must convince yourself that your dogs is actually too heavy. Dogs do not become obese overnight. It is a gradual process that you may not notice. Left unchecked, obesity can cause serious health problems in your canine companion, just as it can in humans. Overweight animals have a higher incidence of diabetes, cardiac disease, and joint disease that their thinner cohorts.

Get the veterinarian involved.

Dr. Kallfez cannot emphasize enough the value of your veterinarian in helping your dog to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. There are many variables to weight loss or gain, ranging from size and lifestyle to the presence of disease. With your veterinarians help, your next step is to estimate what your dog's ideal weight should be and then calculate his daily caloric need at the ideal weight. Remember that the caloric needs of dogs will vary significantly by breed and by lifestyle. The daily caloric need of a young adult Chihuahua may be as high as 35 calories per pound. Compare that to 20-25 calories per pound for a mid-sized dogs such as a Labrador Retriever, or as little as 15 calories per pound for a large dog, such as an Irish Wolfhound.

Once you and your veterinarian have calculated the caloric need at ideal weigh, you should feed your dog 70 percent of his daily caloric need at that weight. This caloric "deficit" will enable him to burn off calories stored as fat because he is taking in fewer calories than he needs each day. Once you and your veterinarian are convinced that your dog has reached his ideal weight, you should return to 85 to 90 percent of what you were feeding him before the diet. By controlling the amount of food you feed and maintaining good weight records, you should be able to prevent obesity from recurring.

The information on this page was obtained from the publication DOGWATCH