I had a patient come in 2 weeks ago, an 11-year-old female Labrador Retriever, having great difficulty ambulating into the exam room. She had generally very taut, choppy, small steps as she walked; what we term a hypermetric gait. One examination and several x-rays later, I determined that she has advanced spinal arthritis and degenerative joint disease of the shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees. I also determined that the dog was about 15 pounds overweight.
In fact, the obesity was nothing new. She had been overweight for nearly the previous nine years the dog had been coming in to see me. In those years when she did not have all of these orthopedic problems, the dog was able to get plenty of exercise, and she did. The problem is that obesity is far less a lack of exercise problem than it is an over eating problem.
At the North American Veterinary Conference I attended this year, I sat in on a lecture given by a board certified veterinary nutritionist called: “New Insights on the Management of Canine Obesity.” In the talk, he cited a 1000 dog study, where the metabolic effects and calorie consumption effects on the dogs where carefully tracked and quantified. Conclusions where based on careful recording of daily caloric consumption, regular weight measurements, and exercise time.
The results were nothing short of eye opening. The average dog when walked 3 miles a day only burns an additional 67 calories per day! While this may seem like absurd on its surface, this finding was repeatable time and again. From an evolutionary and physiological perspective, however, this actually makes sense.
Dogs were descended from wolves who are pack hunters. Placed in a wild setting, as I noted when I observed wild born dogs when living on the Caribbean Island of St. Kitts, dogs revert to pack hunting in a fashion quite similarly to their ancient wolf ancestor. As pack hunters, they are physiologically designed for calorie sparing, that is, they burn calories very stingily.
What this insight tells us is that obesity in dogs is far less an exercise problem, than it is a dietary one. In essence, if your dog is overweight or morbidly obese – with a few exceptions for dogs that have endocrine disease that may predispose to obesity – you are feeding your dog too many calories per day. End of story.
Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital in West Melbourne, FL, Chief Editor of the Veterinary Advice and Information Website, Web-DVM, and founder/CEO of Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care