The Health Effects of Obesity on Dogs: Killing our dogs with kindness

Various studies have estimated that the incidence of overweight and obese pets in the United States is somewhere between 35 to 65%. This  gives a new twist to the observation that pets tend to look like their owners, since the rate of overweight, obese Americans hovers around 68%.

Why do our pets become overweight? Well, for most dogs it’s simply a matter of more calories consumed than expended. Dog food companies are continually making their products more palatable and if the family doesn’t regulate what the pet consumes, it’s very likely the dog will indulge himself. High calorie dog treats, table scraps and raiding the cat’s food bowl (mucho calories per cup) all contribute to the problem.

Take all these sources of excess calories, add a relatively sedentary lifestyle and, voila – a fat dog. There are few diseases, like hypothyroidism, that can contribute to obesity. While these types of problems are rare, it’s  a good idea to have lab work done to ensure the obese pet has no underlying metabolic problems.

How to tell if your pet is overweight

The best way to tell if your pet is overweight is to extend your fingers and then place the flat of your hands against the sides of the pet’s chest. You should be able to feel ribs. If you can’t or if you need to really press around with your finger tips to feel ribs, the pet is likely overweight. If you’re still not sure, your veterinarian can help give you some insight regarding your pet’s desirable weight range.

Excess body fat is unhealthy and can be a killer

Effects on the heart and respiratory systems

All that extra fat makes the heart and lungs work harder. The pet is less able to compensate for mild cardiac and respiratory problems. Healthy dogs at normal weights are reasonably good in compensating for sub-clinical heart and airway abnormalities, but extra body weight hinders the body’s ability to deal with these conditions so that obese pets are more likely to to become ill.

Some small breeds have a predisposition to a problem in which the cartilage in the trachea is weak and spongy. Exertion and excitement will cause the trachea to collapse. The classic sign associated with this problem is a characteristic ‘goose-honking’ noise as the airway collapses on itself. The problem is much worse and can be life-threatening in obese little dogs.

In general, a compromised cardio-pulmonary system reduces exercise tolerance, which reduces calories burned, which results in more weight gain – a vicious cycle.

Joint problems

Arthritis    A recent study evaluating beneficial interventions families can use to help pets with arthritis found that taking off extra pounds was the most important way to make the dogs more comfortable, increase their mobility and enhance their quality of life. The extra weight presses the cartilage and bony surfaces against each other in the joints, causing excruciating pain in obese dogs. Think how miserable you would be if you had arthritis and were required to carry 20 to 30 pounds around with you at all times.

Some theories suggest that the presence of excess fat itself may play a direct role in causing inflammation in joints. Arthritis is more common in large breed dogs. Therefore, it is very important to keep them at a lean, low-normal weight throughout their lives.

Ruptured ligaments    A common injury in dogs and human athletes is a torn cruciate ligament. This important structure stabilizes the knee. It can be torn during rough play or heavy exercise, but obese pets can tear it by simply jumping off the couch. It’s a very painful condition requiring surgery to repair.

Back problems

Back problems are not uncommon in pet dogs, especially certain breeds such as  Dachshunds, Basset Hounds, Beagles and Shih Tzus. The most serious problems involve damage to the cushioning disc between the vertebrae (Sometimes referred to as a “slipped disc” in humans). Depending on the severity of the disease, the pet might suffer anything from mild pain to sudden paralysis of the rear legs. Overweight dogs are more likely to develop disc disease and have a poorer recovery rate after surgery.


Studies have proven that dogs maintained at ideal body weights  live longer than their overweight peers, and do not show signs of chronic illness till later in their lives.

Miscellaneous issues

Besides some of the obvious serious changes I’ve mentioned, obesity can result in many sub-clinical changes effecting the pancreas, insulin, hormone secretion, blood fat (triglycerides, lipids) and chemical messengers of inflammation. Some of these changes may even lead to pancreatitis and diabetes.

Overweight pets also have higher anesthetic risks, higher medical costs and a higher incidence of complications during surgical and medical treatments.

Easy weight loss plan:

  • Weigh your pet
  • Add up everything the pet consumes on an average day
  • Reduce the diet, treats and other edibles by 10%. Consider switching to a low calorie diet.
  • Increase the daily exercise (check with your veterinarian if your pet is morbidly obese)
  • Reweigh the pet in 6 weeks
  • If there is no significant weight loss, reduce consumables by another 5 to 10%
  • Repeat until the pet reaches his normal weight

Quality of life vs. Quantity of life

Do you want ‘quality of life or ‘quantity of life’ for your pet? You can give him both by keeping him at a healthy weight. Put away the treats and get out the leash for your pet’s health and your own!


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