The specific case of obesity

© Hermeline/Diffomédia

Obesity is defined as an excess of weight through the accumulation of adipose tissue (fat), which is accompanied by deleterious effects on health in terms of morbidity (sensitivity to disease) and mortality. As with humans, canine obesity is becoming increasingly prevalent in developed countries. The World Health Organisation considers obesity as a disease which should be prevented and treated in the same way as other diseases.
Obesity can be defined as an excess of more than 20 percent in comparison with the animal’s optimal weight. Thus a Labrador Retriever with an ideal weight of
28 kg is said to be obese when it weighs 34 kg.

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Obesity in the dog: the statistics

According to the scientific literature, between 18 and 44 per cent of dogs are overweight or obese. In two surveys conducted at the National Veterinary School of Alfort in France, nearly 39 per cent of the dogs presenting for vaccinations were overweight. Studies conducted in several American or European universities give very similar results. This figure rises to 50 per cent in the population of hospitalised dogs, and the prevalence is increasing in all developed countries. It is therefore important not only to detect this disease and treat it, but also prevent it.

The causes of canine obesity

Although certain hormonal diseases (Cushing's disease, hypothyroidism) can cause obesity in the dog, the main cause is excess energy intake: the dog eats more calories than it uses, and therefore stores the excess as fat. The reasons for this finding are multiple.

Owners’ sedentary lifestyles

There is a proven link between the body condition of the owners and that of their dog. This phenomenon is fairly logical, given that pets are obliged to “suffer” the decisions and behaviour of their owner. Human obesity campaigns recommend at least 30 minutes of energetic walking per day ... dogs are no different to man in this respect. It is becoming increasingly difficult in some cities to find open spaces for dogs to run and play together. However, having a dog also implies that one must take them to play areas or authorised walking places compatible with their well being.

Choosing the most suitable breed of dog is also all about making sure that one has the motivation and time needed for the animal. It is also important to remember that a small dog does not necessarily need less exercise than a big dog. It would therefore be unthinkable to advise a Jack Russell Terrier for an elderly person who has difficulty getting around or an English Bulldog for an endurance runner!

The significance of food

The vast majority of dogs are fed on complete commercial diets, principally in the form of dry biscuits (kibbles). The development of these diets represents real progress for the health of our four-legged companions. Unlike a standard home cooked diet (meat, vegetables, rice) complete commercial diets cover all of the animal's nutritional requirements. For kibbles, the dehydration of the feed (8 to 10% water) means that the feeding volume is smaller than that of a wet ration (which consists of 80 percent water). This is not a problem in itself, but the relationship between humans and dogs is all too often centred around food; for the owner, small helpings are often synonymous with cruelty, whilst the dog is only thinking about eating! It is however obvious that if the owner regularly offers treats or table scraps, the dog will constantly be thinking about food. Dogs function by association of ideas and conditioned reflexes: if every time we eat cheese we give them a piece, they will soon learn to come to the table and start drooling as soon the cheese platter arrives... nothing to do with whether they are actually hungry or not!

The energy density of the food (quantity of calories per gram of feed) will determine the quantity needed. For the same energy intake, it is therefore possible for a meal to be larger or smaller depending on the food used. Recently, commercial diets have become available which offer solutions in terms of satiety, volume and comfort for the animal… and for its owners.

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How to prevent obesity… and maintain your dog’s well-being

1 – Check your dog's bodyweight and condition score at least every 3 months.

2 – Adapt its diet to its specific needs: size of the dog, breed, appetite, energy requirements, disease.

3 – Provide it with regular physical exercise as well as social interactions with other dogs.

4 – Do not use food as a means of communication: petting and playing work just as well.

The predisposition of certain breeds

Some breeds of dog, even at rest, need less energy than others. This is the case of all northern breeds, and of course the Labrador Retriever. The Lab requires 20% less energy than another breed of equivalent size. If we then consider that it’s a somewhat greedy hunting dog, it is easy to understand that this dog is predisposed to obesity. Beagles and Cocker Spaniels are also “economical” with energy. This is not a hard and fast rule, and it does not mean that such breeds will always become obese. It simply means that we have to be more vigilant about their body condition and their weight and adapt their diet so that they maintain an ideal weight, which is their healthy fit weight.

© Dorigo/Fotolia - Callalloo/Fotolia


The withdrawal of sex hormones is accompanied by a decrease in energy expenditure of 20 to 30 per cent. It is therefore easy to understand that a neutered Labrador has two coefficients of reduction of energy requirements that add together, making it particularly sensitive to obesity. However, nutritional solutions are available to maintain the animal in a perfect body condition: by combining a healthy lifestyle and an appropriate diet, it is perfectly feasible to maintain these animals in good condition.

Beauty criteria

In some breeds, the accepted beauty criteria are sometimes accompanied by obesity. The increasing awareness of breed societies to this phenomenon will help to reconcile beauty and health in the future.

An inappropriate diet during the growth phase

In the same way as large breed puppies are predisposed to osteoarticular problems when they are fed an inappropriate diet, small breed dogs are predisposed to obesity.

The latter are born at a more advanced stage of growth than large breeds. The tissues of the body are formed in successive waves (nerves, then bones, then muscles, and finally adipose tissue), so most of them have already started to produce adipose tissue by the time of weaning. Any dietary excess during the growth phase will therefore result in the production of large quantities of adipocytes (fat storage cells). These then fill with fat, like little balloons, generating obesity that is very difficult to treat in adulthood. It is therefore essential for all owners of small breed puppies to be aware of this, especially given that at this age the puppy is very cute and looks like a little ball of fur so that it is not easy to detect excess weight gain. This danger justifies the existence of complete diets specifically designed for small breed puppies, or even some breeds more at risk than others.

The consequences of canine obesity

Obesity is a disease. The presence of excessive adipose tissue has repercussions on the entire animal through chemical communications. For example, obesity is responsible for a continuous low level inflammatory state. Obese dogs are less resistant to infections, less tolerant to physical effort. The anaesthetic risk during surgery is also higher. Obesity therefore definitely reduces life expectancy.

Obesity is also responsible for exacerbating other diseases. For example, in dogs with arthritis, obesity worsens their handicap and increases their suffering. Adipose tissue also induces insulin resistance, which can result in diabetes. In such cases, weight loss provides a marked improvement in the state of the dog and above all its quality of life.

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Why did you feel it was necessary to open the first obesity clinic for pets?

We recognised that obesity was becoming an ever-increasing problem, and one that was frequently not handled well by veterinarians. This was mostly due to time constraints of vets in general practice, to a lack of awareness of the medical risks associated with obesity, and a lack of knowledge about management strategies. By opening a weight management referral clinic we could do a number of things to correct the problem:

1. We could provide advice and guidance on current cases, either those referred directly to us, or by providing phone advice.

2. We could improve the awareness of our undergraduate students to the problem of obesity.

3. We could improve the public awareness of obesity as a concern.

4. By monitoring the cases recruited and our success with management, we knew we would have the opportunity to understand the problem better and to improve future management strategies.

© German

Liverpool University School of veterinary science
(United Kingdom)

Treatment and prevention

When addressed early, moderate weight gain is easy to treat. Yet owners must be aware that a dog cannot lose weight by simply reducing the meal size of a normal maintenance food: not only will the animal go hungry, but it will be at risk from deficiencies in certain essential nutrients, which will compromise its health. When obesity has become established, treatment requires medical help: the vet will prescribe a specific clinical diet for weight loss, accompanied by lifestyle changes and exercise. The ideal weight loss diet combines a low energy density with a formulation that provides a sensation of satiety whilst meeting the animal’s nutritional requirements. Medically, and for risk-free weight loss, the recommended target rate weight loss is between 1 to 2 percent per week: this means that getting a 30 kg dog to lose 10 kg will therefore take around one year! Another good reason for making sure that the dog does not get fat in the first place.

Prevention is the best treatment for obesity. This involves regular monitoring (at least every three months) of the animal’s weight and an assessment of its body condition. It is also essential to give the dog regular exercise. A diet adapted to its size and appetite will make it possible to meet the animal’s requirements without forgetting that the dog is not a human or a dustbin.

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin
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