Sheba, a Labrador retriever/shepherd mix, started “filling out” when she was just two years old, but it wasn’t until she hit midlife that her owner realized the seriousness of Sheba’s gradual but continuous weight gain.
At age seven, Sheba suffered a painful ligament tear in her knee, an injury brought on by her unhealthy size. In five years, Sheba had ballooned to 35 pounds over her ideal weight.
Surgery to repair the ligament was successful — albeit expensive — but Sheba’s owner knew her dog had to shed some pounds to relieve arthritis pain and prevent the ligament in her other knee from tearing.
Unfortunately, cases like Sheba’s are fairly common said Ernie Ward, DVM, founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). A 2007 study done by APOP showed that approximately 43% of dogs — 32 million — were overweight or obese.
Like Sheba, many obese dogs suffer from joint pain that is made worse, or even caused by, the extra pounds. And that can make owners wonder if they’re facing a catch-22: Weight loss will ease their dog’s pain, but because of the pain, their dog just can’t move around enough to lose the weight. Right?
Yes and no. Although painful dogs are understandably reluctant to play a vigorous game of seek-and-destroy the tennis ball — or even amble around the block — Ward said that by combining pain management with low-impact exercises and a strict diet, these dogs can lose the weight they need to.
And Sheba is proof. Under Ward’s care, she lost those 35 pounds in six months and has more energy and vitality than ever. Ward also said that Sheba is no longer at risk for obesity-related conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and even some forms of cancer.
“Unfortunately, it took a crisis for this to happen,” said Ward, “But now the dog is in better shape than she has been in years.”
That’s great, but how?
Ask the Experts
Before putting your dog on a treadmill, meet with your veterinarian. A weight loss program for any dog should be done under the care of a veterinarian, and this is even more important if your dog has an underlying issue such as arthritis.
Your veterinarian will assess your dog’s body condition and might want to test for diseases that cause weight gain, such as hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease.
You and your veterinarian can then work together to create a safe diet and exercise plan that matches your dog’s needs and limitations. The doctor might also refer you to a veterinary nutritionist.
You might not realize how frequently you hand your dog a treat or table scrap. To see how much your dog really eats, write down every morsel for several days. You may be surprised.
One of the best ways to cut back the calories is to change the types of treats you use. Ward suggests using carrot sticks or fresh green beans because dogs like their crunchy texture.
“If they are in pain they won’t exercise,” said Pam Nichols, DVM, CCRP, at AAHA-accredited Animal Care Center in West Bountiful, Utah. “It becomes a vicious cycle. They will go from fat to fatter because they aren’t moving.”
There are many pain relief options available, including heated dog beds, prescription medications, acupuncture, massage, and even Reiki. Your veterinarian will help you decide where to start by assessing your dog’s pain and taking into account other factors specific to your pet, such as medications you may be giving for other health concerns.
Walk It Off
If your dog has arthritis pain, too much rest can do as much harm as too little. Daily, low-impact exercise reduces joint pain and stiffness and increases flexibility. The resulting weight loss will reduce the pressure on your dog’s joints, and stronger muscles will stabilize and protect them.
Nichols suggests simply increasing the number of steps your dog takes each day. “Take him out to get the mail with you and have him come with you when you go to another room of the house,” she said.
Another way to add a few paces is to change out the food bowl for a food-dispensing toy. Pushing and following the toy will reduce boredom and keep your dog up and moving.
When your dog is ready for longer walks, look for flat terrain and soft surfaces, such as grassy areas or a track.
Hydrotherapy — using water resistance to improve fitness — is another effective option that most dogs enjoy. The water supports the dog, so weight is taken off the joints. A submerged treadmill will keep your dog moving at a safe pace and can be adjusted as your dog’s fitness improves.
With a strict diet, exercise, and veterinary supervision, a dog can safely lose 7 to 9 percent of his body weight in a month, Ward said.